Friday, February 25, 2011

'Les Sylphides' by Louis MacNeice (1939)

Les Sylphides
Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet;
                        Being shortsighted himself could hardly see it –
                                    The white skirts in the grey
                                    Glade and the swell of the music
                                    Lifting the white sails.

                        Calyx upon calyx, Canterbury bells in the breeze
                        The flowers on the left mirrored to the flowers on the right
                                    And the naked arms above
                                    The powdered faces moving
                                    Like seaweed in a pool.

                        Now, he thought, we are floating – ageless, oarless –
                        Now there is no separation, from now on
                                    You will be wearing white
                                    Satin and a red sash
                                    Under the waltzing trees.

                        But the music stopped, the dancers took their curtain,
                        The river had come to a lock – a shuffle of programmes –
                                    And we cannot continue down
                                    Stream unless we are ready
                                    To enter the lock and drop.

                        So they were married – to be the more together –
                        And found that they were never again so much together,
                                    Divided by the morning tea,
                                    By the evening paper,
                                    The children and the tradesmen’s bills.

                        Waking at times in the night she found assurance
                        Due to his regular breathing but wondered whether
                                    It was really worth it and where
                                    The river had flowed away
                                    And where were the white flowers.

After the restrained tenderness of Thomas' 'A Marriage', it's interesting to come to a Louis MacNeice poem like ‘Les Sylphides’, which again deals with the duration of marriage in a short space. Although MacNeice plays with romantic images (“he took his girl to the ballet”) he quickly undermines what is to happen with a classic MacNeice touch, “Being short-sighted himself he could hardly see it”. Still the poem then turns this around and makes this short-sightedness act as a kind of impressionistic filter through which the ballet becomes something blurred but beautiful, and the imagination of the man fills in the gaps and invents his own ballet “under the waltzing trees”.

But the poem starts with the phase “life in a day” and the end of the romance begins with the phrase, “but the music stopped” and almost by implication, “so they were married”. Real life enters and love disappears in the complications of domestic life. I think it is a bit odd that MacNeice shifts the point of view in the last stanza from that of the man/husband to that of his wife. I’m not sure that that change of perspective is really necessary since it was he who had imagined the river and the flowers at the ballet. Maybe, MacNeice also wants to suggest that the “life in a day” applies equally to her, that his disappointment is hers also. But they cannot talk about this, locked as they are in the habit and routine of their separate emotional lives. Still, it feels like a failure of perspective to me. It is he who imagined 'the waltzing' trees... 

‘Les Sylphides’ is a powerful poem about disappointment. It has the sense of world-weariness that MacNeice was so good at. I think – and this is really why I picked the poem – the use of the third person strategy is very powerful here and not used very often in poetry, especially compared to fiction. The only other poets who I can think of who used it regularly were John Berryman in the Dreamsongs, and Weldon Kees in the poems based around the character, Robinson.

In an obvious sense the third person is a distancing device. But it is precisely because of this that I think it is excellent and astute for handling emotional intense material with a sense of (sometimes) ironic distance. This distance suggests the level of pain, disappointment and finally alienation that MacNeice is after. “Life in a day,” when viewed from the end of the poem is quite devastating. This life, this marriage can be summed up in one day, in terms of the conceit of the poem itself. It’s as if after this, the promise of love slipped away in the routines and habits of a failed marriage - at least as explored between these two people as MacNeice frames it.

The poem also works quite well if shifted to the first person (though the move in perspective in  the last stanza would have to be changed). That said, the “he”, “she” and “they” make the poem more universal - again through a kind of distancing and at the same time acting as a kind of masking device for the private self. It also gives MacNeice the freedom to move perspective as he does here in the last stanza, though I still wonder about the merits of this, as mentioned above. He has established a firm point of view throughout the poem, so it seems strange to move it to another, in terms of the internal logic of the piece.

