Talk by Val Coleman at the Sandisfield Arts Center
4 PM Saturday June 11, 2016
One in the Coleman/Cohn series of talks on American life and culture
Audio version of this talk is below, scroll on for the written talk.
Sit back. It’s delicious…..
(What is poetry?? It is said that when Shakespeare was seventeen he wrote his first poem. He liked it….it was a line of words that ended, or at least paused at the right margin. It felt right, he was in charge…..it had a sort of savvy pulse….that lifted his prose. He could rhyme and whisper. He could shout and sing. He never stopped writing poetry.
Now…I am not a real scholar of poetry or “verse” if you insist….. For all my fancy carrying-on, . dozens of your favorite poets will not find their way into this argument…You will ask,.where is Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud, Byron, Milton, Dante? What about Ogden Nash…what kind of snob am I who ignores doggerel and erotic poetry? I’ve even lifted my nose at “haiku” (everybody’s favorite verse drop) You will find me racing through giants like Shakespeare and once in a while celebrating little sparrows like Edna Millay, long ignored.)
But don’t misunderstand me…..I have loved poetry all of my life….it is prose under sail.
To begin at the beginning, the very beginning….maybe a hundred thousand years ago….when, according to some of the more saucy linguists, spoken language began in a burst of “festive” excitement as early humans (maybe even a Neanderthal or two) acquired a hyoid bone and started making emotionally expressive sounds….screams, hoots and barks…. as they went about the business of survival…. eating, loving, living and dying in the caves and on some African lake shore. Variously pitched voices would eventually form conventional patterns…even, according to the American linguist Susanne Langer, even choral singing, clapping, dancing…. certain sound sequences would become usual….meaningful and eventually articulate. “Poetic”?
One is reminded of the marvelous movie “The Miracle Worker” in which a deaf and blind Helen Keller suddenly connects the feel of water to the spoken word “water”.
It appears that these earliest sounds…as they grew smarter …first took the form of a spare, primitive poetry….for example, the “chant” with it’s repeating (or “parallelism” as the real scholars would have it).
Then comes the written word.
Now we’re in the second millennium BCE. By this time words had been gouged into stone tablets and nouns were the princes of written language… In among the grocery lists, criminal idictments and scribbling on most tablets, the very spareness gave us poetry. (See Ezra Pound’s “ideograms” below) And most remarkably, it was for the most part strong, story-telling verse … .gathering all of the epic issues…..war, hunger, love, majesty, faith, immortality, The first autobiography of the human race.
Prosody (systems of writing) and rhyme began to appear in the heart of these “epic” poems…. a thunderhead of words…. combative…..as if all of the writers were in one hell of a hurry to figure out this strange world.
Poetry thus stumbled out of the great Sumerian epics.
You take “The Epic of Gilgamesh” for example. It’s a wonderful poem, chiseled onto 12 stone tablets, the great king of the Mesopotamian city of Ur, “Gilgamesh” sets out in two or three thousand BCE .to do no less than conquer both the world and the underworld, describe the creation and seek to beat death…… It’s all there…the violence, the celebrity, the chaos of life. The story line is of a legendary Mesopotamian King, Gilgamesh, who sweeps through heroic victories with the help of a wild man named Enkidu. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh, in deep mourning, goes on a search to find a way to escape death….a search which that would be described much later in the Old Testament….the Great Flood, the immortality of Noah, even a trip around the Garden of Eden complete with serpent. Here’s a taste…are we hearing the beginning of the beginning?…..tablet Number One of Gilgamesh, …were these the first recorded words…listen…
The story of him who knew all that men know: who made journey; heartbroken, reconciled:
who knew the way things were before the Flood, the secret things, the mystery; who went to the end of the earth, and over; who returned and wrote the story on a tablet of stone.
After swimming around, as I have these past weeks, in as much poetry as I can find…..I have an idea, possibly an absurd idea but it won’t go away. It is this….most poets, are determined at some time in their career to write their own “epic” a grand tour of a poem that embraces all of life and tells stories often like Gilgamesh or The Odyssey, but adapted to their own personal landscape and time. “Epics” indeed…..TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, WH Audens’ Age of Anxiety, Milton and Dante’s Paradise’s….even Alan Ginsberg who collected his life in a poem called Howl, Sometimes short, (Yeat’s The Second Coming,) sometimes long, (Voltaire’s Candide). And to bridge another medium……Duke Ellington sat down and wrote an immortal piece of music, “Black, Brown and Beige” A forty-four minute celebration of all of his music. The irresistible epic in all of us.
Now….a little taste of Homer in the night.
