Poetry Feed

A New Poetry Thing: Poems Ancient and Modern

Why "thing"? I couldn't decide on the right word. Calling it a "journal" or "publication" doesn't seem quite accurate, though the former would do. Neither does calling it a "site," as it's one of a great many...things...at Substack.com. It is in fact a Substack entity. Somehow referring to a specific Substack, as simply that: "a Substack," as in Rod Dreher's Substack, bothers me. It's a bit like hearing people say "We ate McDonald's last night."

All right, clearly this is just one of my little quirks. Setting that quirk aside, with an effort, I am referring to a Substack written by Sally Thomas and Joseph Bottum, and it's called Poems Ancient and Modern. (I think that should be italicized, like the name of a magazine.) And it's about poetry. The two authors are themselves poets and impressively knowledgeable and perceptive about poetry. You may recognize Bottum's name as a conservative politics-and-culture writer. I have not read any of his poetry. Sally Thomas is the author of Motherland, a book of poems which came out a couple of years ago and which I love; you can read my remarks about it here.

Every weekday they publish a poem, most old enough to be in the public domain, with a sharp-eyed and informative preface. So far--and "so far" is only two weeks--the range is very great, from the obscure to the famous, from the comic to the serious. Within those ten days we've had little-known poems by little-known poets, well-known poems by well-known poets, and little-known poems by well-known poets. I don't as yet see a well-known poem by a little-known poet but I'm sure that will come. 

I can pretty well guarantee that the commentaries will show you something you might not otherwise have considered about the poems, and very likely add to your general knowledge in some way. If you have much interest in poetry, you should probably do yourself a favor and subscribe. My understanding is that a free subscription allows you to read the posts, while a paid one allows you to join the comments as well. Not to mention supporting something very worthwhile. 

I do have one reservation: a post every weekday is a little much for me. Each one demands a significant degree of attention and of course time, at least more than one would likely give to some internet item of equal length, and with many other things in my life to which I want or must give time and attention, I don't necessarily want to give that much every day to a poem of someone else's choosing, however worthwhile it may be. I am, for instance, just now, on Saturday afternoon catching up with the past week.

Here's the link again: Poems Ancient and Modern

*

In case you've ever wondered, I have considered switching to Substack. It's a very nice platform, and might at least potentially attract more readers (though perhaps lose some as well). But if nothing else the lack (as far as I can tell) of a means to import the twenty years of this blog into Substack puts an end to the idea. The only thing that would make me switch to another platform now would be Typepad shutting down, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be a very far-fetched possibility, as it is much less popular than, for instance, WordPress, and no longer accepts new accounts. 

I just did a search for "are blogs obsolete" and got a lot of hits for stories which seemed to answer "no" quite insistently. Well, good, but who cares anyway? I'm pretty obsolete myself. 


Giving Up On Rilke (Sort of)

A couple of years ago I found myself with a strong and persistent urge to get to know Rilke's Duino Elegies, one of the landmarks of German poetry and of modern poetry in general. I suppose the impulse had been there in a mild way for many years, but I don't know of anything in particular that made it grow strong enough to make me act on it. I had bought my copy of the once-standard Spender-Leishman translation many years ago, I think not later than the mid-'70s, and I had read a little of it, drawn in by the famous opening lines of the First Elegy (there are ten of them):

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty's nothing 
but beginning of Terror we're still just able to bear....

But I had always gotten bogged down after a few pages. Rilke is often obscure, but that's not necessarily a big obstacle to me. I had loved on first reading many parts of "The Waste Land" (just to pick one example) without understanding them. The fact that I didn't entirely grasp the prose sense of the poem, or even feel sure that there was a prose sense, as there is in, for instance, Tennyson's "In Memoriam," didn't prevent me from being moved by the imagery and the music. I did not, for instance, understand the significance of these lines, but they were clear enough in themselves, and affecting:

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

I'm not leaving out any useful context there. Who is Marie? We don't know. Is she the same person who, a few lines earlier (before an apparently random line of German, which may or may not have been spoken by the same person), stopped in the colonnade and drank coffee? Why are we hearing this reminiscence? Is this the same voice that complained about April in the famous opening line? How many speakers are there in the first eighteen lines of the poem? One? Or perhaps as many as three or four? We get no help from Eliot, either in the poem or in his notes. There is obscurity here, but the immediate literal sense is clear enough. More to my point, the words have a wistful charm while seeming entirely natural as talk, perhaps having come to Eliot as a bit of "found poetry."* (He was often attentive and fortunate in that, probably more the former than the latter; probably we all miss a good deal.)

But Rilke gave me things like this, at the end of the Second Elegy:

...For our heart transcends us 
just as it did those others. And we can no longer
gaze after it into figures that sooth it, or godlike
bodies, wherein it achieves a grander restraint.

I cannot tell you with confidence in plain English what those lines say, much less what they mean. That in itself is not necessarily a major barrier to enjoyment. But neither do they speak to me in a mystical-intuitive sort of way, as "The Waste Land" did (and as much modern poetry does): Yes, I feel the import of that, even though I can't articulate it. Nor, to my ear, is there much beauty in the words themselves.

I'm pretty sure I never got past the Second in those earlier ventures into the work. Yet for some reason which I can't explain I kept having the feeling that there was something there for me. That was the way the impulse presented itself to me: There is something there for you. When I discovered that Fr. Romano Guardini, whose work I admire, had written a book about the Elegies, I decided the time had come to act on that vague sensation, bought the book, and went at the project in earnest, reading each elegy a couple of times in conjunction with Guardini's associated chapter.

Perhaps a different translation would help? I bought Alfred Corn's recent translation, and got Stephen Mitchell's from the library. So I've now read the Duino Elegies at least three times through, and several of them more than that, in three different translations. And I'm not much more enthusiastic about them than when I started.

I was reluctant to admit that Guardini was not really helping much. His lengthy glosses were sometimes themselves obscure, in a different way: not just close readings but extremely close, to the point of extracting ideas which I was sometimes not convinced are really there, or which at any rate seemed far more important to Guardini than to Rilke. Or to me. For Guardini, who is obviously enchanted and fascinated by the poems, is also, as a Catholic, distressed by their non- and even anti-Christian spirituality. Sometimes he argues with the poet, as in his commentary on lines 17 and 18 of the Fourth Elegy:

...we that don't know our feeling's shape
but only that which forms it from outside.

Guardini:

"Shape" means the contour of a thing. It can be regarded as having two aspects, one facing inwards and the other out. Here "shape" in its first aspect is meant--the form or contour which expresses a thing's inner character. According to Rilke it is impossible to form any picture of such a shape. Our experience only reaches our consciousness from without, namely through our proximity to whatever is alien or hostile to us.

Again the same phenomenon often noted before: the weakness attaching to the human personality. In fact it is simply not true that we are only conditioned from outside....

The Elegies are abstract and philosophical or theological, though stuffed with concrete images. They are often obscure in a deep way; "cryptic" is a fair description. And the obscurity does not obtain my indulgence by the appeal of the language when rendered into English; in none of the three translations I read is there much charm, much that gives the elemental thrill of great poetry. And that is the fundamental problem for me.

Poetry, good poetry anyway, and great poetry always, has a sensual appeal which comes from the actual, specific, individual words. "Sensual" is a puzzling term, because none of the five senses is being touched, unless you're hearing the lines read aloud, but that isn't necessary, and hearing them alone would do nothing much for you if you couldn't understand them. Puzzling, but I think most people who are very sensitive to poetry would agree that the word is apt.

It's a peculiar and paradoxical mental sensuality, and it requires a word-by-word combination of sound and sense. "To be or not to be" can be very easily stated in very many different ways. But the power even of that phrase can be half-destroyed by the change of one word: "To live or not to live." That's not terrible, and the sense is pretty close to the same (not exactly, and a little weaker, but close). And it even preserves the rhythm. But the sound is changed for the worse. 

