Saturday, August 9, 2008
James Honeyman – W.H. Auden
James Honeyman was a silent child;
He didn’t laugh or cry:
He looked at his mother
Mother came to the nursery,
Peeped through the open door,
Saw him striking matches,
Sitting on the nursery floor.
He went to the children’s party.
The buns were full of cream,
Sat there dissolving sugar
In his tea-cup in a dream.
On his eighth birthday
Didn’t care that the day was wet,
For by his bedside
Lay a ten-shilling chemistry set.
Teacher said: “James Honeyman
Is the cleverest boy we’ve had,
But he doesn’t play with the others,
And that, I think, is sad.”
While the other boys played football,
He worked in the laboratory,
Got a scholarship to college
And a first-class degree,
Kept awake with black coffee,
Took to wearing glasses,
Writing a thesis
On the toxic gases,
Went out into the country,
Went by a Green Line bus,
Walked upon the Chilterns,
Thought about phosphorus,
Said: “Lewisite in its day
Was pretty decent stuff,
But, under modern conditions,
It’s not nearly strong enough.”
His tutor sipped his port,
Said: “I think it’s clear
That young James Honeyman’s
The most brilliant man of the year.”
He got a job in research
With Imperial Alkali,
Said to himself while shaving:
“I’ll be famous before I die.”
His landlady said: “Mr Honeyman
You’ve only got one life,
You ought to have some fun, Sir,
You ought to find a wife.”
At Imperial Alkali
There was a girl called Doreen,
One day she cut her finger,
Asked him for some iodine.
“I’m feeling faint,” she said.
He led her to a chair,
Fetched her a glass of water,
Wanted to stroke her hair.
They took a villa on the Great West Road,
Painted green and white;
On their left a United Dairy,
A cinema on their right.
At the bottom of the garden
He built a little shed.
“He’s going to blow us up,”
All the neighbors said.
Doreen called down at midnight:
“Jim, dear, it’s time for bed.”
“I’ll finish my experiment,
And then I’ll come,” he said.
Caught influenza at Christmas.
The doctor said: “Go to bed.”
“I’ll finish my experiment,
And then I’ll go,” he said.
Walked out on Sundays,
Helped to push the pram,
Said: “I’m looking for a gas, dear,
A whiff will kill a man.
“I’m going to find it,
That’s what I’m going to do.”
Doreen squeezed his hand and said:
“Jim, I believe in you.”
In the hot nights of summer,
When the roses all were red,
James Honeyman was working
In his little garden shed.
Came upstairs at midnight,
Kissed his sleeping son,
Help up a sealed glass test-tube,
Said: “Look, Doreen, I’ve won!”
They stood together by the window,
The moon was bright and clear.
He said: “At last I’ve done something
That’s worthy of you, dear.”
He took a train next morning,
Went up to Whitehall
With the phial in his pocket
To show it to them all.
He sent in his card,
The officials only swore:
“Tell him we’re very busy
And show him the door.”
Doreen said to the neighbors:
“Isn’t it a shame!
My husband’s so clever,
And they didn’t know his name.”
One neighbor was sympathetic,
Her name was Mrs Flower:
She was the agent
Of a Foreign Power.
One evening they sat at supper,
There came a gentle knock:
“A gentleman to see Mr Honeyman.”
He stayed till eleven o’clock.
They walked down the garden together,
Down to the little shed:
“We’ll see you, then, in Paris,
Good night,” the gentleman said.
The boat was nearing Dover,
He looked back at Calais,
Said: “Honeyman’s N.P.C.
Will be heard of some day.”
He was sitting in the garden,
Writing notes on a pad:
Their little son was playing
Round his Mum and Dad.
Suddenly out of the east
Some aeroplanes appeared.
Somebody screamed: “They’re bombers!
War must have been declared!”
The first bomb hit the Dairy,
The second the cinema,
The third fell in the garden
Just like a falling star.
“O kiss me, Mother, kiss me,
And tuck me up in bed,
For Daddy’s invention
Is going to choke me dead!”
“Where are you, Jim, where are you?
O put your arms around me,
For my lungs are full
Of Honeyman’s N.P.C.!”
“I wish I were a salmon,
Swimming in the sea,
I wish I were the dove
That coos upon the tree.”
“O you are not a salmon,
O you are not a dove:
But you invented the vapour
That is killing those you love.”
“O hide me in the mountains,
O drown me in the sea:
Lock me in a dungeon
And throw away the key.”
“O you can’t hide in the mountains,
O you can’t drown in the sea,
But you must die, and you know why,
By Honeyman’s N.P.C!”
While the posts may eventually be shorter, this poem is the longest I’ve posted so far, yet its length is slightly irrelevant, given its simplistic diction, short lines and stanzas, and tripping rhythms. Its simplicity clashes ironically with its content, however, in a way that is reminiscent of Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” my inaugural poem. Larkin smacked you right across the face with his dark content, but Auden delays the darkness over the course of this longer poem. For the opening quarter of the poem, the content of this poem suits its simple structure. It looks, sounds, and reads like a nursery rhyme. Only later on does Auden start turning the knife, gradually pulling away the curtain that hides his monstrosity from view.