There was this soldier, Odysseus, (Ulysses when Roman) who fought heroically in the Trojan War and made his way home to the island of Ithaca on the northwestern perimeter of Greece. Homer’s “Odyssey” has lived through three thousand years of re-write and Xerox. God only knows where the original pristine text is…but we know that John Keats was staggered by the Chapman’s translation and I have been touched by Stephen Mitchell’s modern rendering. Let’s get the years as right as we can. The Odyssey and The Illiad were probably written around seven or eight hundred BCE but they are set in Mycenaean Greece in the twelfth century BCE…..at the mise en scene of something called the Trojan War and, if it happened, was one hell of a war. The two poems were ostensibly written (or if you accept spoken narrative as the source,) recorded…by this mysterious blind bard named Homer.
What an incredible business……a stupendous poem, a rocketing adventure story with a sexual undergirding…..as Helen, the temptress and object of the war, fondles the Trojan Horse and whispers to Odysseus crouching within. No-one, no human or divine, is absent. Obsessed with death…and the limits of human behavior, Homer delivers a whole orchestra of immortal Gods, Zeus conducting, who are entangled with human heroes and cowards who sweep across the Aegean Sea engaging in episodes of both heroism and cannibalism and, in the end, in the final books, a horrible massacre and a lyric denouement.
As Adam Nicolson in “Why Homer Matters” calls it….a “beautiful and terrifying poem.”
And then, those other Greeks. Now we’re talking about a 200 year period from around 600 BCE to the rise of Alexander the Great.
I have to quickly say that most of the great prose perorations…Plato’s “Republic” for example…didn’t like poetry at all. Socrates argued that poetry was a trick, a frivolous diversion that proved that an unexamined life (that is a life sitting around loafing with a lyre) was not worth living. Poetry, pure poetry, got a thrashing ….but bullied its way into Greek tragedy….producing the astonishing works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. These plays were riddled with immortal pronouncements, Delphic decisions and, as Freud would later diagnose, the “truth” about the person….the son, the mother, the daughter, the father….how we really felt. And the great comic writer, Aristophanes….who staged Lysistrata, which might be the first feminist work…denouncing war, The Birds denouncing democracy and The Clouds denouncing Socrates. All of which were extended poems written, by the way, in dactylic hexameter …. about which we will untangle forthwith.
METRICS and FORM.
Do not make sport of metrics….as one would not dismiss the heartbeat. Poetry has a heartbeat, an interior rhythm, a “prosody” that distinguishes it from prose. Poetry, however ordinary, a jingle or an epic, sails through our life with a beat…some sort of beat that gives that line of words a thrust, a lift. And since we have just skated with the Greeks it is appropriate that we talk metrics…..Greek metrics.
(By the by, is it necessary to mention that this entire essay is about English poetry or poetry translated into English. It is, is it not, our current common tongue?)
The word metre or metron is the Greek word for measure as “poetry” is a combination of the Greek poein (to make) and odein (to sing). And here, to get it out of the way, is that unpleasant list of the variety of beats (or feet) that we have used in English to describe the rhythms of poetry for the past thousand years:
Anapest….te te TUM
Dactyl…..TUM te te (Remember the opening dialogue of Joyce’ Ulysses? “Malachi Mulligan…..two dactyls”)
Spondee….(my favorite) TUM TUM
Check out Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”
“If winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
What have we got here? Five Iams in a row….Iambic Pentameter!
Which reminds me: we have to run through the Greek designations for the number of “feet” in a line……monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and hexameter (thus “dactylic hexameter”…six feet of descending rhythm. Homer in both the original and as best a translator could manage.) Well….that brings us into the forest of metaphors and similes and rhymes…. Now remember, poems, graphically, are lines of words that end at the end of a line of type and then start again on the next line…..if the sentence runs over from one line to the next…it is called an “enjambment” and almost always a tiny pause at the end. And further and much more important, poems thrive on metaphor and simile. Metaphor being a substitution of one word or idea for another “The ship plows the sea” and the simile is a comparison, thus: “I want to spend some time with time itself As it narrows not so far ahead Like train tracks vanishing”
That is the first stanza of a poem I wrote in March. I use it not just to show off, but to tell you a secret that poets share. I start to write poems when I find the phrase….When I discover an apt descriptive phrase sitting out there, untended. In this case I was feeling sorry for myself as a wilting 85 year old when I remembered those train tracks….disappearing into the distance as I would soon disappear…and then, behold, I remembered the trains of my childhood in Illinois. And it was suddenly a not-so-bad poem.
And finally, a word about rhyme. English is hard to rhyme….Italian is almost impossible NOT to rhyme. Rhyme the beckoning heart of most poetry. Even in its absence it is eloquent. To me, rhyme connects, even embraces …..there is great satisfaction in expected rhyme (as in a sonnet) and even…to use a much abused word….”closure” in a final couplet.
Deftly used, rhyme brings confidence and certainty into the chaos of untended language.