For many years I've been leaning toward the conclusion that poetry simply cannot be translated. I'm no longer leaning. I'm willing to make it a declaration: it is not just difficult, but intrinsically impossible, to translate poetry, in the sense that a translator can provide the reader with something close to the same artifact that a reader of the original knows. Perhaps it's impossible to translate anything at all except for purely functional work, all denotation and no connotation, such as the safety warnings for a lawn mower. For anything greater, anything composed with care and skill, the translation can never be anything but a paraphrase; this is intrinsically so. And in poetry this is fatal; a good poem is composed of these words in this order, and when you substitute other words you no longer have the poem. (I think good translators know this and are not offended by seeing it stated.) You may have something good in its own right, and certainly it can and should carry pretty much the same prose sense. You could, in principle, even have something better. But it is not the poem. You can't substitute scotch for bourbon and say that it's good bourbon. You could even say that the scotch is better by some semi-objective measure; you could certainly say that you prefer it. But it is not the same thing. 

I had gotten through half of the Guardini book when my Rilke project was halted last year by a move to a new house. The books were packed away and remained in boxes for months. The books are out of their boxes now, but that halt, expected to be temporary, looks to be permanent. At any rate I have not resumed it and don't have any plans to. I've come to the very unwelcome conclusion that the Duino Elegies in English are not a great poem. That is a bold thing to say, perhaps offensive to those who love Rilke in English. 

There are three (at least) essential levels or aspects of good and great poetry. There is the quasi-sensual word-by-word appeal I've described, which is not translatable. Then there are simile, metaphor, description, and all the species of analogy, illustration, and decoration, all more or less translatable: "my love is like a red, red rose" can be put into the language of any culture that knows deep red flowers, though it might not sound as prettily. And there's the sense of the whole, or of distinct parts of the whole, built of the other two: an idea or set of ideas, a meditation, a narrative, an observation. In a very short poem maybe not much more than a remark ("This is just to say..."), in an epic a long and complex story, possibly with deep philosophical import. This, too, is translatable, in fact may be almost independent of the language in which it is put forth, and worth reading for that alone.

A serious deficiency of the first is fatal to poetry as such; the work may still be a great one, but it will not be a great poem. To my taste, Rilke in English has little of it, and what I have understood of the third aspect does not appeal to me much. There, I suppose, is where Guardini failed to persuade me: Rilke is a thinker, and, whatever the merits of his thought may be, it seems that my notion that there was something in it for me was mistaken. There remain a number of instances of the second aspect which are remarkable and memorable, passages which are thrilling to read, like the opening I quoted. 

I wonder if some of the first-aspect defects of Rilke have to do with the German language itself. Some poets in some languages seem to survive the translation journey in better shape than others. Baudelaire, for instance, is to my taste, in the translations I've read, better English poetry than most of the Rilke I've read in English. That's an almost-ridiculous statement, because the poets are so vastly different, and that difference is probably more important than the difference in languages. But it makes me wonder.

Consider the German word "dasein," which is translated as "existence" in the Spender-Leishman Rilke quote above, and as "being" in Corn's. I only have a smattering of German, but I think the word combines "there" ("da") and "being" ("sein"), and I think it implies a very concrete sense of existence, something stronger than the abstract "existence" or "being." It even sounds more forceful. But we don't have an English word for "there-being" or "being-there-ness." And something is lost. 

Another instance: on my first reading of the Spender-Leishman translation I was struck by the awkwardness of a sentence from the Seventh Elegy: "Life here's glorious!" Ugh. Corn has "just being here is glorious." Better. But the German is "Hiersein ist herrlich": roughly, "here-zein ist herrlish": catchy, you might say. And as with "dasein," "hiersein" combines "being" with a sort of placement, and, again, with no English equivalent.

Well, I have gone on well past my usual limit for a blog post. In my own experience as a reader of online stuff, impatience sets in at around a thousand words. And this is about to top two thousand. So, one last thing: I will probably read Rilke again, but mainly for those second-aspect passages, those rhapsodic figures:

But because being here amounts to so much, because all
this Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely
concerns us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
                                (Ninth Elegy, Spender-Leishman translation)

 

* If you want to know who "Marie" was, see this excellent annotated version of "The Waste Land" at The Poetry Foundation.


Andrew Marvell and That Chariot

Douglas Murray, in his weekly poetry column at The Free Press, pays tribute to the most famous poem of Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress." (I was told long ago that his name is pronounced "marVELL," rhyming with "bell.")

I should say "deservedly famous." The poem is a standard anthology piece, and until yesterday I don't think I had read the whole thing since I was in college. But it occupies more space in my mind than that would suggest, partly because it occupies more space in literary culture. Eliot alluded to it in "The Waste Land":

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors....

I can think of several other references, including a well-known poem by Archibald MacLeish, "You, Andrew Marvell."

And partly, in recent years, because I'm haunted by the couplet which Eliot is echoing:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near....

As a friend of mine who's around my age said not long ago "Time's wingèd chariot is idling in my driveway."

It seems to be a well-known fact of psychology if not of physics that the velocity of time's passage increases in inverse proportion to its remaining quantity. Almost as big a mystery is this question: Knowing that time is passing more swiftly, and that I don't have all that much of it left, why--why why why?--do I continue to waste as much of it as I do? 


A Halloween Poem

The Free Press, the new online news site founded by New York Times escapee Bari Weiss, has a weekly feature in which the English writer Douglas Murray offers one of his favorite poems. It's called "Things Worth Remembering," which, if I remember the original announcement correctly, means that these are poems he liked enough to memorize. If he really has them all by heart, that's impressive, though I wouldn't hold him to it. 

This week's poem is one by Thomas Hardy that I hadn't encountered previously; my acquaintance with Hardy doesn't go beyond a small range of anthology pieces. It's called "The Choirmaster's Burial." I'm not sure that link will work. I'm a subscriber and that's the URL I get when I click on the "Share" button for the post. If it doesn't work, I'm sure you can easily find the poem elsewhere. 

(I don't understand the relatively recent American fixation on Halloween.)


Sally Thomas: Motherland

I read this book twice last year--twice because I like it so much--and have been meaning to write about it at least since the last reading, which was probably early last fall sometime, which is to say four or five months ago. But I kept putting it off. I knew that one reason for my procrastination was plain laziness, which is one of my more serious character flaws. Only now, when I have finally forced myself to begin, have I realized that there is another reason: I find it difficult to write about poetry, and I don't like doing it.

It feels superfluous, maybe even pointless. A poem is a thing made of words, so why make another thing of words that is some kind of representation of or reaction to the poem? It makes sense if you have an impulse to make a word-thing of your own that is somehow produced or inspired by the other thing. Or if, which I guess is more likely, you simply have a strong urge to talk about the thing. But if those don't apply, if you just want to direct the attention of other people to the other thing, what is the point of saying much more than "There it is--look"?

There's a place for criticism, and in fact I read eagerly the semi-annual "Verse Chronicle" in The New Criterion, in which William Logan reviews half a dozen or so recent volumes of poetry. I learn from it, though most often what I learn is that I don't want to read the books, and am confirmed in my lack of interest in most contemporary poetry. And I also get useful nuggets of opinion on the nature of poetic virtues and faults, with which I may or may not agree but which provoke thought. Obviously Logan puts a lot of care and work into these essays, and I'm glad he does. But what he does is not something I want to do myself.

So I will just state briefly why I like these poems so much. It's basically quite simple: they give me a lot of pleasure, of a particular kind that's almost unique to poetry, and only the best poetry. I define "best" tautologically as that which gives me this pleasure. Prose can occasionally do it, but that's relatively rare. I don't know of much poetry written since 1970 or so that does it, though I don't know all that much poetry written since 1970, period.