Still, it is a beguiling poem of slow-motion jadedness; how lives can slip away as we watch them unfolding before us. As in the Kees and Berryman poems mentioned earlier, the key element here is that of of a form of displacement from something that is maybe too personal to something made more universal through the creation of a character (or alter ego) to express inner psychological drama.

Friday, February 18, 2011

'A Marriage' by R.S. Thomas (1992)

            A Marriage
We met
                                    under a shower
                        of bird-notes.
                                    Fifty years passed,
                        love’s moment
                                    in a world in
                        servitude to time.
                                    She was young;
                        I kissed with my eyes
                                    closed and opened
                        them on her wrinkles.
                                    ‘Come,’ said death,
                        choosing her as his
                                    partner for
                        the last dance. And she
                                    who in life
                        had done everything
                                    with a bird’s grace,
                        opened her bill now
                                    for the shedding
                        of one sigh no
                                    heavier than a feather.

I took a long time to get to R.S. Thomas. I must admit I was largely prejudiced by his occupation as a vicar in rural Wales, assuming (tamely) that he wrote pastoral poems with a vaguely uplifting religious message as a consequence. When I opened the pages of his selected poems my lazy stereotyping was rapidly dismissed, and I have come to think of him as one of the greatest metaphysical poets of all ages, in a time when there are very few at work. The extraordinary thing is how short most of his poems are, yet the standard is so consistently high; even poems that don’t appear to be going anywhere then just suddenly open up with a single phrase or sentence.

Thomas is not a poet given over to easy emotion but he has, nonetheless, written some moving love poems and ‘A Marriage’ is one of the best of them. I love the way he uses the innocent image of the young man closing his eyes to kiss his young wife then opening them on her old age. It is an amazingly simple device but startling in how it reveals both the passage of time and the endurance of their marriage. Heartbreaking also, given that the poem is, finally, about his wife's death, she... 'no heavier than a feather'.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

'Wodwo' by Ted Hughes & 'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
                        Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
                        I enter water. What am I to split
                        The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
                        Of the river above me upside down very clear
                        What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
                        this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
                        interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
                        know me and name me to each other have they
                        seen me before, do I fit in their world? I seem
                        separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
                        out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
                        fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
                        I seem to have been given the freedom
                        of this place what am I then? And picking
                        bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
                        no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
                        me and doing that have coincided very queerly
                        But what shall I be called am I the first
                        have I an owner what shape am I what
                        shape am I am I huge if I go
                        to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
                        till get tired that’s touching one wall of me
                        for the moment if I sit still how everything
                        stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
                        but there’s all this what is it roots
                        roots roots roots and here the water
                        again quite queer but I’ll go on looking

                        I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
                        Whatever I see I swallow completely
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish.

I had originally seen no connection between ‘Wodwo’ by Ted Hughes and the piece ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath and only spotted it when I put the poems side by side. In many ways they are total opposites: one is anthropological, located as it is in the mud and water of a primeval forest; the other, an object-poem using the setting of a mirror on the wall of an suburban home. Yet, both poems are really about consciousness coming into being.

Hughes gives us this almost in a literal sense. Wodwo is a term used in late medieval mythology and represents a mythical ‘wild man’ figure who lives in the forest. In Hughes’ hands though, he feels more like an ancient ancestor, a kind of Peking Man chancing upon his own reflection for the first time in a river pool as he “noses about” by the bank. There is the distinct fusion of the animal and the human that you find in many Hughes poems, but here it is more than metaphor. It is literally true. Wodwo is part-animal, part-human. Of course, there is a weird conceit at work because this creature is endowed with a complex language he wouldn’t possess, but Hughes plays against this by breaking down the rules of grammar and punctuation to suggest the primitive. But more importantly, it is Wodwo’s perceptions that are profound because they are so defamiliarized (“Do these weeds/ know me and name me to each other have they/ seen me before, do I fit in their world?”) and heightened by his own puzzlement at his situation (which is surely the stamp of self awareness like the why, why, why of the seven year old child).