Part of the fun is that any vaguely intelligent reader has an experience akin to an audience member at a Greek tragedy: he is one step ahead of the clueless protagonist at all times. While potentially frustrating, it’s a technique that hooks the reader/audience member and keeps him engaged.
Before taking a closer look, I wanted to gloss a few terms:
Great West Road – A main road that runs west from Chiswick towards what is now the M4
motorway and Heathrow Airport. It’s an apt choice for Honeyman’s house because it was the sight of a great deal of local industry in the early twentieth century. Londoners and frequent visitors may remember the Lucozade sign that graced what used to be the Lucozade factory on the north side of the road.
Imperial Alkali – Not, from what I can tell, a real company, but relevant or its proper adjective “Imperial.” Honeyman works at a company whose name refers to the British Empire, yet Honeyman’s best work is used by the “Foreign Power.”
Whitehall – A road in Central London popular for the government offices located there. Hence the word is used metonymically here: Whitehall stands for the offices located on Whitehall.
One reason for discussing this poem this week is that I am planning to teach it to my students this year. Apart from the simplistic structure and diction mentioned above, the poem jumps out at me as a minefield of irony. This is a concept I had difficulty teaching last year, and I hope that the use of this poem will ease my troubles. But before I teach anyone about irony, I’m still figuring out its nuances myself. The different types of irony, for example, seem to lack much in the way of exclusivity. Like too much of the study of literature, the types of irony are manifold and complex. I have come across verbal, tragic, comic, dramatic, cosmic, situational, and proleptic irony, as well as the irony of expectations. A Venn Diagram of these terms would certainly be complex. Nonetheless, I will tackle it as best as I can.
I’ve already mentioned two ironies that occur in this poem. First of all, the easygoing diction, structure, and rhythm of this poem clash with its profound content. The clashing of diction with meaning appears to fit quite comfortably within the category of verbal irony, and I would argue that structure and rhythm could sit somewhere on the periphery. Secondly, the reader is aware of the dangers of Honeyman’s creation before he is. This seems to be tragic irony, as Honeyman is furthering his career to his success, whilst the reader sees that his determination will lead to a demise (we don’t really know it will lead to his demise). This leads to and perhaps overlaps with the biggie: the protagonist’s invention being used against him. I’m not exactly sure what category this fits into, but it has become old hat now, more commonly seen in cartoons than in poems.
One such cartoon would be the recent Pixar film Wall-E. For a darker version, see 2001 Space Odyssey. Both share the role of cautionary tale, warning against technology’s rapid advancement. Auden’s poem serves a more delicate purpose. Written in 1937, it might be seen as a reaction to World War One and a caution against World War Two. Specifically, its ending predicts the Nazi bombings of London and other English cities. I suppose that might be some form of historical irony which Auden would have bemoaned.
Just like 2001 Space Odyssey, “James Honeyman” contains scattered clues of its horrible ending. Honeyman’s family life in particular clearly takes a back seat to his profession. He only meets his wife through her injury at Imperial Alkali (an event that in part foreshadows the poem’s ending). Mention of his son is surreptitious and secondary to his scientific progress. In two nearby stanzas, the second line acknowledges the existence of a child, but does not bring it to the forefront. First we have simply: “Helped to push the pram.” Later on, we are told that he “Kissed his sleeping son.” Then of course, the neighbors think he is going to blow them up, but their statement, intended lightheartedly, also carries an ironic punch. Then we have the ominous “Foreign Power.” The mention of Calais might suggest that this is France, but either way, the lack of specification indicates that the truth is hidden from Honeyman, that this operation is covert in nature.
Ultimately, Honeyman’s outsider status is his downfall. He wasn’t a sociable child, and perhaps if he had found a social life, he would have been too busy to invent his infernal N.P.C. Finally, his downfall is complete with his completely cowardly behavior undercut by his wife’s urgent mimicry. He is still the same odd child playing with the chemistry set, and he lacks the adult (and, as Auden might argue, masculine) wherewithal to handle this situation. Instead he tries to find his happy place. If only he were an English major, then things might have turned out alright.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Yet these plans are still made; the dates penciled in on our calendars. Do certain aspects of our life tie us down? Of course. They stop us from doing the things we want most to be doing. Sometimes we throw caution – and the title of adult – to the wind; we indulge on a weeknight, we ignore the deadline. But there remains a critical mass of free time. We have not yet made partner; we do not yet have children; we do not yet pay mortgages. These things will enter our lives and we will welcome them (well, maybe not the mortgages), as we should. Yet be aware that they will come with their impingement on our free time: our hikes in the woods, our softball leagues, and our favorite blogs (ahem) may face neglect or fall by the wayside altogether.