That of course is a comment on me at least as much as on the poetry, but that's a discussion for another day. Suffice to say that I am not in principle hostile to "modern poetry" as a category. And these poems are "modern" in more or less the ways you might expect them to be from that term. They are not, however, as obscure as modern poetry frequently is. And they are not free verse, or mostly not. Some of them are quite definitely and apparently in traditional forms, such as the several sonnets included. Some use traditional techniques so subtly that you might not notice it at first, such as those which use slant or approximate rhyme. And I'll admit that the rationale for the structure of one poem, "New Year's Day," eludes me, though I love the poem. But though the forms tend to be pretty subtle, I think their tautness has a lot to do with the considerable emotional power of many of the poems. 

As the title suggests, it's a very feminine book, by which I don't mean that it's light, but that it exhibits a consciousness which in both its quality and its content strikes me as very much that of a woman. And I'll leave that at that. Here is an excellent review at Dappled Things. I strongly suggest that you read it if you want more than the scant information I'm giving you. It includes the full text of one poem. And I can direct you to another which is in the book and which Sally allowed me to reproduce here a few years ago when we were doing the 52 Poems series. It's called "Bridge Morning," and I think it's brilliant. If you like either or both of the poems, you won't regret buying the book.

A note about the sequence which closes the book, the twenty Richeldis of Walsingham poems: these appeared on their own as a chapbook a few years ago and I was not greatly taken with them at the time. But either further acquaintance or their context within this larger volume changed my mind, though most of my favorite poems appear in the earlier part.

MotherlandCover

A beautiful cover is always a plus.

P.S. There are some pretty funny moments here, wit of a dry sort--which, again, I think of as feminine. 

P.P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I note that I am in a small way personally acquainted with Sally Thomas by means of online discussions of one kind or another. 


"The Raven" Is A Great Poem

A train of thought that began with my noticing that in a few days it will be December eventually carried me to these lines from "The Raven":

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor...

I hadn't read the poem in I don't know how long, so I pulled out my old Norton anthology of American literature and did so. Oh my goodness! As a reasonably sophisticated reader of poetry, I'm probably not supposed to think very highly of "The Raven," but...oh my goodness, it's a fine one.

Yes, it's gimmicky, and somewhat over the top. Okay, more than somewhat. Musically it tends to produce a naive sing-song effect, with its heavy trochaic rhythm (DAH-dah-DAH-dah), its plentifully repeated feminine rhymes, and entire repeated phrases. The lines are eight feet long and the internal rhyme makes most of those effectively two lines, but running them together is a brilliant move that gives them speed and reduces the possible nursery-rhyme effect. And it's almost absurdly melodramatic; the atmosphere is laid on very heavily, so that it's easy to make fun of, and of course has been. But if you read it aloud, try not to let the beat run away with you, and discard the cynicism that might lead you to mock it, it's hard to resist.

And why should one resist? Do you resist Chopin's Funeral March? If so, it's probably for some of the same reasons: a perception that it's cheesy, which is as much a result of over-exposure, parody, and perhaps snobbery as of any fault within the work. Works like this are in a sense too good, or rather I guess I should say too appealing: almost everyone finds them accessible and enjoyable, and that can lead to their being overexposed and devalued. I'm reading "The Raven" now as if I were in the 8th grade, or whatever it was, again, and realizing that I was right to love it then.

Here's the text

Naturally there are some readings of it on YouTube. I sampled three--by Christopher Lee, James Earl Jones, and Vincent Price--but I don't recommend them, so am not including them here. In general to my taste actors act too much when they read poetry, reading "with expression," as someone says with annoyance in some story or other--too much expression. It's as if they're trying to upstage the poet. I have to say though that the Vincent Price one is sort of fun. It's not just read but dramatized, with thunder, purple curtains, a skull sitting on Price's desk, and an actual raven, which however does not speak. 

Paul_Gustave_Dore_Raven14Gustave Doré's illustration, from Wikimedia


Is "Little Pink Houses" a Patriotic Anthem?

Kyle Smith of National Review thinks so. I half-agree. I don't think I've heard it more than half a dozen times, and always on a car radio. But I do remember the first time, because "Ain't that America" jumped out at me as a perfect expression of amused and unillusioned affection: "Yeah, it's a crazy country, but we love it anyway." I've used the phrase at least a few times here, apropos some bit of very American extravagant eccentricity. Here, make up your own mind:

And I love the old man saying to his old wife: "Hey darlin', I remember when you could stop a clock." I was just saying that to my gray-haired wife the other day. 

One of the category tags on this post comes from this song, which is not that great in itself but which I've always remembered for the title phrase and for "Somebody give me a cheeseburger":

And that's my Fourth of July post. Shine, perishing republic--and recall that that poem was written in the 1920s.


Elizabeth Cary

Or, as we commoners ought to keep in mind, Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland. I suppose that if we were to address her we would need to use some honorific of the "your ladyship" sort. But that won't be necessary, as she died in 1639. 

I only know of her because the June issue of Magnificat had a short article about her by John Janaro. You can read it, just slightly revised from Magnificat, here

Elizabeth Cary was a remarkable woman in her own time.  Indeed, among women or men of any period she would qualify as a genius.  She was born about 1585 in Oxfordshire; in her desire to learn she outpaced her tutors almost from the beginning of her education, and she was fluent in multiple languages and widely read by the time of her marriage to Henry Cary, Viscount Falkland, in 1602. 

Continue reading "Elizabeth Cary" »


Two New Year's Day Reflections

I find Kevin Williamson to be the most consistently interesting writer at National Review these days. That's not necessarily entirely a good thing, because when I say "interesting" I also mean "entertaining," and often that entertainment involves scathing language about someone. In principle I do not approve of scathing language about persons and try to resist the temptation to use it, so I guess what it amounts to is that I'm vicariously enjoying his put-downs, which makes me feel just a touch guilty. Not very, because most of the time the put-down is merited.

And I usually disagree with at least some part of any piece he writes, sometimes something minor and sometimes major. His brand of conservatism is definitely more libertarian than mine. But--and this is a little surprising for a libertarian, or at least a somewhat-libertarian--he is really at his best on deeper subjects. This is one:

If we are to resolve something for 2020, then maybe that should be our resolution: to bear always in mind that this is not Donald Trump’s America or Elizabeth Warren’s America but ours and Walt Whitman’s and John Coltrane’s and Herman Melville’s and Toni Morrison’s, and that if we really love this country, then that can only be because we love the people in it, the ones who are with us still and the ones who have been, who are “not enemies but friends.”

This will be our year. It will be the year that we make of it, which is both our great hope and our great, fearful responsibility.

Read the whole thing; it's worth it. One thing I like about him, something he shares with recently citizen-ized Charles Cooke, also of NR, is an appreciation of this country in all its madness and glory. Elsewhere he recently said something to the effect that what works for health care in Switzerland will not work here:

The basic problem with that always has been that Switzerland is full of Swiss people, while the United States is full of maniacs.

Precisely. I always stress that when discussing American politics and culture with someone from another country: you simply won't understand us unless you start with the recognition that we're more than a little crazy. Samuel Johnson's famous remark that "If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" applies triply to the United States of America. I am often sickened and repelled by this, that, or the other in the U.S., but never not interested. 

And, as Williamson says, life in these United States is not defined or limited by politics. I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to "Donald Trump's America." I fear such people live in cyberspace, large parts of which Donald Trump has made his own in the way that is too often effective in cyberspace: by being a troll. A great many people on the left seem to feel that their lives have been almost ruined, or in some cases not even "almost," by Trump's presence in the White House. This is...unhealthy to say the least, and as it's partly a choice, most unwise. 

I think the reality of life for the very large majority of us is that politics generally has a relatively small impact on our day-to-day lives, and plays a very small role in our conversation and other dealings with other people. I can recall only a few face-to-face conversations over the past half-year or so with anyone except my wife in which the subject even came up. Two of those were with liberals, and when the conversation drifted into politics--not by my choice--it immediately blew up in my face. The level of rage was disconcerting, and I will certainly try hard to avoid any more of those. 

