Thursday, July 10, 2008

Love the job you're with

It would be difficult for me to legitimately distance myself from that time of life known as youth. At the age of 23, I still feel somewhat under its influence, particularly when it comes to feats of imbibing and personal hygiene. But I do feel out of the thick of it. Many of you may be experiencing a similar shift in life. Jobs, savings accounts, and health insurance policies all muddy the sparkling waters of our juvenile years. They supplant that keg party, that trip to the beach, or that baseball game next week.

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 na├»ve 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

Anyone For Tennis?

Back in Blighty, the Pimm’s is flowing freely on the lawns and corporate suites of SW19, although this year its secret recipe is not being further diluted by London rain. I’ve recently moved into a house, with a roommate, a pool, and a TV. Of course, much else has changed, but the additions of roommate, pool, and television have been the most significant thus far. I lasted about eleven months without a television. Now I am faced with summer vacation, extreme heat, and the Wimbledon quarterfinals. If it didn’t start at 8 am I might actually pour a Pimm’s and join in the fun from across the pond more fully. The strawberries and cream will have to suffice.

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.