So, with less and less free time on our hands, it is essential that we are doing something that we love. I’m about eighty percent sure that I am. In 1814, John Keats was not. (Finally, you say, we’re going to get to the poem!). Keats was 19, living in London, and studying medicine. Increasingly, his attentions turned from medicine to literature, with the result of his first published poem in 1816. He went on to write some of the most acclaimed poetry ever produced in England, and he became the figurehead of literature’s Romantic movement.
Keats died shortly thereafter, not yet 26 years of age. To the left of my keyboard sits the Penguin Classics edition of his Complete Poems. It is heftier than Larkin’s, yet produced in a fraction of the time (seven years as opposed to forty five). What fills most of its pages, especially the earlier ones, is a sense of pure vitality. The poem that follows focuses on themes of friendship, inspiration, and the natural world. It is addressed to a peer of Keats’, who later remarked on Keats’ vivacious spirit and how it overshadowed his own morose one.
To George Felton Mathew – John Keats
Sweet are the pleasures that to verse belong,
And doubly sweet a brotherhood in song;
Nor can remembrance, Mathew! bring to view
A fate more pleasing, a delight more true
Than that in which the brother Poets joy'd,
Who with combined powers, their wit employ'd
To raise a trophy to the drama's muses.
The thought of this great partnership diffuses
Over the genius loving heart, a feeling
Of all that's high, and great, and good, and healing.
Too partial friend! fain would I follow thee
Past each horizon of fine poesy;
Fain would I echo back each pleasant note
As o'er Sicilian seas, clear anthems float
'Mong the light skimming gondolas far parted,
Just when the sun his farewell beam has darted:
But 'tis impossible; far different cares
Beckon me sternly from soft "Lydian airs,"
And hold my faculties so long in thrall,
That I am oft in doubt whether at all
I shall again see Phoebus in the morning:
Or flush'd Aurora in the roseate dawning!
Or a white Naiad in a rippling stream;
Or a rapt seraph in a moonlight beam;
Or again witness what with thee I've seen,
The dew by fairy feet swept from the green,
After a night of some quaint jubilee
Which every elf and fay had come to see:
When bright processions took their airy march
Beneath the curved moon's triumphal arch.
But might I now each passing moment give
To the coy muse, with me she would not live
In this dark city, nor would condescend
'Mid contradictions her delights to lend.
Should e'er the fine-eyed maid to me be kind,
Ah! surely it must be whene'er I find
Some flowery spot, sequester'd, wild, romantic,
That often must have seen a poet frantic;
Where oaks, that erst the Druid knew, are growing,
And flowers, the glory of one day, are blowing;
Where the dark-leav'd laburnum's drooping clusters
Reflect athwart the stream their yellow lustres,
And intertwined the cassia's arms unite,
With its own drooping buds, but very white;
Where on one side are covert branches hung,
'Mong which the nightingales have always sung
In leafy quiet: where to pry, aloof,
Atween the pillars of the sylvan roof,
Would be to find where violet beds were nestling,
And where the bea with cowslip bells was wrestling.
There must be too a ruin dark, and gloomy
To say "joy not too much in all that's bloomy."
Yet this is vain--O Mathew, lend thy aid
To find a place where I may greet the maid--
Where we may soft humanity put on,
And sit, and rhyme and think on Chatterton;
And that warm-hearted Shakespeare sent to meet him
Four laurell'd spirits, heaven-ward to intreat him.
With reverence would we speak of all the sages
Who have left streaks of light athwart their ages:
And thou shouldst moralize on Milton's blindness,
And mourn the fearful dearth of human kindness
To those who strove with the bright golden wing
Of genius, to flap away each sting
Thrown by the pitiless world. We next could tell
Of those who in the cause of freedom fell;
Of our own Alfred, of Helvetian Tell;
Of him whose name to ev'ry heart's a solace,
High-minded and unbending William Wallace.
While to the rugged north our musing turns
We well might drop a tear for him, and Burns.
Felton! without incitements such as these,
How vain for me the niggard muse to tease:
For thee, she will thy every dwelling grace,
And make "a sun-shine in the shady place":
For thou wast once a flowret blooming wild,
Close to the source, bright, pure, and undefil'd,
Whence gush the streams of song: in happy hour
Came chaste Diana from her shady bower,
Just as the sun was from the east uprising;
And, as for him some gift she was devising,
Beheld thee, pluck'd thee, cast thee in the stream
To meet her glorious brother's greeting beam.
I marvel much that thou hast never told
How, from a flower, into a fish of gold
Apollo chang'd thee; how thou next didst seem
A black-eyed swan upon the widening stream;
And when thou first didst in that mirror trace
The placid features of a human face:
That thou hast never told thy travels strange,
And all the wonders of the mazy range
O'er pebbly crystal, and o'er golden sands;
Kissing thy daily food from Naiad's pearly hands.