POETRY AS WITNESS
When I was a tad…..say twenty or so…..”studying poetry” was an intramural sport at Antioch College. My roommate Charlie Snyder and I had at each other for the best part of four years, each of us lining up our favorite poets like soccer squads. Charlie, a William Buckley conservative (“God and Man at Yale” had just come out) drafted TS Eliot, the “new critics” and Ezra Pound to lead his team. My squad was led by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Dylan Thomas (who, by the way, had thrown up in the hood of my winter jacket when I met him in a saloon in New York City.) I remember that we both agreed that poetry should stick to its own business and not go around advocating public policy, selling wars or shilling anything other than the majesty and the insanity of the heart.
I remember we made a special case out of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ms. Millay was, we both agreed, a marvelous, lyric poet who had, for example, turned out many excellent sonnets and poems of innocence. What upset us was a poem-prayer she had written on assignment from the United States government….which was read by Ronald Coleman to the troops on the morning of DDay, the bloody invasion of France on June 6, 1944. From our pompous little academic cul-de-sac in Ohio in 1950….we denounced the 105-pound Emily as some sort of egregious patriot who had lost her poetic soul to the propagandists, and that she should stick to the sacred precincts of real poetry. Boy, were we wrong! Just a little reflection would have spanked us back to the books…to Shakespeare for example who spent a good half of his plays extoling or savaging the wars, the Kings, the imprisonments, the daliances of history…….Or virtually any poet of consequence from Gilgamesh forward…the whole lot of them savored and described the horrors and triumphs of history.
Here’ s is a piece of that Edna Millay poem recited by Ronald Coleman on June 6, 1944, just before the invasion of Normandy.
“They must not go alone into that burning building—which today is all of Europe.”
Not bad. The sharp metaphoric picture….unlike anywhere else in Millay’s work…nevertheless suits the assignment…. And here, for example, is William Shakespeare’s Henry V extorting his troops before the battle of Agincourt….Millay and Shakespeare had work to do…
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother be he ne’er so vile This day shall gentle his condition And gentlemen in England now abed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here And hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks That fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day.”
Again, not bad. Lawrence Olivier recited this on D Day on the BBC. The point of course is that poetry….excellent poetry….has always had a perfectly sensible place in the affairs of men….whether in the description of a daffodil or a flag……”The Star Spangled Banner” was/is a fine poem. Who can upstage “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?
“trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
And Emma Lazarus’ poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty…..which starts in a straightforward way..and then soars into a magnificent American lyric….
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses Yearning to breathe free… The wretched refuse of your teeming shore Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me I lift my lamp before the golden door.”
Oddly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1881), who we all remember as the author of the sonnet
“How do I love thee. Let me count the ways….”
was a fierce and reliable humanist throughout her life. She was always in a peck of trouble with her anti-slavery poems…so much so she was black-listed in England. Her amazing, irreverent poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims’ Point” tells the story of a slave girl who is raped by a white man….and kills the child that results from the rape…..an agonizing, vengeful twist worthy of a modern darkness. In the poem, the girl cries out:
“But we who are dark, we are dark! Oh God, we have no stars! About our souls in care and cark, Our blackness shuts like prison bars! And crouch our souls so far behind That never a comfort can they find By reaching through the prison bars.
And ….two poems of witness closer to our own time. Oscar Wilde, the brilliant and oh-so-gay Oscar Wilde who is imprisoned for sodomy. His anguished cry in the The Ballad of Reading Goal:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves By each let this be heard; Some do it with a bitter look Some with a flattering word; The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!
And William Butler Yeats, deeply moved by the “Easter Rising” in Ireland in 1916…..where, amongst others, Thomas MacDonagh, John MacBride, James Connolly and the poet Patrick Pearse were executed… Yeats ended his poem “Easter 1916” with
I write it out in verse– MacDonagh and MacBride And Connolly and Pearse Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
And finally, nowhere has poetry-as-witness served history more eloquently than in the canon of the English poets of World War I. And of those, there seems to be a consensus that Wilfred Owen’s great pacific plea “Dulce et Decorum Est” which translated says cynically, “It is sweet and right to die for your country”…. is the among the finest. Here’s a taste:
…..men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind; Drunk wih fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, oustripped five-niners that dropped behind. Gas! Gas! Quick boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time……
SHAKESPEARE AND THE METAPHYSICIANS
Just to put a hat on it, William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets and 4 “extended poems”…. The plays are all written in dramatic narrative verse, profoundly iambic pentameter. When I was going-on 20 at Antioch College, we mounted the country’s first all-Shakespeare festival trying over four years to do among other things, the entire history cycle from King John to Henry VIII. What stays with me are the great, sweeping verse dramas…the incredible symmetry of the whole thing….an immense poem all mortared up with a thousand little poems. How can we dismiss the thunder and the sweetness of dramatic verse (Greek, Roman or English). Sometimes, almost immortal passages. In another, majestic play, Julius Caesar, Antony speaks over Caesar’s body,
“O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth, That I am meek and gentle with these butchers. Thou art the ruins of the noblest man That ever lived in the tide of times Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood Over thy wounds now do I prophesy…. A curse shall light upon the limbs of men; Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of Italy; Blood and destruction shall be so in use And dreadful objects so familiar That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quartered with the hands of war…. And Caesar’s spirit, raging for revenge With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice Cry “havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.