Also at National Review, Richard Brookhiser does a nice exegesis of Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush." Perhaps you remember that it was the first poem in the 52 Poems series that I did a couple of years ago. I don't think more than a few days ever go by without my thinking of those last two lines.


When You See Ralph Vaughn Williams's Name On a Hymn...

...treat it as a sort of caution. The man made few concessions to congregations. You can always count on his tunes to veer off from the predictable. We sang, or tried to sing, "Hail Thee, Festival Day" at Mass this morning (I know, it's really an Easter hymn, but it's reasonably appropriate for Pentecost, too). I can handle the chorus well enough, but I get completely lost in the verses. As seemed to be the case for almost everyone else in our little congregation.

As a legatee of "the Anglican patrimony," which is about the only context in which we are supposed to use the word "Anglican" in discussing the Ordinariate(s), I'm entitled to refer to use Whitsun, Whitsunday, and Whitsuntide to refer to Pentecost Sunday and the week following it. This does not however come naturally to me. We did not use those terms in the Methodist church where I grew up, or even in the Episcopal church where I landed for a few years on my way to Rome. So the first thing that comes to mind when I hear "Whitsun" is Phillip Larkin's poem, one of his best: "The Whitsun Weddings." It's very much a post-Christian poem, a fact only emphasized by the presence of the word.

Addendum:

In the Ordinariate, we observe the Octave of Pentecost, which was apparently abolished after Vatican II. I'm going to be praying the "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer every day this week. God knows we need for wind and fire to sweep through the Church now. 


Another Epiphany Poem, This One By George Mackay Brown

EPIPHANY POEM

The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.

The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.

The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.

The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.

The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.

*

Brown, or Mackay Brown, is one of the poets in the British Poetry Since 1945 from which I drew at least one poem for the 52 Poems series. The index of that book lists him under "M" for "Mackay Brown." I don't understand this British thing in which sometimes two unhyphenated names, which appear to be middle and last, are treated as a surname. (MB is Scottish, but you know what I mean.) This seems to be the case with Ralph Vaughan Williams and has always bothered me. Why is he not just "Williams"? Or if he's going to be indexed under "V", "Vaughan-Williams"? 

Anyway, I like this poem, which someone posted on Facebook a few days ago. And I like the two poems of M-B's in that anthology. But the brief bio there does not mention that he was a Catholic convert. According to his Wikipedia page (notice that it calls him just "Brown"):

In late 1960 Brown commenced teacher training at Moray House College of Education, but was unable to remain in Edinburgh because of ill-health. On his recovery in 1961 he found that he was not suited to this type of work and returned late in the year to his mother's house in Stromness, unemployed. It was at this time that he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being baptised on 23 December and taking communion on the following day. This followed about twenty-five years of pondering his religious beliefs. This conversion was not marked by any change in his daily habits, including his drinking.


Sunday Night Journal, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

When I was twelve years old, an aunt and uncle gave me two books for Christmas, both part of a series or set called The Looking Glass LibraryThese were The Haunted Looking Glass and The Looking Glass Book of Verse. The first was a collection of classic ghost stories, though of course I didn't know they were classic and didn't recognize names like M.R. James or even Bram Stoker; I think Charles Dickens was the only name I knew. I loved it and read most of the stories several times over the next five or six years. It included "The Monkey's Paw," which is a great story, but also a peculiarly disturbing one. I've sometimes thought I might better not have read it, because it colors my attitude toward prayer. (If you don't know it, suffice to say that it's probably the ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.)

The Haunted Looking Glass was edited by Edward Gorey, and illustrated by him. That explains why, years later, in the early or mid-'70s, when there was a sort of Edward Gorey vogue, his work looked so familiar to me. The illustrations are rather brilliant: there is almost nothing at all in their subject matter that's directly frightening, but they manage to communicate a sense that something uncanny is invisibly present and about to act.  

The Book of Verse, however, I don't remember reading at all. I must surely have looked into at least, but obviously it held little appeal for me. I still have both books. Sometime in the relatively recent past--i.e. sometime in this century--I got out the Haunted one, recalling that I had thought the stories very good when I was twelve, and discovering that I had been reading classics of the genre. The other book, though, had been sitting unopened on various shelves as it moved around with me over the years.

One day last week a discussion here about ghost stories reminded me of The Haunted Looking Glass, and that in turn reminded me of its companion, and I wondered for the first time in many years what was in it. I found, somewhat to my surprise, and somewhat to my embarrassment, that it is a very fine anthology perhaps more fit for adults than for children, certainly more so than for my twelve-year-old self. Name any great poet (in English) that you like, and he or she is included here, including some very surprising names like Elizabeth Bishop. 

The editor is someone name Janet Adam Smith, of whom I had never heard, but she certainly had excellent taste in poetry. The biographical note in the book makes her sound interesting: 

...born in Scotland in 1905, [she] is literary editor of the British weekly, The New Statesman. She is also the author of books on mountaineering and of a critical study of Robert Louis Stevenson, and is at present writing a biography of John Buehan [sic--surely that was supposed to be Buchan].

Moreover, this anthology is a revision of her The Faber Book of Children's Verse, made "more suitable for American readers." And the fact that I'd never heard of her says more about my ignorance than her obscurity: here's her Wikipedia entry. Yes, that is supposed to be "Buchan."

Perhaps I would have found the book more interesting at, say, sixteen, than when I received it that Christmas, as by then there was some poetry I liked, but as far as I can recall I never looked at it. I hate to admit that an anthology of this quality was beyond me, though I suppose it was just as much a lack of interest in poetry that stopped me, as there are plenty of poems in the book that would have been accessible and entertaining to me, had I given them a chance. I doubt a similar project done today would be of this quality. And if it were intended for general audiences, it wouldn't contain the explicitly Christian poems that this one does.

All of this is to get around to saying that as I flipped through the book my eye was caught by the name of Christopher Smart, which I was surprised to see. And I read this poem of his, which strikes me as a great Easter piece:

Glorious the sun in mid career;
Glorious th' assembled fires appear;
Glorious the comet's train:
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;
Glorious th' almighty stretch'd-out arm;
Glorious th' enraptur'd main:

Glorious the northern lights a-stream;
Glorious the song, when God's the theme;
Glorious the thunder's roar:
Glorious hosanna from the den;
Glorious the catholic amen;
Glorious the martyr's gore:

Glorious—more glorious is the crown
Of Him that brought salvation down
By meekness, call'd thy Son;
Thou that stupendous truth believ'd,
And now the matchless deed's achiev'd,
DETERMINED'D, DAR'D, and DONE.

Ordinarily I would be put off, at least, by that use of capital letters, but in this case it seems perfect: "a blare of trumpets for the Lord," as one of the Psalms puts it. I wondered at first if they were Janet Smith's doing, as various copies of the poem which I found online don't have it. But it seemed very unlikely that she (or any anthologist) would have taken such a liberty, and such an odd one.  This PDF version from W.W. Norton, though, does have it.

The poem is untitled in the book, and that's because it's only a bit, the last bit, of a much longer poem called "Song To David," which is what you'll see at that link. I wondered who "thou" in the last stanza is meant to be. I thought at first it was the reader, but in the context of the whole poem I think it must be David.

DETERMINED'D, DAR'D, and DONE: Happy Easter.

Christopher ("Kit") Smart, as you may know, was confined to a madhouse for some years because of his "religious mania." Here is what his friend Samuel Johnson had to say about that:

My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is a greater madness not to pray at all than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.

And on another occasion:

I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him, and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.

 *

Here's a list of all the Looking Glass Library titles. I never had any but the two I've mentioned.

*

We went to the cathedral in Mobile for Mass on Holy Thursday. This was the view when we came out. The whole arc of the brighter rainbow was visible, though partly obscured by trees. 

HolyThursdayRainbow

 


Sunday Night Journal, March 11, 2018

After posting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" a couple of weeks ago, I found myself remembering other bits and pieces of his poetry, so I got out a couple of old textbooks and went looking for them. Principal among these fragments was this, which used to be widely quoted:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.