The poem’s opening frees itself from the egos that dominate modern America. In it, Keats expresses the pinnacle of poetic achievement as springing from a joint creative process. Keats has not yet achieved this, though: in the first stanza’s final lines, he says that the “thought of this” fills him with joy. The description of this particular feeling, as it “diffuses” over the heart, protrudes in this opening stanza as somewhat plodding. You have a prepositional phrase modifying the penultimate line’s “feeling” within which lies a relative clause (starting with “that’s”) with four predicate adjectives: “high, and good, and great, and healing.” These are connected with a multitude of and’s – a term known as polysyndeton, which is often used to hammer home the length of a list. To classify its use here as such would be, in my opinion, to flatter the young Keats. Do these four words truly express independent emotions? Particularly superfluous, the pair of “good” and “great” could easily be condensed. This poem covers a wealth of material, from classical mythology to his real-life friendship with Mathew. Yet it seems that here, Keats was simply concerned with filling up the line. The one benefit of this quartet of predicate adjectives is its alliterative chiasmus: the initial consonants of the four adjectives form the pattern hggh (isn’t that a banned substance in baseball now?), creating a mirroring effect. This combination of judgments produces a convenient juxtaposition of the naïve poet filling up a line with the experienced wordsmith conjuring symmetrical sound effects.
This opening stanza, though, describes a thought, not an actual activity. Keats wants desperately to embark on a poetical partnership with Mathew, yet in the second stanza the reason behind his inability to do so becomes clear. Either out of formal grace or true admiration, Keats sets up their relationship with Mathew as the better poet, or at least the more involved one. “Fain would I follow thee,” he says, “past each horizon of fine poesy.” He would like to pursue Mathew towards poetical greatness, but something holds him back: “far different cares…hold my faculties.” These “different cares” are widely understood to be his medical studies in London, which he did not fully abandon until 1816. Until that point, he had pursued a stereotypically ambitious, parentally condoned, and yet personally unsatisfactory profession. Perhaps you, beloved reader, are in a similar situation. Just look at what you are missing out on: “Phoebus (for Apollo, and in turn a metaphor for the sun) in the morning”, “Aurora (the goddess of dawn) in the roseate dawning”, and “a white Naiad (a very sexy kind of nymph) in a rippling stream.” If I haven’t seen the Naiad, does that mean I’m in the wrong line of work too?
For the most part, this imagery is standard stuff, full of classical reference and natural beauty. Yet Keats pairs this imagery with the medieval folklore of fairies and elves later on in this stanza. Now this is something we can relate to. “Bright processions…beneath the curved moon’s triumphal arch” sounds remarkably like a wild party. Two cinematic moments come to mind: Will Ferrell’s solitary, nude march in Old School and the better attended naked mile scene in Van Wilder. Something tells me that Keats would enjoy both.
The remainder of the poem follows Keats’ thought processes in how to win the attention of his poetic muse. It requires first a suitable place, replete with beautiful flowers, where “the bee with cowslip bells was wrestling.” But remember, a idyllic place is not an idyllic place without a “ruin, dark and gloomy.” This carries something of an over-emotional, juvenile tone to it, as if two teenage boys got really excited about some flowers before realizing that they needed to be teenagers again, so they looked for a decrepit ruin over which they could rejuvenate their angst and wipe the smiles off their faces. Wordsworth would probably be there, too.
In the fourth stanza, Keats tells Mathew what they would discuss in their idyllic spot. Unsurprisingly, their various subjects relate closely to the tone of the poem. They are summarized in the middle of the stanza, with the lines: “those who strove with the bright golden wing // Of genius, to flap away each sting // Thrown by the pitiless world.” The bird in flight metaphor creates the image of this type of character as both ambitious (soaring to new heights) yet vulnerable. The list also includes a similar group of successful rebels, who might be described in terms similar to the above quotation, replacing the word “genius” with something like “freedom.” As the first stanza, this last stanza ends on an awkward note. In essence, Keats says, “and while we’re talking about Scotland, we might as well mention Robert Burns.”
Keats gives up his ambition of being inspired by the muse in the final stanza. Instead, in a Ovidian fashion, he expounds the magical origins of his friend Mathew. This series of metamorphoses links the addressee with the classical muse Keats so strives for and explains Mathew’s success (and Keats’ lack thereof). While it lacks the powerful structure of Ovid and the elegant simplicity of Kipling, it strives to do something similar to The Metamorphoses and The Just-So Stories¬: it strives to explain the origins of something that the poet finds remarkable. The success of this final stanza is its boldness and creativity, although it seems more of an exercise in Ovidian imitation than a well-wrought idea. What it gives us a clear understanding of is Keats’ vitality, his joyous spirit that emerges through his poetry. In this poem, he writes under the premise that he wants to partner his friend Mathew in poetical thought, but is unable to do so. Yet Keats’ imaginings of doing so, his reverence for the more devoted, if not superior poet force him to raise his game. Even when discussing his own poetic shortcomings, his enjoyment of poetry shines through.