(Thank you, I’ve always wanted to say that speech but nobody but me would let me……I’m a lousy actor but a pretty good reader.)
Now, a word or two about Shakespeare as a poetry poet….everybody knows the sonnets (mysterious and otherwise) with their final, stunning couplet……but interestingly, the Bard wrote his two most celebrated poems….Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in 1593 and 1594 during the plague which closed the London theatres. Here’s a howdy-do..pure poems were in any case socially preferable to plays…..and Shakespeare stayed afloat financially by dedicating Venus and Adonis to his angel, the Earl of Southhampton.
Poetry as witness once again.
Now, at the beginning of the 17th Century a whole satchel of poets with a savory mix of religion, sex and intellectual curiousity showed up. A little later Sam Johnson, the Samuel Johnson, author of the first definitive British dictionary, called them “the metaphysical poets”. The name can probably be traced to John Dryden who said of John Donne (the pre-eminent of the metaphysics) “He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses where nature only should reign…
What does “affecting the metaphysic” mean? Donne was a towering intellect. A passionate churchman (eventually the Dean of St. Paul’s) he wrote in a style that was characterized by wit, romance and metaphysical speculations….he and his fellows danced from God to the stars to sex…..satanically curious about the physical and philosophical world and at the same time in love with love.
From “The Sun Rising”
“Busy old fool, unruly sun, Why does thou thus,
Through windows and through curtains call on us? Must to thy motions lover’s seasons run? Saucy, pendantic wretch, go chide Late school boys and sour prentices Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride Call country ants to harvest offices
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime Nor hours, days, months which are the rags of time.
The metaphysicians. Old Sam Johnson plucked them, named them….and smiled.
Now I must ask you to indulge me….I will speak, out of order, of three writers who have drawn me into the great and tasteful majesty of poetry at its very best. I am helpless before them.
Oddly, these three 19th Century poets have monopolized much of my adult poetic life…. The three are dramatically different….but much the same as well…. coming as they did in what was supposed to be the romantic century. Instead of sappy Victorian, overdressed stanzas they each turned poetry upside down in their own way and blazed new trails that remain now what one might call the canon law of much modern verse. One was another priest who hopscotched from one form of Catholicism to another. One was a great shambling gay American editor and the third was a little bird of a woman who was in my opinion, one of the best Goddam poets that ever lived.
I must immediately concede that I have no right to explain, attack or celebrate Gerard Manley Hopkins (our priest). I have been a lousy. Jealous advocateat times appalled by the shallow, often obvious intent of his poetry. But then, at the same time, I will take a poem like “Pied Beauty” look around the room and seeing that I was alone…recite it out loud:
“Glory be to God for dappled things For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow. For rose moles all in stipple on trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
So what have we got here? Somebody has blown the language up, dismembered metrics, diminished vowels, but also created a lyric above a lyric…..just listen….
I caught this morning’s minion Kingdom of daylight’s dauphin Dapple dawn drawn Falcon In his riding……..
It soars….it sails on the wings of alliteration….its metrics even got a new name coined by Hopkins, “Sprung Rhythm”…..compressing, wringing the words out of a poem as if it were a washcloth. He wanted to go beyond the iambics and the pentameters — seeking, (he thought) a salvation of the English language.
It was all a poetic coloratura…..always the high notes…sometimes a narrative (The Wreck of the Deutschland), a denunciation (The Caged Skylark) or a ringing tribute to a 17th Century composer….
“Have fair fallen. O fair, fair have fallen, so dear To me, so arch especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell.”
Thus we have Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote interminable sermons and surpassing, sonic poetry.
Around the same time there was a shaggy American from Long Island named Walt Whitman who was equally revolutionary. Ezra Pound (who thought of himself as the Zeus-Critic…the ultimate arbiter of all poetry)….called Whitman “America Itself”.
Walt Whitman, an outspoken, plainspoken patriot and stump-speaker from his earliest poems…. dived somehow into the prose of life and lifted it into a new kind of poetry….it was soon called “free verse”….the only metrics were inside the long gangling sentence-stanzas. This terrible honesty, born of a man who apparently saw it all….found a prosody of his own that would open the gate of our feelings, rough and uncensored, into a rarely-rhymed flow of words that were most often true, ingenious and usually beautiful.