I couldn't remember which poem it was, so after browsing a bit I resorted to the internet, and quickly found that it's from "Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse." You can read the poem at that link, though to my taste it's a bit long for reading on the web (250 lines or so). I can't say I think it's a great poem, but it's an interesting one. It's an account of Arnold's visit to the founding house of the Carthusian order, and is a more extensive lament for the passing of the old Christian world than "Dover Beach," which was written fifteen years later. More extensive, and more explicit--and more confused, really, it seems to me. Poor Arnold: intellectually he finds the faith of the monks almost contemptible, and is quite certain that the skeptical modern age is right about that question. Yet he deeply laments its loss.

Let's have the whole stanza ("these" are the monks):

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
Their faith, my tears, the world deride—
I come to shed them at their side.

Later in the poem he hopes that the coming age will be wiser and happier, but asks that for the time being he be left alone with his melancholy. 

It's not "Dover Beach," but it's really a pretty good poem, though it would be greatly improved by the removal of nearly all the exclamation marks, a habit of the 19th century which perhaps did not sound quite the same to them as to us. 

I wonder about that world which was in Arnold's time "powerless to be born." I think I can say without too much oversimplification that he found the skepticism of his age sterile, and he seems not to have had a clear idea of how it could become fruitful, really fruitful in the way that Christian civilization had been, though he thought that in time it must. Has that new world been born yet, or are we still waiting for it?

I feel fairly sure Arnold would have been surprised, maybe astonished, by what would happen to Europe in the 20th century. I know he would have been appalled: unprecedented material progress, unprecedented slaughter. Was that what was waiting to be born? The "rough beast" that Yeats so famously saw stirring? (You know that poem, probably; unfortunately politicians have been quoting it in recent years--unfortunately but also somewhat appropriately, though they usual don't get to that last bit.)

Or are we still in transit to some new and more Godless world? If we are, it promises to be, as far as I can tell, some sort of combination of 1984 and Brave New World. No one wants 1984, but I think there are a good many people who could read Brave New World and not understand that it is meant to depict a dystopia. After all, almost everyone is happy there, and isn't happiness what it's all about? Some of the mechanisms of 1984 would still have to be in place there, some means of insuring that people not only behave correctly, but that they think correctly. Those means needn't be violent; in fact violence, as the history of fascism and communism shows, is in the long run counter-productive because of the resistance it provokes. More likely it simply won't happen. Those who wish to get rid of God are finding the task rather more difficult than the skeptics of Arnold's time might have anticipated. 

*

Speaking of getting rid of God: a movie based on Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time has just been released. I ran across this commentary on the movie, in which the screenwriter is quoted as saying “I think there are a lot of elements of what [L’Engle] wrote that we have progressed on as a society.” I don't resent the removal of Christian themes in the movie (which, after all, is what you'd expect of Hollywood) nearly as much as I do the suggestion that its removal from everything that counts as real life is a fait accompli, and that the only "we" that counts is composed of those who have removed it from their own lives.

I doubt that I'll see the movie. I'm really not a great admirer of the book. I know it means a lot to a lot of people. But I didn't read it until I was in my thirties, and as I recall it didn't send the meter any higher than "pretty good."

*

Last week I discussed the culture wars, and in particular the gun control debate, as being in part a conflict between two political visions, the "free citizen" model and the "sheep and shepherd" model. As I said in a comment in the discussion following that, I knew this would seem to be loading the question toward the former, because in our culture the latter sounds demeaning. But I actually do write this journal in a few hours on Sunday evenings, and nothing better presented itself. Still doesn't, actually. There is a great deal to be said for the sheep and shepherd model. It is, after all, the essential structure of the vision contained in Judeo-Christian religion, and in fact is the same image. And it may very well be the most natural and in the long run most effective and durable mode of government. It may very well be that all this self-government stuff is coming to an end, dependent as it was on certain cultural foundations which are not only decaying but the object of active efforts at demolition.

In any case, it is almost self-evident that the vision I attributed to the Founding Fathers, of "a nation of free citizens: farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and mechanics," no longer has very much to do with our social reality. The typical or characteristic way of life in contemporary Western societies is that of a wage earner, a condition which is inherently more dependent and less free than that of one who lives by his own direct effort and property. Moreover, the characteristic employer, the paradigm that sets the tone and pattern for all, is a gigantic organization, whether "private" (corporate) or "public" (government),  of the type which in textbook terminology is classified as a "machine bureaucracy." It's not meant to produce free citizens. And it doesn't want them.

*

While browsing the Arnold section of Poetry of the Victorian Period, I came across a line which I had completely forgotten, but which made me laugh. Someone, either Dr. Eugene Williamson, who taught me that subject, or a critic whom he perhaps quoted, held this up as being astonishingly bad:

Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?

Well, he was only twenty-seven when he wrote that, and he was no Keats; his best work came when he was much older. Still...that's awful. The rest of the poem (here) is not bad, though. In fact, it contains a phrase which became a sort of byword for Arnold's thinking. I'm not sure, but I believe he himself may have used it in his writings about the necessity of culture: the writers who "prop" his mind "saw life steadily, and saw it whole." That is a rare and important gift in any age.

*

Well, I've finished The Lord of the Rings, and I repeat what I said last week: if this is not a great work, I am no judge. I mentioned several weeks ago an essay that I'd published years ago in Caelum et Terra that I might dig out and publish here. Turns out I had done that a while back. I read it over the other day and it's still pretty accurate with regard to my opinion of the book. You can read it here

*

Here, at Touchstone, is another appreciation of the late Billy Graham, one I thought worth passing on.

 *

Here's what I have to put up with at St. Gregory, my Ordinariate (not-technically-a-)parish. In the Divine Worship liturgy, which incorporates various Anglican elements, we are instructed to "rehearse the Decalogue" (quaint phrase) on Sundays in Lent. Fr. Matt explains why. This is really just audio, and the one photo moves around a bit, so I recommend you look at something else and just listen. It's thirteen minutes long.

*

It's azalea time here. About 85% of them are this color, which is not my favorite, but I included this picture as an example of the way they're supposed to be grown. This doesn't show the entire bush, which is at least fifteen feet wide, and over six feet tall. They're supposed to be big and luxuriant like this.

Azaleas-pink

There's a pale orange-pink color which I like better, also a dark red one which I like even better, but I didn't see any of those on the walk where I took this picture. I did see this nice white one, though. I like the white ones a lot but they very quickly take on a dingy and dilapidated look.

Azaleas-white


Even Unto Death (A Guest Post)

Yesterday, I started to write a comment on the Favorites of the Year thread saying that my problem with the thread was that every find that I had last year was a movie or book that I learned about on this blog, so everyone else already knew about them, and we had already discussed them. Then I remembered a song I had heard by Audrey Assad, and then another.

A while back I got an email from my friend Sheila in which she mentioned that she was listening to Audrey Assad's Death Be Not Proud over and over again. So, I listened to it, and bought it. It is based on John Donne's sonnet of the same name.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

At that time Ms. Assad had written about this song on her website and she said that she had written the song after several of her pregnant friends had miscarried. I read this in October, 2015, at which time my daughter had miscarried twice in about four months.

Then when Sheila and I traveled to North Carolina in the Fall of 2016, she brought along another album by Audrey.Assad, Inheritance, which includes the song, "Even Unto Death." This is a song which Ms. Assad, the daughter of a Syrian refugee (he came here as a child with his single, refugee mother), wrote after seeing the video of the 21 Coptic men who were executed by the Islamic State in February, 2015. I had never watched this video before because I didn't want to see anyone beheaded.

