Thursday, May 19, 2011

This is just to say...

            that this anthology
            is longer
            than I had

            and which
you were probably
hoping you could read
over breakfast

            Forgive me
            my comments are endless
            so long

            and so serious  

A big thank you to those who have followed this series of close readings of poems on the blog, as well as those who may have dipped in on occasion.

Naturally, there were many other poems I would have liked to have written about, but to take this further might try even a generous blog readers patience. It’s interesting to look back and see what poems I found myself looking at. Obviously, I decided to write about 20th century poetry and not the work of earlier poets or, indeed, my peers. I am quite surprised at the amount of mid-century American poems here. I also think that British poetry is quite under-represented in this list. (One of the first poetry anthologies I came across was Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 which was also a very formative experience.) I'm also mindful that the list isn't entirely balanced in terms of either traditions and gender, though I hope this doesn't reflect anything ingrained. These are simply poems that made an impact on me along the way.

In any case, here are some of the poets and poems I would loved to have analysed and shared, but didn’t get around to or was too intimidated by. Here they are:

T.S. Eliot                                ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
e.e. cummings                        ‘my sweet old etcetera’
W.H Auden                             ‘On This Island’                     
Keith Douglas                         ‘Vergissmeinnicht’
Elizabeth Bishop                     ‘Crusoe in England’
W.D. Snodgrass                      ‘Heart’s Needle’
Lawrence Ferlinghetti               ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’
Edward Lucie-Smith                 ‘Lovers’
Philip Larkin                             ‘High Windows’
Gwyneth Lewis                        ‘Zero Gravity’
Brendan Kennelly                     ‘We Are Living’
Thomas Kinsella                       ‘Phoenix Park’
Guillevic                                   from ‘Carnac’
John Montague                        ‘Moortown Manor’
Patrick Galvin                          ‘The Kings Are Out’
Carol Ann Duffy                       ‘Telegrams’
Charles Simic                           ‘Euclid Avenue’
Tony Harrison                           ‘V’
Paula Meehan                          ‘Take a Breath. Hold It. Let it Go’

There are, of course, many more. I’m sure you could compile your own, and entirely different, list!

'Epilogue' by Robert Lowell (1977)


                  Those bless├Ęd structures, plot and rhyme –
                        why are they no help to me now
                        I want to make
                        something imagined, not recalled?
                        I hear the noise of my own voice:
                        The painter’s vision is not the lens,
                        it trembles to caress the light.
                        But sometimes everything I write
                        with the threadbare art of my eye
                        seems a snapshot,
                        lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
                        heightened from life,
                        yet paralysed by fact.
                        All’s misalliance.
                        Yet why not say what happened?
                        Pray for the grace of accuracy
                        Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
                        stealing like a tide across the map
                        to his girl solid with yearning.
                        We are poor passing facts,
                        warned by that to give
                        each figure in the photograph
                        his living name.


In one way the fact that there is only one Lowell poem in this selection is grossly unrepresentative. I came to Lowell at a point when I wasn’t sure what a poem should be, and I suppose in his work I saw how form was not the same as conformity or whatever other notions I was carrying around in my head at the time. After the impressionistic and entirely self-referential poems I was writing, this was something of a revelation, and I think the choice of poems I have made her is the legacy of reading Lowell’s work, in one sense.

So, I could say a lot more about him but in a way it seems apt to give him the last word with a poem that was one of the last he wrote, if not the last. Lowell’s reputation has seemed to decrease by increments on this side of the Atlantic in the decades since his death. Partly, I think this is as a result of his label of 'confessional' poet and perhaps also the father of Boston confessionalism. Really though, it was W.D. Snodgrass who got there first with his poems about marital breakdown in Heart’s Needle, but Lowell touched on the far more taboo subject in his writing about mental breakdown. It’s strange to think now why such subjects were so controversial only a generation ago, though perhaps they are even today in our more ‘open’ society.

I think people are right, in a sense, to be suspicious of confessionalism and the way it spawned a whole cottage industry of angst-ridden pseudo-poetry (poetry as therapy, almost). At the same time, the forthrightness of expression all poets are allowed now wouldn’t be possible without it. We have become so used to being able to write on any subject that we take it for granted.

In his introduction to the Selected Poems (amazing really that a collected only came out this side of the Atlantic in 2003) Jonathan Raban argues that Lowell was really a poet of candour rather than of confession (as I'm sure others who came after him could also claim). For me, what makes Lowell as such a poet is that he had the sense to see his mania for what it was (and the grandiose schemes it sometimes produced such as rewriting Dante) and wrote about his madness after the fact. I think he bestows such poems with a dignity and restraint not always observed in his own work or others - what he calls here “the grace of accuracy”. A large part of that is found in the formal elegance he brings to bear on poems such as ‘Skunk Hour’, ‘Waking in the Blue’ or ‘Home After Three Months Away’ (“I keep no rank or station./ Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.”)

‘Epilogue’ is his own self-defense, I suppose. He seems to want to break away from the pressure of autobiography but hears only “the noise of my own voice”, the word “noise” here suggesting his own frustration that he cannot escape himself. The poem is a debate that turns on the question, “Yet, why not say what happened?” It is a struggle between the real and the desire to escape it – or at least to write beyond your own experience. Again, those last lines are what distinguishes him from being a poet of pure confession. He is also, I think, compassionate here – aware not just of the nature of his own suffering but of suffering in general:

                                    We are poor passing facts,
                                    warned by this to give
                                    each figure in the photograph
                                    his living name.