His entire life, his entire body of poetry, ended up a single book. It is called “Leaves of Grass”. He was a brave and worldly man, homosexual at a time that sodomy was a capital crime. Compassionate to a fault……he embraced the full range of suffering and bloodshed of the American civil war… He started the war as a patriot (“Beat! Beat! Drums!” was his call to arms) and ended as a nurse to the wounded…..his years in the hospital tents ultimately recorded in a long chapter of prose and poetry called “Drum Taps”. He was, of course, a poet of witness. You must hear him….again….even if you’ve heard him before. There is a particularly clear, impassioned elegy written on the death of Abraham Lincoln that embodies the freedom of verse, the occasional rhyme and Whitman’s unmatched compassion:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night I mourned and yet shall morn with ever-returning Spring.
Ever-returning spring , trinity sure to me you bring, Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west And thought of him I love.
O powerful western fallen star! O shades of night—-O moody tearful night! O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star! O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me! O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
If you will indulge me…..I would like to add a stanza written by the magnificent Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca almost a century after Whitman’s death….it is from a poem called “Ode to Walt Whitman”
Not for a moment, Walt Whitman, lovely old man have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies, nor your corduroy shoulders frayed by the moon, nor your thighs pure as Apollo’s, nor your voice like a column of ash, old man, beautiful as the mist.
At the very same time….as Whitman ministered to the wounded in the Civil War….cocooned in her bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts a tiny person wearing white from tip to toe was writing graceful and powerful poems. Thus the third of my poetic revolutionaries arrives.
I must immediately say that my love affair with Emily Dickinson is fixed like a star in the sky. She steps through all of life’s challenges , never putting a foot wrong… as she crosses its streams.
I have always admired gentleness in poetry….I can live without Homeric thunder if, from time to time, someone will read to me from one of Emily Dickinson’s one thousand seven hundred and ninety two poems…..
Bring me the sunset in a cup Reckon the morning’s flagons up, And say how many dew. Tell me how far the morning leaps Tell what time the weaver sleeps Who spun the breadths of blue!
Ain’t that poetry? In “breadths of blue”.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst Massachusetts in 1830. She was the daughter and granddaughter of the scholars who planted a peck of colleges and universities in Amherst and its environs. Recently a Broadway show called “The Belle of Amherst” celebrated her ….. badly, I thought, because it was a pastiche of her habits, not her poetry. She was anything but a “belle”.
Emily’s poems were short, intimate evocations of life and nature and her explorations of God and death were sometimes frivolous but more often deep and resonant,
Because I could not stop for Death He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And immortality.
Not a frail, fragile, floating ghost of a girl, Dickinson commanded the English language, rhyming only when it pleased her, creating her own mythology, searching for meaning in everything. In a sense Emily Dickinson spent her entire life searching for Duke Senior’s “sermons in stones.” Much has been made of her apparently celibate life surrounded by the intrigues of her family…but I see her in her tiny room (I was there, by the way)…playing a great organ of words…and pasting those poems into “fascicles”, little sewn-together books that were opened after her death.
Exactly ten of her poems were published in her lifetime.
Emily Dickinson shook poetry to find its essence. She was admired and applauded by both the great abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. And she gave us a dram of peace in the middle of our most savage war:
I went to heaven ‘Twas a small town, Lit with a ruby, Lathed with down. Stiller than the fields At the full dew, Beautiful as pictures No man drew.
And my absolute favorite…. Emily Dickinson, the philosopher-Queen’s advice to a fixed, old world:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant… Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The truth’s superb surprise. As lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind—-
So there you have them….my three rebels….who swept through poetry with their own peculiar brooms…..letting it loose to dance forever.
(with a brief take on sonnets)
We have to come back to the time of “The Romantics”….that hundred or so years that bridged the 18th and 19th Centuries….when group of poets, mostly in England, let loose a passion of poems…. emotional, colloquial.. unlike anything that had been heard in the sensible, orderly intellectually- intense Enlightenment. Percy Shelley, as we will see, author of some of the more powerful poems of the day….honestly believed that poetry should reign supreme in our lives…..in his powerful 14 thousand word essay “A Defense of Poetry” he argued that poetry was a great humanistic engine that “awakens and enlarges the mind” and that poetry “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar….” He even suggests that poetry provides us with a great moral force ….”a going out of our nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person not our own.” Poets, said the young revolutionary, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Thus the usually-grouped “six romantic poets”…..William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon…Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats….set out to change the world each in their own way….Wordsworth to celebrate the pastoral, Coleridge to reconcile nature and man, Byron the indefatigable narrator, Blake the prophet and visionary, the beloved, sensual Keats and the contemplative, almost-epic Shelley.