The video below contains the song, and part of the video of the martyrs—not the beheading—and Ms. Assad's explanation of the song. If you haven't seen the original video, you ought to watch this. Those men, except for maybe one, do not look like I would if I were about to be beheaded. They seem very calm and prepared for their deaths. When they first walk onto the beach and sink to their knees as one body, it is more like a liturgy than an exercise in violence, and as they kneel there with their executioners behind them, it is reminiscent of catechumens at Easter vigil with their sponsors.

When I had typed most of my comment, which was a great deal shorter than this, on the blog, I noticed that the two songs had a common theme, and it is a theme that anyone who has read much will recognize as being a recurrent theme for me.

I have planned close to a hundred funerals over the past three and a half years, and I have read all the readings that the Church has chosen for funerals aloud to the families many, many times. My favorite is from 1 Corinthians 15.

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O Death is your victory?
Where, O Death is your sting?

I love to read this at a funeral, I read it at my mother's funeral. I love to stand there and look Death in the eye and spit. (I would never spit in real life. I'm a Southern lady after all.)

However, about two months while I was reading this to a family, I almost caught my breath in the middle of the scripture. Because now it's different. Now it's not my 89 year old mother, or even my own death that's in the balance, but my infant granddaughter. If she had died, I would not have escaped that sting. And yet I know that even in that case, Death would not have had the final word.

Thankfully, she is doing very well, and we are all beginning to breathe a lot easier.

I'm posting this here instead of on my blog because I wanted to post more-or-less anonymously, although anyone who reads this blog with any frequency knows who wrote this. I just don't want it to be easily found by a Google search because I don't want to intrude on my daughter's privacy.

While I was in the middle of writing this, I got an email that a friend—not a close friend, but a sister in Christ—has died. Her name is Flo. Please say a prayer for the repose of her soul when you read this.

AMDG


Leonard Cohen, RIP

If I were to pick one artist among the singer-songwriters of the 1960s whom I would bet would still be listened to a hundred years from now, it would be Leonard Cohen. I think there will be others, but like I said, if I were to pick only one....

This song, from 1969's Songs From A Room, strikes me now as a profound commentary on sex and the sexual revolution. Well, it did at the time, actually.

 

As it happens, I have recently been getting re-acquainted with this album and this song, in connection with the book I'm writing. And in doing so I ran across this story about the real Nancy. It's as sad as the song suggests. Say a prayer for him, and for her.


The Gods of the Copybook Headings

For years I have been seeing this poem by Kipling described as having some sort of profound relevance. I read it, and it seemed interesting, but I didn't quite understand who these gods were supposed to be. It was only fairly recently that I learned the answer. A "copybook" in English schools of the time was for handwriting practice. At the head of each page was some sort of proverb or maxim, and the student was to copy it repeatedly down the page. The gods of the copybook headings, then, are those eternal truths of human life which we forget or ignore at our peril. It was written just after the end of World War I, in which Kipling lost his son. It begins like this:

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

And ends rather chillingly. Please read the whole thing at the Kipling Society's site. (I'm not going to include it here because I'm pretty sure some of the lines are too long and wouldn't display properly.)

It does seem that our culture is determined to ignore every scrap of wisdom inherited from our ancestors. I thought of the poem a couple of days ago when I read this piece by Damon Linker in which he criticizes progressives for attempting to demonize and destroy perfectly natural and not necessarily unhealthy "particularist" impulses. Progressivism

displays outright contempt for particularistic instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale. On the contrary, a very good case can be made that these instincts are natural to human beings and even coeval with political life as such — and that it is the universalistic cosmopolitanism of humanitarian liberalism (or progressivism) that, as much as anything, has provoked the right-wing backlash in the first place.

Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but "racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia" — is the desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic.

As you might imagine, liberals reacted angrily, and called it, of course, racist. The inclusion of "ethnic" in that list pretty much guaranteed that reaction. But ethnic solidarity is not necessarily a bad thing. It is perfectly healthy and sane to prefer one's own place and people to others, and the fact that it can become pathological doesn't change that. It is generally not considered a bad thing by liberals when it involves, say, Jewish or Italian or Irish immigrants in early 20th century New York, or today when it takes forms that they can approve and enjoy: a Haitian enclave in a big city, for instance. Multiculturalism generally approves any presence here of a non-American culture. But how could that culture exist except as something particular, something which, by virtue of being what it is, is necessarily not something else?--and especially not a mere instance of interchangeable universal humanity.  

I do think the Trump phenomenon, which I mostly deplore, has been fed by the sort of backlash that Linker mentions. But appears that progressives will not learn from it. 


A Note on Versification

Anthony Daniels, in the February issue of The New Criterion, on the experience of being asked to be one of the judges in a poetry contest:

One of the problems for a novice judge is to know how far to take extra-poetic considerations into account, indeed to know what they actually are, especially in an age of free verse. There are no guidelines laid down, as in (for example) the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, and where almost any string of words could be considered verse, chopped up the right way:

There are no guidelines laid down,
As in (for example)
The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis,
And where almost any string of words
Could be considered verse,
Chopped up the right way.


A Very Fine Poem

Update: My apologies: I thought this poem was available to non-subscribers, but apparently it's not. I'll leave the post here because you can still enjoy the anecdote. It's even possible that you may run across a copy of the magazine somewhere. Thanks to Louise for pointing this out to me.

--

I don't find most of the poetry published in The New Criterion (or anywhere else, for that matter) very memorable. Well-crafted, always, and sometimes enjoyable, but rarely anything I would wish to read ten years from now. But there's one in the May issue which I've read several times with no lessening of the pleasure of the first reading. It's based on an incident in the life of Samuel Johnson:

After breakfast we walked to the top of a very steep hill behind the house. When we arrived at the summit, Mr. Langton said, 'Poor dear Dr. Johnson, when he came to this spot, turned back to look down the hill, and said he was determined "to take a roll down". When we understood what he meant to do, we endeavoured to dissuade him; but he was resolute, saying, "he had not had a roll for a long time"; and taking out of his lesser pockets whatever might be in them--keys, pencil, purse, or pen-knife--and laying himself parallel to the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over, till he came to the bottom.'

The poem is by Joseph Harrison, and it's called "Dr. Johnson Rolls Down A Hill". Read it when you're not in a hurry.

I read the anecdote upon which the poem is based many years ago in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (which by the way is a treasure). There it's attributed to Personal and Literary Memorials, published by Henry Digby Beste in 1829. But the speaker is not identified. Thanks to the web and Google, I find a very similar recounting in Leslie Stephens's 1900 biography. It's so similar to Beste's that I suppose Beste to have been Stephen's source. Beste, interestingly, was a Catholic convert, an early instance of what would become the Oxford Movement.


Sally Thomas: Brief Light

I could go on for a long time--I've already gone on for a couple of months--planning to write a substantial review of this splendid book of poems, with a lot of attention to its specific virtues. The result would be a pretty good appraisal and appreciation. But I have a lot to do, and am generally pretty distracted; it could be a long time. So I'm going to content myself with a brief notice.

I don't have much of an appetite for contemporary poetry. Few people do, of course, but I should, since I make the occasional attempt in that direction myself. Back in the 1970s I knew a lot of aspiring poets who were working on MFAs in creative writing, and they read their contemporaries in great volume, often to the neglect, I thought, of older and better work. Now and then I followed someone's recommendation and read a little in one of these poets, but very little of it made much of an impression on me.

Worse, it was frequently somewhat off-putting for reasons that I couldn't articulate. I think that had to do with the sensibility of the writers, and in that term I'm including not just personality but the effects of the poet's general view of things, including his or her theology, or rather lack of it in most cases. Frequently there was an obvious verbal gift, and an impressively close--often too close--attention to sensory, mainly visual, detail, which is a sort of convention in poetry since the early 20th century. But the poems just didn't seem to add up to much. Stylistically a very mannered school had arisen, as mannered in its way as the 18th century establishment against which the Romantics rebelled, and it was in general not a manner I liked greatly. And the sensibility tended strongly toward what I have elsewhere called the Stoic Resentful. For these reasons, and for some other, more fundamental lack of aesthetic response, I just didn't find much to like. I'm sure I've missed a lot of good work, but I didn't have the time to seek it out among the ordinary.