I think it was apt that Lowell should end his career with these lines as he would pass – very soon after writing them – into one of the figures in the photograph he describes, though perhaps as much a “poor passing myth” as a “poor passing fact”.

Here is Lowell reading 'Epilogue'

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'Encounter' by Czeslaw Milosz (1936)

                   We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn
                        A red wing rose in the darkness.

                        And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
                        One of us pointed to it with his hand.

                        That was long ago. Today, neither of them is alive,
                        Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

                        O my love, where are they, where are they going
                        The flash of hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
                        I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

                        trans: Czeslaw Milosz & Lillian Vallee


It is extraordinary that ‘Encounter’ is separated by 35 years from Milosz’s poem ‘Gift’ (the piece I started these reflections with) and yet seems to have so much in common with it. It is as though ‘Gift’ closes a small circle in his work which, for me, is more successful than the large orbits of his other grander pieces. With ‘Encounter’ he makes use of the same simple and direct style as found in the later poem. And like that poem, it is incredible how far he takes the reader in such a short interval.

The one feature that clearly distinguishes the two poems is the time-frame in which the poem exists and this difference gives rise to a difference in form. ‘Gift’ is one moment, and that moment is lived through in one stanza which holds it together. That poem does have a simple sequential quality, but it is not just a sequence of events – it is a sequence of images and feelings.

With ‘Encounter’ Milosz is dealing with memory and events separated by a great gap in time – or perhaps more correctly, the one event looked at twice from different times. And this event is not so much one moment but one moment interrupted by a happening – the quiet monotonous motion of the wagon and the thoughts of those travelling on it, jolted as a hare flashes across the road in front of them.

Just as the hare’s sudden presence interrupts the travellers’ awareness, the poem interrupts the awareness of the reader by its sudden shift in time: “That was long ago.” It is interesting that this fracture in the time-frame is quite similar to that used in Robert Creeley’s ‘The Long Road…’ (which I looked at last week) when he writes in a plain manner, “We all grew up”. And in both poems the following lines makes clear the nature of that fracture: the events that have occurred in between that moment in the wagon and the point of recollection. In both cases it is really death that has happened.

To extend the comparison further, the two poems – having created this shift in time and perspective – resolve the implications of it differently. For Creeley, there is the expected sense of longing and, even more directly, anxiety in the line:

                                    Where are they now?

It is significant that the poem hangs on a question. With Milosz, the effect would’ve been the same had he ended the poem on the third last line, with his question:

                                     O my love, where are they (?)…

While he doesn’t attempt an explicit answer to this question he does qualify it with the last line:

                                    I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

So where Creeley’s poem ends with the hint of the existential, Milosz finds a kind of mystery which cannot be understood, but hides behind such moments. It is as though the hare has become a symbol for the unexpected and ultimately life enforcing nature of existence. Yet, there is also a hint of uncertainty, I think. The fact that the last line must explicitly state his feeling might suggest that it is a conscious movement towards hope. And that movement, sudden like the hare’s, inverts the meaning. Perhaps hope is just that: an inversion of our expectation and experience.

Here's a wonderful feature length celebration of Milosz's work at UC Berkeley, introduced by poet Robert Haas.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'The Long Road' by Robert Creeley (1996)

                  The Long Road…
                  The long road of it all
                        is an echo
                        a sound like an image
                        expanding, frames growing
                        one after another in ascending
                        or descending order, all
                        of us a rising, falling
                        thought, an explosion
                        of emptiness soon forgotten


                        As a kid I wondered
                        where do they go,
                        my father dead. The place
                        had a faded dustiness
                        despite the woods and all.
                        We grew up.
                        I see our faces
                        in old school pictures.
                        Where are we now?

Creeley is perhaps one of the few poets who has taken the best (and most experimental) elements of modernist poets such as E.E. Cummins’ and made them his own. The influence is quite concealed here but the metaphor “is an echo/ a sound like an image/ expanding” has shades of Cummings’ confusion of the senses technique. Although Cummings was one of the first poets who I felt genuine excitement reading, the difficulty of his work (particularly the later work) is that the methodology tends to confuse rather than illuminate, and his poems often become a cryptic language puzzle that only the author knows the answers to. While Creeley's work is often fragmentary, it doesn’t make this mistake. The opening stanza is certainly abstract and tricksy, but it does make sense.

Again, the poem offers solutions to the problem of containing both abstract thought and the image in a poem. Creeley starts here with the concrete “the long road…” but immediately suggests that this as a metaphor “…of it all”. The poem then dives into a series of shifting images/metaphors till we reach “thought, an explosion/ of emptiness soon forgotten”. The language has a strange poetic quality but the deciding impression is of a philosophical kind.

Then the sudden break as the second section begins: “As a kid I wondered…” The poem is now concrete, personal, memoried. This section, in contrast, dramatizes the first through a series of questions: the human aspect and response to the opening philosophical considerations.

What is remarkable, though, is how much he says in this short stanza. There are two clear “beats” to borrow a cinematic term. The first comes with “… my father dead”. The line is simple yet it evokes the world of a child emptied of the secure presence of his father. Even the woods offer no consolation against “the faded dustiness”. The child is alone, and realises he will always be alone. Then the second beat comes with the line “We all grew up”. The discontinuity suggested by death is echoed in the sudden leap in time with the implication that the loss continues, goes on. Then the two times are encapsulated in the image of the man looking at his own past in the monochrome of old photographs. “Where are they now?” a question containing more than an explanation can manage.

You can download Robert Creeley reading 'The Long Road' (and four other pieces) at the University of Pennsylvania poetry microsite:

Here's an interesting video clip of Creeley reading a reinterpretation of a poem by Lorca.