How to capture this whirlwind? I have chosen two poems as paradigm. Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. The poems are cousins…..both are studies of ancient art…..and both
were written as the Elgin Marbles (shoplifted from Greece) were installed in the British Museum.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” does the most remarkable thing… It grips, holds you in a place of silence….telling you to use your imagination to animate history. Listen:
“Thou unravished bride of quietness, Thou foster child of Silence and Slow Time Sylvan historian, who canst thus express A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme…..
The urn demands an audience, the narrator shouts questions:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape? Of deities or mortals, or of both In tempe or the dales of Arcady? What men or Gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
And finally….Keats gives us the anthem of his generation, the reckoning of the Romantic poets:
When old age shall this generation waste Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe That ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayest ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty….that is all” Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” provides us with another dimension of the romantics….their passion for the fates of history….and in this case, the ravages of time. “Ozymandias” was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II of the 13th Century BC. It is a simple sonnet….here’s the boffo ending…
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It was Shelley’s revolutionary s conviction that leaders who pretend to greatness such as the King of France ( just deposed in the French revolution)…will inevitably be destroyed.
Now….Since we’ve stumbled on a sonnet…a word about sonnets.
Among all he forms of poetry, the sonnet has a special magic, a kind of sanctity and respect. It sits there with its fourteen lines and its manifold rhyme schemes daring any poet since the 13th Century to come forward and master it.
I am one of its victims.
Devised by Giacomo da Lentini, a 13th Century Sicilian poet and teacher and refined by Petrarch and Shakespeare….the sonnet (in both English and Italian) is usually written in Iambic pentameter. The first two quatrains form the “proposition” or “problem” followed by two tercets which suggest a “resolution”. The discipline required to write a sonnet has always been considered its real magic. Just as Aristotle in the Poetics argues stridently for “unities”… special disciplines of time, place and character….the sonnet demands an unyielding rhyme scheme which produces its art, its beauty….and somehow connects us to its love and emotional outpouring. Did you ever notice how the predictable rhyme embraces the reader?
Shakespeare, for example wrote 154 of them….adding a closing couplet. Probably my favorite modern sonneteer is Edna St. Vincent Millay, the much underestimated American poet of the 20s and 30s. She latched onto the sonnet as the ultimate expression of….of passion….and pain. And thus reaches back across a century to the romantics…..
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, I have forgotten, and what arms have lane Under my head till morning: but the rain Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh Upon the glass and listen for reply, And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain For unremembered lads that not again Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. Thus in winter stands a lonely tree Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, Yet knows its boughs more silent than before I cannot say what love has come and gone I only know that summer sang in me A little while, that in me sings no more.
. MY EXOTICS
There is another very special group of three poets that I have been juttered by most of my life…..they don’t really fit anywhere, they just are…. brilliant, irascible, often righteous, dark and stormy. But always changing everything! They are men I have fiercely agreed with and with whom I have just as fiercely disagreed. They are Charles Baudelaire, Robinson Jeffers and Amiri Baraka (nee Leroi Jones).
Baudelaire, as I’m sure you know, was the surpassing 19th Century French poet who broke loose from the Romantics with an entirely original prose-poetry that explored the dark reaches of urban France. Nothing was sacred. His sublime collection of poems “Les Fleurs du Mal” (The Flowers of Evil) are a dance through Hell. John Adams, the composer of “Doctor Atomic” a terrifying opera about the first Atomic bomb, puts Baudelaire squarely in the middle of the horrors of a nuclear world by having the creator of the bomb whisper Baudelaire’s obsession with his lover’s hair as he awaits the countdown.
Proscribing the future…the 20th Century to come….Baudelaire’s cast includes sickly priests, “a lovely woman, richly dressed” who is an “unmarred” whore, the death of the poor, the death of artists and the death of old women,
“Poor wizened spooks, ashamed to be alive you hug the walls, sickly and timorous and no one greets you, no one says goodbye to rubbish ready for eternity.”
But he was also capable of the lucid and the lyric…..here is describing Beethoven:
Music often takes me like the sea and I set out under mist or a transparent sky for my pale star.
I ran before the wind as if I had laid on full sail climbing the mountainous backs of the waves plummeting down.
In darkness, eardrums throbbing as I feel the coming wreck; Fair winds or foul – a raging storm.
Robinson Jeffers captured me some years ago when I was a college punk and left me for dead with his erotic “Roan Stallion” and “Tamar”… set in the astonishingly beautiful Big Sur of Carmel, California where he lived most of his life….poems that startled the literary world with their epic form and were filled with incest, murder and parricide. He ignored meter and insisted his poems were driven by “rolling stresses” not unlike the Sprung Rhythm of Hopkins.