This has been a long post, and one that must soon come to an end, for there is a Ben and Jerry’s trip at the end of the rainbow. Thinking back on my opening paragraphs, I find justification for this blog – I enjoy it, and I enjoy teaching in a similar way. There are several key differences: you don’t have to be here, and I require no work of you. Yet I’m thrilled that you are here, and I would be equally thrilled if you were to let me know what you think.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
While not watching Wimbledon, I’ve been flicking through The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. This poem, “Vitamins and Roughage,” leapt out at me as particularly apt, given its fourth, fifth, and sixth lines. Something tells me this poet would have enjoyed the physical advances women’s tennis has undergone since his death in 1982. Rexroth has his moments of perversion, but they are fewer and further between then, say, those of Philip Larkin. The male gaze to which he subjects the “daughters of California” is one such hint of a moment. Included in his 1944 collection The Phoenix and the Tortoise, this poem was written some time in the early 1940s. Born in 1905, Rexroth would have been in his late thirties. It is the poems written in this stage in his life that take on the darkest, most masculine tones. He and his first wife divorced in 1940, and she died later that year. He was living with another poet, Marie Kass, in San Francisco. Together, they hosted literary discussions, anti-war protesters, and other free-form gatherings. It was not until 1948 that Rexroth would marry Marthe Larsson, the mother of his two daughters, after the birth of which Rexroth’s poetry takes on a more familial, homely shape. He has scores of poems about his young children playing in the garden. Most of them are rather dull. On my mother’s recommendation, I have moved the poem itself to be situated immediately before its analysis, so if you liked it better at the top, talk to her about it.
Vitamins and Roughage – Kenneth Rexroth
Strong ankled, sun burned, almost naked,
The daughters of California
Educate reluctant humanists;
Drive into their skulls with tennis balls
The unhappy realization
That nature is still stronger than man.
The special Hellenic privilege
Of the special intellect seeps out
At last in this irrigated soil.
Sweat of athletes and juice of lovers
Are stronger than Socrates’ hemlock;
And the games of scrupulous Euclid
Vanish in the gymnopaedia.
While growing up, Rexroth was rigorously home-schooled, and his interest in classics shines through here, where it is elegantly juxtaposed to his modern life. The poem outlines the battle in both 1940s California and Ancient Greece between man and nature. Needless to say, nature wins. The poem is divided into three parts, like a Venn Diagram, illustrating this juxtaposition: lines 1-6 describe the current situation; lines 7-9 link the formation of humanist thought in Ancient Greece with its final conquest in modern America; and the remainder of the poem focuses on events in various centuries BCE, ambiguously linking them to those in 1940s California.
The opening triumvirate of participial phrases modifying those beauteous “daughters of California” defines the poem’s scope and its gaze. It ranges from pure strength in “strong ankled” to female sexuality in “almost naked.” One can imagine Rexroth eyeing one such woman from her feet on up, noticing first her ankles, then her sun burned legs, and finally her skimpy clothing. This range reappears in line 9, this time in the pair “Sweat of athletes and juice of lovers.” By this stage the intensity of both the athleticism and sexuality have climaxed. They are both generative, leaving their traces. By pairing them in line 9, Rexroth has brought them closer together. Both produce liquids – liquids that can be referred to with collected nouns. Just as the athletes all sweat a similar sweat (as long as they’ve been keeping away from the garlic), the lovers produce similar juices, or perhaps a commingling of juices (as long as they’ve been keeping away from the asparagus).
To return to the first half of the poem, the “daughters of California” are referred to as such because they grew up there. But there is an extended sense in which they have absorbed the liberal sunshine, that the Golden State has something in its water that makes people just that little bit different. These women are trying to teach “reluctant humanists” about the joys of nature. Rexroth notices the sexuality of nature’s creation in these women, but these humanists cannot. They are caught up in their thoughts. As a result, force is necessary – athletic force. The effort with which these women play tennis is imagined to be also used to convince these skeptics about the power of nature. But there is another potential meaning secondary to the primary one of this message being carried in these whizzing tennis balls: perhaps all these humanists have for brains are tennis balls. How can they have brains, if they can’t notice this image of athleticism and sexuality for what it is, if they can’t get caught up in it.
The transition between the first and second sections of the poem is elegantly executed by the use of the adverb “still” in line 6. It has been that way for over two millennia, but it is now being reinforced. Moving into lines 7-9, Rexroth sarcastically repeats “special” to attack the limited appeal and availability of this humanist intellect. It does not have a wide appeal, and one can hear its opponents lathering on the sarcasm when attacking the Greek thinkers: “Oh, you think you’re sooo special, with your precious dialectics, your forms, and your metaphysics, don’t you?” I’ve known how Rexroth felt ever since I took Introduction to Ancient Philosophy in college. It all seemed so fantastic beforehand – the height of knowledge, the intellectual reverence, the arguments that I could never before follow. But despite the efforts of Tad Brennan and his wonderful mustache, it simply wasn’t for me.
The idea of liquids mentioned above is also used in this middle section. This “privilege” takes on liquid form and “seeps out // At last into the irrigated soil.” While slightly contradicting the “still” in line 6, these lines display an image of nature embodied metaphorically in the soil finally conquering human intellect. That it is “irrigated soil” tells us that we have jumped back to the tennis courts of 1940s California, a leap of time that is reinforced by the prepositional phrase “at last,” as in, it has taken up until now to happen.