Plath’s poem does something similar. The mirror is like a blank screen that just records what it sees without investment: “I am silver and exact… I am not cruel only truthful.” In a way that is a perfect statement of alienation, but this mirror is also becoming awake (more, I think, like a computer becoming aware of itself but is unable to move and has, as a consequence, simply meditated on the wall opposite for so long that “I think it has become part of my heart.”). 

The mirror is also like the river in Hughes poem (a surface for reflection and defamiliar-ization) and the poem takes up this metaphor in the second half as the mirror (the blank, disinterested mind) becomes suddenly real and animate as “a woman bends over me,/ searching my reaches for what she really is”. The way the mirror records the entire life of this woman as “each morning her face replaces the darkness” is a stunning shift in perspective and the poem goes from being a meditation on a wall to that of a whole life.

I’m sure at the bottom of both poems is some kind of process of psychological distancing or some such. The thing though that raises both pieces above any kind of verse psychology is the fact that Hughes and Plath have employed incredibly rich conceits to convey perceptions and ideas that would be difficult to put into a traditional lyric poem. I think, both poems are probably about two minds trying to put themselves together. That, in a way, that we are always doing this; that we too are blank and also at the river’s edge seeing our face for the first time and wondering what it is there for.

It is only as I wrote this piece that I noticed both poems were published in the same year: 1962.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

'Music Lesson' by Mary Oliver (1978)

                        Sometimes, in the middle of the lesson,
                        we exchanges places. She would gaze a moment at her hands
                        spread over the keys; then the small house with its knickknacks,
                        its shut windows,

                        its photographs of her sons and the serious husband,
                        vanished as new shapes formed. Sound
                        became music, and music a white
                        scarp for the listener to climb

                        alone. I leaped rock over rock to the top
                        and found myself waiting, transformed,
                        and still she played, her eyes luminous and willful,
                        her pinned hair falling down –

                        forgetting me, the house, the neat green yard,
                        she fled in that lick of flame all tedious bonds:
                        supper, the duties of flesh and home,
                        the knife at the throat, the death in the metronome.

When I read this poem for the first time one line – the moment it appears, its timing – became a kind of music lesson in itself:

                                    her pinned hair falling down

Again, like the ending of the Milosz poem, it is seamless way in which the poem moves between the actual and the metaphoric; the real and the reflective. 

The poem opens with the image of the music teacher sitting at the piano “her hands / spread out over the keys”. As the music teacher plays, the student (the speaker) drifts off into a dream-image of white scarp suggested by the music. Then as she reaches the summit in her reverie, the poem returns to the room: “and still she played, her eyes luminous and willful” (note the word 'willful'). And then the detail:

                                    her pinned hair falling down

This is more than just showing a particular. It is the particular detail that is most suggestive of the themes of the poem: how the music teacher – lost in her lonely, loveless and ordered life – finds expression in her music, an intimacy that exists nowhere else in “the small house with its knickknacks/ its shut windows”.

The last stanza simple develops what is already given in this image: that this fastidious woman, in the tidy world of the suburb, plays music to escape the entrapment of her life, to allow for a moment of passion to be present. (Oliver calls this “the death in the metronome” hinting perhaps at a displaced sexual, or at least, sensual aspect in the act of playing.)

Another interesting device (which she uses twice) is the transition from the image of the teacher and student sitting at the piano, to an awareness of the 'house', which in both cases has disappeared from the mind of the piano teacher. The small house with its knickknacks and photographs slips away from her for the few minutes in which she can lose herself in music. It acts like a slow pan-shot in cinema. Later, Oliver repeats, “forgetting me, the house, the neat yard…” Although these things are precisely what the teacher has become unaware of as she plays, their physical presence in the poem creates a counterpoint and tension upon which the central theme of frustrated passion is expressed, as "her pinned hair" falls down.