Jeffers, immersed in the ancient aesthetics of Greece, created a modern adaptation of Euripides’ “Medea” which became a huge hit on Broadway starring Dame Judith Anderson.
He and his equally amazing wife Una were passionate enviormentalists who built with their own hands huge stone buildings and “tors” at their Carmel home. Critics like Yvor Winters and Kenneth Rexroth both loved and hated his poetry and he was roundly denounced for his opposition to America’s participation in the Second World War. He wanted us to look squarely at the world through an uncensored lens that abides everything. The pinnacle of his career for me was “Roan Stallion” a sexual-homicidal narrative of a woman and a child and an enormous horse. Although “Roan Stallion” is a lucid and often moving narrative, and although I think it is a powerful and important step in the story of poetry……I cannot find a plausible, acceptable quote that I can repeat here. (see me after the talk)
So I will offer a few lines from a poem called ‘”Vulture”
“I had walked since dawn and lay down on a bare hillside Above the ocean, I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing I understood then That I was under inspection. I lay death still and heard the flight-feathers Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer I could see the naked red head between the great wings Bear downward staring……”
And then there is Amiri Baraka….or as he began, LeRoi Jones. In the middle of the civil rights movement, I stumbled across this gentleman when I met his discarded white wife Hettie. Baraka embodied all of the anger of the black slave holocaust…and mixed it with an incredible literary gift…..he could have been, in my judgement, the equal of Eliot in poetry, and O’Neal in drama. I vividly remember being appalled and moved at the same time as he savaged the civil rights movement as “pacifist” and “integrationist”…. while tryng to lead a literary revolution in Black Arts. “We want poems that kill,” he argued holding that poetry was a “weapon of action” an avenue leading to violence. And yet he lectured at Columbia and Stony Brook, dabbled in Communism and wrote a superb book on jazz criticism. In 2014 he died of natural causes and left the following behind:
I am a meditative man. And when I say something, it is all of me saying, and all the things that make me, have formed me, colored me this brilliant reddish night. I will say nothing that I feel is lie,or unproven by the same ghostclocks, the same riders always move so fast with the word slung over their backs or in saddlebags charging down Chinese roads. I carry some words, some feeling, some life in me. My heart is large as my mind this is a messenger calling, over here, over here, open your eyes and your ears and your souls. today is the history we must learn to desire. There is no guilt in love.
POETRY IN THE 20TH CENTURY
In 1919, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, standing on Matthew Arnolds’s “darkling plain”…this one smeared with the blood and detritus of the First World War, wrote a poem that has almost achieved Biblical standing…”The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer, Things fall apart, the center cannot hold: Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned…. The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkenss drops again, but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking candle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The amazing images….the falcon circling so wide that he cannot hear the call of sanity….the ultimate irony that the Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ will become a beast slouching towards Bethlehem.
Deeper and deeper, the poetry-of-witness continues.
And for me, the ultimate caption of the 20th Century….”the center cannot hold”.
And much more…..nowhere is this 20th Century darkness more profoundly explored than in TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. Eliot, the senior acolyte of Ezra Pound, wrote the poem in 1922 and despite its gripping pessimism (Eliot says it was inspired by Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard”) joins Whitman in opening the “vocabulary” of poetry to include plainspoken dialogue, although confused by dozens of obscure literary and cultural illusions, often abrupt and out of rhythm… but all of it curiously riveting. Eliot espoused Pound’s theory of the“ideographic” basis of poetry …. that poetry, like the Chinese ideogram reduces communication to a simple series of natural icons, things that “everyone knows” that although mixed and tangled together… remain poetic.
“The Waste Land” is a dissonant poem…suggesting a dissonant century made up of dissonant religions and dissonant cultures and literatures. It admonishes the century … witness,
April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land….
I think we are in rat’s alley Where the dead men lost their bones….
When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself HURRY UP PLEASE, ITS TIME!
As I turned the page to the obvious successor to Eliot…..Wystan Hugh Auden….I came upon a grand book-length poem called “The Age of Anxiety” Like Eliot in his “Waste Land”, Auden tried to embrace the world and describe its trauma, its perturbations and lusts in a senseless, confusing transcript of the bugged conversations in a post World War II bar.
Now….it is important that I get this right.
Modern poetry has returned to metaphysics…..but this time without the sanction, the scaffolding of God. It is curious, but often terrifying….Yeat’s anarchy, Eliot’s terror and Auden’s introspection as the four protagonists of The Age of Anxiety flounder about their saloon, talking in an odd old verse form, tetrameter…. in a space where, according to Auden, “nothing particular ever happens”.
Sound familiar? Sartre?
Auden leads one section of the poem with a quote from George Herbert, probably the best of the metaphysical 17th Century poets.: and an echo of modern existentialism.
“A sick tossed vessel, dashing each thing: Nay, his own shelf: My God, I mean myself.