Finally, Rexroth conquers humanism once and for all with references to two Ancient Greek thinkers. Socrates was killed by being forced to drink hemlock. This hemlock was strong enough to kill him, but not his ideas, which have lived on through Plato primarily, but have finally been finished off in Rexroth’s present day. Euclid, my brief internet research tells me, was a mathematician. I don’t know how many “games” he had, but they were mathematical games; that is to say, humanist ones. One of them can be played here. The mention of the game pairs well with the gymnopaedia, a Spartan festival involving the dancing and athletic games of nude youths. Oh, to be a Spartan! The adjective’s synonyms in my thesaurus include harsh, frugal, and stringent, but it’s high time we threw naked, nude, bare, and birthday-suited in there as well. But I digress. Two kinds of games: the athletic – and coincidentally, nude – ones win out over the mathematical ones. Sounds about right to me. And from the rhythmic grunts emitted from the coverage of the women’s quarterfinals on NBC today, I can only agree.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I recently acquired Stephen Booth’s excellent edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the commentary of which outweighs the text by a ratio of 4:1 or so. What I enjoy most about Booth’s commentary is that it solves problems while still leaving room for interpretation. Reading it made me feel like a child being shown how to perform a satisfying or enjoyable task by my father. Say, for example, using a chainsaw. Let me know if what follows is a uniquely male experience or not – I believe it to be.
A vivid yet slightly fictional scene appears before me – some branches of a tree need to be removed, and I want to be involved, because being involved means using a chainsaw. My father turns it on, narrating his work with a constant stream of “now the trick here”s and “you’ve really got to watch out for”s. I just want to hold the chainsaw and have at it. Maybe I wrestle the chainsaw from his hands, accidentally cutting notches up and down the trunk of the tree. Or maybe I slice of the index finger of my left hand, and as blood spatters my father’s white t-shirt, his eyes tell me over and over again “I told you to be careful.”
In fact, my father would probably faint if I sliced my finger off. The above just struck me as more compelling than the repeated sound of my father nervously sucking air through his teeth while I steer our minivan through the streets of London on an early driving lesson. His expression suggests that what is unveiling before him is the final act of a heart-wrenching tragedy, the terrible conclusion of which only he can foresee. It might be around the next corner, the next red light, or the next attempt at parallel parking.
My point is that Booth isn’t like my father. He hands over the chainsaw and just says to the reader, “Here it is, do with it what you please. There are a few notes in the back to help you with the really tricky stuff, but otherwise you should be fine.” I dare not suggest that a sonnet is anything as dangerous as a chainsaw or a minivan (albeit a French one), but he lets the reader actually do the work. Too many editors want to guide the way. Booth succeeds because he just illuminates its most dangerous pitfalls. I shall endeavor to continue in that vein.
In each of the three quatrains, the speaker gives the intended audience a different figurative comparison to explain his old age. The second and the third start with the same clause (“In me thou seest”) while the opening quatrain has a different introduction (“That time of year thou mayst behold”). The “mayst” raises an interesting question. Using today’s understanding of this modal verb, its use here suggests that the first figurative sign old age is there, but that the addressee may not actually be seeing it at this moment. The second and third quatrains use the simple present tense, without any modals. Given that the objects to be seen in those latter quatrains are figurative, the sense of conditionality may be carried over. The Economist style guide (an excellent resource) states that “might,” not “may,” denotes a hypothetical meaning. So this first change – the yellowing and thinning out of the speaker’s metaphorical leaves – is definitely happening. The question is simply whether or not the addressee is actually beholding it. What I don’t know, but would like to find out, is if this distinction between “may” and “might” was in place in Shakespeare’s time. Were there other possible nuances to these modals?
Once we look beyond the visibility of these signs of the speaker’s aging, we can tackle the three signs themselves. The second quatrain’s initial metaphor enhanced by a simile is probably the least exceptional. Already well established in Shakespeare’s time, the associations of death with night and sleep should not seem all that remarkable to modern readers. The initial metaphor, however, contains some definite talking points. Its simplicity is quickly compounded. At first we have a tenor (the speaker’s signs of old age) and a vehicle (the time of year, which is autumn). Shakespeare does not directly equate the speaker with a dying tree; he merely describes in greater detail the time of year suggested by the speaker’s aging.
