Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Exploring the Bard's Nooks and Crannies

Sonnet 73 – Shakespeare

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

Something to cool you off for summer

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 Chamonix to join Albu [Louis Albufera] and Louisa [de Mournand, Albufera’s beautiful mistress] on a mule-back excursion to Montanvert, where they went skating.

Ronald Hayman
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,
Oblivious, unconcerned.
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
Interior debates.

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,
Preoccupied, intent

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 Calhoun College. It was early in my freshman year at Yale, which would place it in late 2003. Before then, I had never heard of Anthony Hecht. I think I was willingly dragged by a friend. We filed into a room of burgundies and chocolates, ornate rugs and overstuffed leather chairs. The crowd forced us cross-legged onto the floor, from where I looked up at the poet with a great deal of admiration.

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

Starting on a positive note..

This Be The Verse - Philip Larkin

They 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.

This poem, composed in 1971 and included in Larkin's High Windows collection, is certainly one of his most famous. I didn't come across it until about thirty years after it was written. Unfortunately, I can't remember why there was so much coverage on Larkin in the English media. This publicity had been floating around for a while, ever since his Selected Letters revealed his racism and interest in pornography.

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.