What that has to do with Brief Light is not that it stands in utter contrast to the prevailing mode, but that it is in fact to a great extent in that mode, yet with so much skill in execution, and with such a different sensibility, that it does seem a different and better thing. I will admit that my spirits tend to sink when I see a Catholic poet praised for being Catholic, especially if at the same time he or she is praised for rejecting the modernist method and writing in strict forms. The result is frequently not much more than adequate, but one hesitates to criticize it because its intentions are so good. It's like much, if not most, Christian rock or "CCM"--Contemporary Christian Music: maybe pretty good, but never quite as good as the secular stuff. There's usually something constrained about it, a sense that the artistic impulse is being forced into a container that doesn't really fit it. We want Catholic artists, yes. But we don't want to have to condescend to them, to make allowances for their defects, to hold them to a lower standard than we would others. 

We want Catholic art that fully and naturally embodies its own life, that goes where it goes not because some disconnected hand is pushing it but because that's where it naturally goes. And we want the same standard of craft that we would expect from any art. Aesthetically at least, we generally have the sensibility of our times--we can't help it--but we want it transformed by the leaven of Catholic faith: transformed, all the way through, not just painted.

We have what we're looking for in this book. Formally, it fits in perfectly well with most of contemporary poetry. It's subtitled "Sonnets and Other Small Poems," and I haven't counted, but I think half at least of the poems have fourteen lines and are in some variant of sonnet form, from fairly loose to fairly strict. This is not unusual nowadays; form has made something of a comeback. Its rhetoric is contemporary, and even, I think, shows the influence of the MFA school (for instance, in the one thing that I would criticize here and there: the creation of a verb from a noun, as in the snake "sluggarding in the woodpile"). But its sensibility is deeply Catholic although belief is hardly mentioned directly. I suppose I mean that it seems to see things in the way a Catholic ought to see them.

 All right, then. But can I be more specific about what makes these poems such a pleasure? I'm not very good at describing poetry, or much inclined to do so. It's no more useful than describing music: a few broad words to indicate the general impression, and then one must read or listen. These poems are intelligent, wise, distinctly feminine, sharply observant, occasionally witty, suffused with deep feeling and a consciousness of the enormous significance of our small lives and the small things that fill them...yeah, yeah, all true, but that doesn't mean much until you experience them. It seems inappropriate to reproduce an entire poem here, and after flipping through the book for ten minutes I find no passage I want to quote, because, fine as the lines might be in isolation, they are on their way to something more powerful than they alone can accomplish, and it seems a shame to interrupt their journey.

I am able resolve this dilemma by pointing you to a poem on Sally's blog: On New Year's Eve: Letting the Time Go Where Time Goes. It's not in the book, but it's representative. That thing she does with the last line is a good example.

Did you read it? See what I mean?  Go buy the book.


Big Savings! Now! Hurry!

Should have posted this yesterday (or whenever it was that I first saw it). Go here to get 20% off the price of Sally Thomas's book of poems, Brief Light, today. It's not very expensive to start with, so with the discount it's down around the price of a fast-food lunch, or even one of those elaborate coffee concotions.  I've had a copy for a week or so but haven't had a chance to sit down with it yet. But I've seen some very good poems on her blog. And here's a sample at Patheos.com.

W. S. Merwin: Notes To A Lost Text

Sunday Night Journal — November 7, 2011

For many years I’ve thought of writing some sort of lengthy appreciation of W.S. Merwin, but the project has never made it to the top of my list, and it’s time I accepted the possibility that it never will. Last year when he was appointed Poet Laureate I thought I would at least do some sort of blog post about him; now his year in that position has come and gone and I never managed to get that done, either. So, on the Chestertonian principle that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, or better late than never, or better something than nothing, here is...something, though perhaps the applicable aphorism is “too little, too late.”

Did you even know the U.S. had a poet laureate? I believe it is a renaming of what used to be the nearest thing we had, poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At least, back in the days when I was somewhat more conversant with the contemporary poetry scene, that seemed to be considered a sort of pinnacle of what passes for fame for poets. As someone said—it may have been John Ashbery—on being asked what it was like to be a famous poet, “being a famous poet is not like being famous.”

In those same days, roughly 1971-1976, Merwin was very highly regarded, and imitated, by aspiring young poets, at least those of my acquaintance. As is often the case with poets having a very distinctive style, the influence was not necessarily for the best. Mediocre work in the vein of, say, Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or early Eliot, inevitably seems like mere imitation, and draws attention to the fact that it is not quite as good as the original.

Unlike most of the people I knew in the local literary scene, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry, and didn’t like most of what I read. I held on principle a general sort of disapproval of it. I thought the whole direction of modern poetry—free verse, the French-influenced imagism, the obscurity, the flat rhythms—was a big mistake, and had neo-classical or formalist, and definitely traditionalist, ideas about what I wanted to do. More fundamentally, I just didn’t think much of it was very good—it was competent and occasionally memorable, but it hardly ever affected me deeply. Merwin’s work did, though. I was won over when I read his 1967 book The Lice. Specifically, I think it was this poem, at the time and I suppose still, considered one of his very best, that won me over:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year not knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Setting aside what I thought or think about whether this manner of writing poetry is the way it ought, ideally, to be done—that is, whether one thinks it a healthy development for the art—there is also, philosophically and religiously and psychological, something pretty unhealthy in this book. It’s desolate and disoriented:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

(“The Asians Dying”)

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth

(“When You Go Away”)

Out of the morning stars the blood began to run down the white sky and the crowd in tears remembered who they were and raised their hands shouting Tomorrow our flag

(“Unfinished Book of Kings”)

I could go on and on, quoting the whole book. Looking through it again now for the first time in ten years or so, I’m reminded of how many of these poems are perfect in their way, and that even the ones I like less always have something stunning in them. They are often obscure, but not in the tight, logically rigorous way of some of the earlier modernists who were taken with Donne, the way of the riddle or puzzle. This is the way of intuition, instinct, and a definite touch of surrealism. One does not look for a precise physical analog to the bed of ashes, or the blood running down the sky; one accepts them as images of isolation and dread. (Actually the ashes might be pretty straightforward as a reference to a bed empty of the one addressed in the title.)

Isolation. Desolation. Loss. Alienation. Disorientation. Absence. These are the abstractions with Thelice which one attempts to describe the atmosphere of this book. And if those words told the whole story, I wouldn’t like the poems as well. But there is always in them the consciousness of what is missing, and an occasional glimpse of it. My friend Robert said something many years ago about Merwin’s work that has stuck in my mind ever since: that it was like “notes to a lost religious text.” I believe he was talking about Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, but it applies to most of the work that I love.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether or not I believe in something along the lines of a collective mind or instinct, something that brings certain ideas and moods to the forefront among a large segment of humanity: the skepticism of the 18th century, for instance. Perhaps such things are explainable as being simply a matter of the time being congenial to the idea—but when we say that, what have we really said? Why was the time congenial? In any case, whether or not there is some mysterious force behind it, these phenomena do occur. Something happened in the 1960s, throughout the western world, at least. It involved the breaking down of structures of all sorts. For some people in some situations it was a liberation, for others a collapse, and sometimes the same situation was a liberation to some and a collapse to others. And sometimes the same person felt it simultaneously as liberation and collapse. I think that could be said of Merwin, and of my other favorite artist of the mid-20th century, Ingmar Bergman. Their work of the 1960s is often similar in tone, movies like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf seeming to come from a very similar place as some of the poems in The Lice. Both men were the sons of Protestant ministers, both seem to have lost or rejected belief in God, but were left with a sense of loss and a fear of meaninglessness, and created works of art which express a deep spiritual yearning. Their sense of dislocation is almost apocalyptic; they seem to see an abyss opening, and the modern world plunging toward it, or already falling.