Line 3’s boughs, with their varying amounts of yellow leaves, reminiscent of hair loss or a mangy beard, are granted illogical agency. They are said to “shake against” something. By transferring this agency, Shakespeare certainly brings the tree to a more human state of life, perhaps standing in for the speaker. It is as if the winds face some sapping resistance while blowing against this tree. These winds aren’t just winds though, they are “cold,//Bare ruined choirs.” That is to say, they have taken on a dilapidated form of their summer selves. Perhaps these winds create no sound, or the absence of pleasant, harmonious bird calls creates a cold effect. Either way, the phrase unites the senses: touch and hearing are linked here. To even refer to the winds as choirs is to metaphorically allude to them with a now absent vehicle. They are surely only choirs if they carry birdsong. They were choirs. Instead of calling them non-choirs, Shakespeare just piles up the negative modifiers. It’s like calling the same autumn wind a broken air freshener. In spring and summer, it carried or seemed to emit pleasant smells. Now it does not emit any smells. Maybe there is something visual here. Picture the choirs, not in their cold, bare, ruined state, but in fine voice. Now picture birds chirping sweetly in the trees. Both seem pleasant enough. Perhaps by simply mentioning that there were metaphorical choirs of birds, Shakespeare creates a sense of loss. These choirs are not functioning anymore and that is sad in some way. There is very little in Shakespeare’s autumn breeze that resembles choirs of birds, albeit cold, bare, ruined ones. But by simply knowing that they were there, that these sounds were carried on the wind, the silence becomes mournful.
By this stage, it should be clear how important it is that editors such as Booth take a back seat. I should do likewise. For me, the fun in this poem comes from picking it apart slowly. I find that I am able to read it and arrive at a certain conclusion about the meaning of a word or phrase. Then, upon returning to the poem just minutes later, it can convey a completely different meaning. The ambiguity and complexity of Shakespeare’s poetry combine to load a seemingly simple sonnet with manifold meanings. To reach the lyrical heart(s) of this poem, you have to struggle with it a bit. You have to be allowed to make mistakes.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Proust on Skates – Anthony Hecht
He stayed in bed, and at the beginning of October still wasn’t getting up till two in the afternoon. But he made a seventy-mile journey to
Proust: A Biography
The alpine forests, like huddled throngs of mourners,
Black, hooded, silent, resign themselves to wait
As long as may be required;
A low pneumonia mist covers the glaciers,
Spruces are bathed in a cold sweat, the late
Sun has long since expired,
Though barely risen, and the gray cast of the day
Is dark, unsentimental, and metallic.
Earth-stained and chimney-soiled
Snow upon path and post is here to stay,
Foundered in endless twilight, a poor relic
Of a once gladder world.
Sparse café patrons can observe a few
Skaters skimming the polished soapstone lake,
A platform for their skill
At crosscut, grapevine, loop and curlicue,
Engelmann’s Star, embroideries that partake
Of talent, coaching, drill,
While a few tandem lovers, hand in hand,
Perform their pas de deux along the edges,
This is a stony, vapor-haunted land
Of granite dusk, of wind sieved by the hedges,
Their branches braced and thorned.
Escaped from the city’s politics and fribble,
Hither has come an odd party of three,
Braided by silken ties:
With holiday abandon, the young couple
Have retreated into the deep privacy
Of one another’s eyes,
While the third, who in different ways yet loves them both,
Finds himself now, as usual, all alone,
And lacing on his skates,
Steadies himself, cautiously issues forth
Into the midst of strangers and his own
Sweatered and mufflered to protect the weak
And lacey branches of his bronchial tree
From the fine-particled threat
Of the moist air, he curves in an oblique
And gentle gradient, floating swift and free—
No danseur noble, and yet
He glides with a gaining confidence, inscribes
Tentative passages, thinks again, backtracks,
Comes to a minute point,
Then wheels about in widening sweeps and lobes,
Large Palmer cursives and smooth entrelacs,
On a subtle, long-drawn style and pliant script
Incised with twin steel blades and qualified
Perfectly to express,
With arms flung wide or gloved hands firmly gripped
Behind his back, attentively, clear-eyed,
A glancing happiness.
It will not last, that happiness; nothing lasts;
But will reduce in time to the clear brew
Of simmering memory
Nourished by shadowy gardens, music, guests,
Childhood affections, and, of Delft, a view
Steeped in a sip of tea.
Last week, my choice of “This Be The Verse” was an incredibly easy one. Larkin owns long leasehold on my poetic tastes, and his simplistically crude poem is one for the masses. My hope was that its shock value would gain this blog a readership of astronomical proportions. Unfortunately, I neglected to consider the paltry audience today’s poets fight for. If nobody reads the poems themselves, who’s going to read something someone has written about the poems?
Well, you, apparently. Perhaps you view this second visit to my humble e-bode as an unlucky return flight from a vacation, sat once again next to the same dunderhead whose company you suffered on your outbound journey. A little more sunburned, but all the more familiar, this neighbor swoops buzzard-like into conversation, with the tone of an old friend who doesn’t have many friends left. You simply sigh inside yourself, close your eyes, and wait for the first break in the conversation to slip the buds of your iPod into their waxy yet welcoming homes.
Or, perhaps you allow the crescent of a smile to lift the cynically weighted corners of your mouth. Perhaps you’ve added me to whatever the blog version is of your Fave Five. Perhaps you’re desperate for more. Somehow I find that unlikely. Yet it is my sincere wish that, having (re)stumbled upon this blog, you have already been charmed by the late Mr. Hecht’s florid poem. Twenty-five years have passed since Larkin’s advice to the younger generation. We have traversed a large ocean. But that is just the start of it. What this poem announces to me is that the time for sticking your tongue out has come and gone. Call it the sixties or the seventies, but it most certainly is not the nineties. Hecht, in this heartfelt imagining, cherishes the times of Larkin’s “fools in old-style hats and coats.” This is a celebration of what has come before, not an attack on it.