Modern metaphysics. “The Age of Anxiety” is described by four fairly ordinary people…Quant, a clerk….Malin, a Canadian airman, Rosetta, a department store buyer and Emble, a naval recruit. They all sweep through their lives trying explain the impossible….the journey of violence and pretension of the 20th Century. I think Rosetta does it best…..does it sound familiar? Can you hear Yeats?
…………………….Long is the way Of the seven stages, slow the going And few, maybe, are faithful to the end. But all start out with the hope of success Arm in arm with their opposite type, Like dashing Adonis, dressed to kill And worn Wat with his walrus mustache One by one like wandering Jews, Bullet headed bandit, broad churchman Lobbyist, legatee, loud virago Uncle and aunt and alien cousin Mute or Maddening through the maze of time Seek its center, desiring like us The quiet kingdom.
And for most of the 20th Century the gentle black grandson of a slave owner and his slave mistress defined what was called “Negro” poetry, an enriching canon born of the pain and music that bridged the sad and eloquent years before the emancipations of the 1960s. James Mercer Langston Hughes, brilliant and intellectually hungry, travelled the world in the trawler SS Malone, set up poetry shop as an expatriate in England, and worked as busboy in a New York hotel, hung out with Vachel Lindsay and Thurgood Marshall and slowly gained recognition as a truly great American poet….identified as a maestro of the Harlem Renaissance. He called it as he saw it……here, from his “Weary Blues”
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon I heard a Negro play. Down on Lenox Avenue the other night By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light He did a lazy sway… He did a lazy sway… To the tune of those o’ weary blues With his ebony hands on each ivory keiy He made that poor piano moan with melody. O blues! Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Well, it’s about time. I should know something about these poets, most of them were born about the same time as I was. They were a unhinged lot…who gathered in 1950 at Columbia University of all places (where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg first met) and busted all the rules, smoked anything that could be inhaled, drank and screamed and yet manfully threw open all the doors of a clipped, inhibited post-war society. America was clearing its throat.
By 1955 they had migrated to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco where Ginsberg wrote his epochal poem “Howl”:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for a fix, Angleheaded hispsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smok- ing in the supernatural darkness of cold water flats floating across the tops of elites contemplating jazz, who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mo- hammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes halluci- nating Arkasas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war.”
There were obscenity trials, the huge success of Kerouac’s ubiquitous “On the Road”, and drugs…everywhere drugs. Despite their denouncing of contemporary poetry….Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs…all ultimately acknowledged the tactical paternity of a just-prior generation, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and even the stiffly-dressed banker TS Eliot. And it is important, historically, to remind ourselves that the Beats were the literary preface to the Hipppies and Yippies and hip hops who a couple of years later took American politics to the streets of Chicago.
In a loose-limbed sort of way, my view of poetry has followed the bumps and bruises of my life. This is especially true in the middle nineteen Sixties when I was trying to drink myself to death in the twilight of the civil rights movement…usually in the CORE office down on Park Row across from the New York City town hall.
Every week or so, a young black man….maybe 12 to 15 years old….would show up (always from the south) with his attending “uncles” and burst into an act called a “rap” …… a long, rhythmic monologue with a thundering beat. It was powerful stuff, filled with “down home” poetry and at that stage, remarkably sane and civil. It was the voice of a “slave silenced” people denied written literacy. It was inevitable…..with its roots in the rhythmic stories of tribal West Africa.
It wasn’t long before these “raps” were propelled into a major “musical-poetic” form, appearing everywhere….
Give or take a couple of years (we’re talking 1968-70 now) rap exploded carrying its own cultural discipline, “hip-hop”….which moved its fierce, repetitive patter towards the political and often offensively violent content….. and needless to say into a hugely commercially successful recording industry making a platoon of milliobsseonaires like DJ Kool Herc, Too Short, Jay Z, Ice Cube, Snoop Dog. When asked recently, a rap artist explained the difference between rap and hip-hop. “Rap is what we say….Hip-Hop is who we are.” Go figure. It is easy to dismiss rap and hip-hop as a passing ethnic obsession……but it is everywhere, imbedded in our lives, our dance, even our precious history…..very recently a hip-hop musical, “Hamilton” literally captured Broadway with its hysterical dances and its sobering insights, laced in poetry.
Remember we started on the shore of that African lake with people practicing with their new hyoid bone….From Gilgamesh to Snoop Dog…..with Shakespeare at the conn….poetry rises and falls from the sublime to the absurd….blazing music into the language…giving us touchstones, beautiful cairns of sentiment and insight…making our life worth living.
Even something for this old man….a welcome challenge from Dylan Thomas and our final….our favorite poem:
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage rage against the dying of the light
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have dance in the green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Val Coleman June 11, 2016