What I’ve seen of Merwin’s early work was pretty conventional for its time, which is not to say it wasn’t very well done. The few poems I’ve seen from that period were formal in structure. It was in The Moving Target, published in 1963, that he began to develop the style that produced his most original work: he dropped all formal regularity, including meter, line length, stanza patterns, and finally punctuation, as in the poem quoted above. At a glance you might think his line no different, formally, from the lifeless “free verse” that a high-schooler might produce, but anyone with an ear quickly discerns that it has its own shimmering rhythm, and that each poem has a definite graceful shape, all the product of considerably more skill than is immediately apparent.

It is The Moving Target and the following three books—The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment—which are for me, and I think for many of Merwin’s admirers, the heart of his work. The Lice, by the way, is the darkest of the four. I have followed him only as far as 1992’s Travels, which has its moments but was the latest of several that didn’t seem to me on the level of his work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also seems to have become more political over the years, in the usual left-wing artist sort of way. The great books have some memorable and powerful poems on political and environmental themes, but from the Reagan years forward I have occasionally run across remarks from him that were the sort of bared-teeth leftism that I thought could hardly fail to have affected his art.

But never mind that. The great work remains. Here is another poem from The Lice, one that reminds me of both Bergman and St. John of the Cross. This book, by the way is the darkest of the four mentioned above. And also by the way, the intent of the title is not to disgust and repel: it is the answer to a riddle which, according to Heraclitus, stumped Homer: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Room

I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from the corner the sound of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it is dying it is immortal

***

I haven't really made much attempt here to describe the effect of Merwin's poetry on me, and apparently on a good many other people, and to explain why I like it so much. That is the part of the unwritten essay that would require the most work and even then be inadequate. As with  most art, the old saying applies: for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation will suffice. You will either have responded to the two poems reproduced here, or not. If you did, and are not already familiar with Merwin's work, you should seek it out.


Excavating the Remains of a Career That Didn't Happen

Some may remember that I have a web site that includes three categories of writing: Prose, Verse, and Blog. I brought the prose over to this blog some time ago, but the verse has taken some time. I've finally got the poems that were on the old site here--see the Verse item in the sidebar.

I used to think I was going to be a poet, though outside a span of four or five years in the 1970s it was always a pretty off-and-on effort, and mostly off after I decided to go into the computer programming trade. And one of the many, many items on my list of things to do, one that's been there for a long time, is to go through all my old poems and publish here those that seem worth salvaging. Here is the first, "That Night". It never had a title till now but I thought it needed one, so there it is.

I hope to add at least one poem a week until I've gone through the lot.

Why do I call the category "verse" and not "poetry"? Because of my favorite teacher, Dr. Eugene Williamson, who always used that word to refer to anything that was technically verse, as opposed to prose. It had to have a little more going for it than being broken up into lines for him to call it poetry. "Written any verse lately?" he would say. I was thrilled the first time he congratulated me on having written a line of poetry. The poem disappeared long ago but I remember the line:

The charcoaled embers of our modest hope


Sunday Night Journal — December 5, 2004

Some Kind of Artist

A few weeks before the recent election the arts section of our local paper featured a discussion of the fact that so many artists are on the political left, sometimes the fairly radical left. The editor put the question to a number of local artists, and the unsurprising answer that many of them gave was a variation on the theme that artists are superior people who naturally embrace superior ideas. This of course brings to mind Orwell’s “herd of independent minds,” and I can think of several less flattering explanations for the phenomenon under discussion.

But I’m really more interested in the underlying assumption: that “creative people” are fundamentally different from everyone else. I consider this idea not just false but pernicious, doing an injustice to the vast majority of the human race and considerable harm to art, artists, and culture. Among other things, it carries an implication which is pretty much insane: that the definition of art is “what an artist does.” Some twenty-five or so years ago I heard on NPR an interview with an artist which made clear both the madness of this idea and its grip on the world of the visual arts (at least—it doesn’t seem to have the same hold on literature and music). This disturbed fellow’s art included cutting himself with razor blades before an audience. The interviewer, a nice intelligent liberal fellow, was obviously appalled, but, not wishing to appear a Philistine, seemed to be trying not to show it and to treat this sick stunt as just the latest manifestation of the same gifts and intentions that were exercised by Leonardo. But at one point he couldn’t resist asking the question “Is this really art?” The “artist” of course pounced on this; I remember thinking that he had been waiting for just such an opening: “Yes, it is. I am an artist, and therefore what I do is art.” I wanted to reply “No, you are a nut, and therefore what you do is nuts.”

The truth, I think, is that every person is a creative person. The artist—by which I mean one whose primary vocation is one of the arts—may be more creative than most people, and he really must be more skilled in some particular craft than most people, but I deny with every fiber of my being the idea that he is intrinsically different from, still less superior to, them. It’s hard to see that the term “creativity” can mean anything more than the manifestation or expression of the interplay between a unique self and the rest of the world, which of course is always subjectively unique. In that fundamental sense almost everything we do, unless it is a strict and mechanical obedience to the orders of another, has in it some tincture of creativity. We all, for starters, have our own way of talking. We have our characteristic ways of constructing sentences, turns of phrase, witticisms, the occasional simile of our own invention, and so forth. Language in fact is a torrent of mostly anonymous creativity: the other day, listening to a sports talk show, I heard a football coach describe a thin player as having “a neck like a roll of dimes.” Various schools whose football programs are not doing very well have been described as being under attack by the terrorist duo of bin Losin’ and bin Cryin’.

Going a step further into what we more typically mean by “creativity,” we see it in much of our everyday work: a woman rearranging the furniture in her living room or decorating a cake, a bricklayer fitting the pieces of a paved path, a software developer designing a more efficient algorithm, all are exercising a degree of creativity. Our technological civilization in fact surrounds us with the work of engineers, product designers, and advertisers of all sorts who are extremely creative; although we may not consider what they do to be art and don’t credit them with being members of the fragile and superior class of creative persons, I don’t know how one could reasonably define creativity in such a way as to deny that they possess it.

A number of 19th and 20th century thinkers, such as the Catholic artist, typographer, and sculptor Eric Gill, railed against the factory system precisely because it removed the element of creativity from work, making the worker an inhuman automaton. Indeed we are now seeing the replacement of traditional assembly line workers by robots and if this did not involve unemployment we would have to consider it a good thing.

I certainly would not deny that there is a distinction between the fine arts, in which the object is made and valued principally for itself, and the useful arts, in which the object has some function outside itself. But the distinction is not hard and fast and I don’t believe there is any qualitative difference in the human impulses and gifts exercised in either case.

And when I say that everyone is creative in some way, I don’t mean to imply that there is no hierarchy of quality in the arts, or that everyone should be encouraged to write or paint or make music, whether or not they have any talent, on the grounds that creativity is only real if exercised in those arts. I’d have us understand Eric Gill’s aphorism: “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.” I might even go so far as to say that the term “creative person” is redundant, although the addition of an adjective such as “more” or “less” can make it useful.

Whenever I think of Gill’s words, I remember a poem by James Seay, whose writing classes I took in college. The poem was called, if I remember correctly, “Kelly Dug a Hole,” and although I don’t remember much of the poem itself I remember Jim’s account of its subject, a man who could dig a hole with perfectly square corners and perfectly straight sides. As I remember, Jim said he thought Kelly could have been, in the right circumstances, an artist of some kind. But that’s only half-right: he was an artist of some kind—as was my uncle Jimmy, who was a bookkeeper (or something) by trade but painted the walls and ceiling of his children’s playroom with vertical stripes that tapered perfectly from a foot or so wide at the baseboard to a point where they met at a light fixture in the ceiling. When I expressed my astonishment (not too strong a word) at the skill involved, he just laughed, as if to say it wasn’t that big a deal. And in a sense he was right: the skill was unusual, but the impulse and some ability, however slight or mundane, to exercise skill and imagination belong to us all.