To read closely yet do so briefly, it is hard to dislike the word “fribble.” It succeeds because it sounds like a word that a young child has coined. The New Oxford American Dictionary assures me it is not. Childish or not, it is a world away from the rest of the vocabulary in this poem, which resounds with a solemn power. “Fribble” merely bursts like the saliva-bubble of a toddler at the dinner table.
Hecht arranges these words in complex fashion. Take the extensive participial phrase that opens the seventh stanza: it occupies three and a half lines. The main subject and verb of the first independent clause in the complex sentence are “he” and “curves” respectively. The pronoun “he” is modified by a pair of past participles that open the stanza, the second of which I am almost certain Hecht has morphed from the noun “muffler.” If there is another use of “muffler” as a verb, I’d love to hear about it (HINT: leave a comment). Embedded within this participial phrase we have an infinitive phrase (starting with the infinitive “to protect”), the object of which (“branches”) is modified by a prepositional phrase (“of his bronchial tree”), followed by a pair prepositional phrases in series (“From the fine-particled threat” tells you more about “to protect” and “Of the moist air” tells you more about “threat”. But none of that really matters. Let the poem roll over you. Just read it aloud. Soak it up.
I remember very little of the grammatical structure or specific vocabulary of this poem when I first heard it. Shortly before his death in October 2004, Hecht gave a reading in
Everything about him fit the part. While I had no clue that he was a distinguished poet, he looked and sounded exactly like one. His patient manner put everyone in the room at ease, despite the cramped conditions. When he announced the title of the poem he was about to read – “Proust on Skates” – I was immediately hooked. Here was someone who had not only read Proust, but written a poem about him. As a naïve English major, reading Proust was the holy grail of pretension, the trump card of all literary bragging rights. It was slipped into a handful of Facebook profiles over the summer after freshman year. “Reading Proust.” It was like the not-so-secret handshake of a snobbish teenager. I still haven’t read a word of Proust, but I bought Hecht’s Collected Later Poems a few months after the reading, and turned to this poem first.
I didn’t read of Hecht’s death in an obituary column or anything. I just came across it online. Someone somewhere mentioned that he was dead. Both the poet and his reading at Yale, as the last stanza of this poem states, did not last. My experience was one of happiness, as Proust’s is in this poem. As I mentioned, I don’t remember what Hecht said at the reading, but it has “reduce[d] in time to the clear brew / Of simmering memory.”
Thursday, June 12, 2008
This Be The Verse - Philip LarkinThey fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
These letters featured the coarser side of Larkin, as does the above poem. Yet the row was about Larkin's racism. Everyone already knew Larkin had issues. Flick to almost any page of his Collected Poems for evidence of his boredom with life, anti-social behavior, and fear of women. But racism apparently wouldn't do.
I was struck by this controversial figure and began to investigate. Being sixteen at the time probably added to my complete immersion. I was probably studying "Paradise Lost" for my English A Level at the time, and compared to that, Larkin was fantastic. In poems such as "This Be The Verse," it was as if he was reaching out to teenage boys in particular, albeit from beyond the grave. I could hear him murmuring to me: "You think you know about angst?" Needless to say I welcomed challenge. But my obsession with this work reached its acme when I had the pleasure of informing my mother that it was my favorite poem. I didn't read Larkin's letters until several years later, when I received the controversial tome as a gift from - you've guessed it - my mother.
It's easy to see why this poem is so memorable. In twelve lines of poetry, the reader, adolescent or otherwise, can indulge in two expletives: an emphatic verb in the first line and a past participle in line 5. Furthermore, it is impossible to forget the iambs. Ten of the twelve lines bounce along with a deceptively simple pattern of an unstressed breve followed by a stressed ictus. An explanation of these terms can be found here. This regular, almost plodding rhythm, combined with a cinch of an ABAB rhyme scheme, gives this poem a nursery rhyme feel. The opening stanza in particular is easy as pie to understand, as it is comprised almost completely of monosyllables. A five-year-old with an advanced knowledge of bad language would be able to understand this poem as easily as an adult.
The only potential difficulty is its simile. The last stanza focuses on this cumulative aspect of man's misery. The current generation carries the burden of hereditary human sadness, handed down in ever increasing amounts. Much worse than saying "your parents fuck you up," this poem goes on to say something along the lines of: "you can only stop this overwhelming chain of misery by not reproducing and dying as soon as possible." The poem will always be remembered for its opening, but the real stinger comes at the very end. After a dash of elegant, figurative language, Larkin sinks lower than before, barking these morbid thoughts at the reader in the form of imperative verbs. So you can see why my mother was so thrilled that this was my favorite poem.