Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A sad tale's best for spring, if you're in Ohio

Note: I have added footnotes to tidy things up. If anyone knows of any elegant way to do this in html, please let me know. Also, I like that this is a note about footnotes. Do you?

For the last few days, I have immersed myself in Douglas Dunn’s 1985 collection, Elegies, while traveling around the country for spring break, the repose of many a teacher. I spent a weekend in Berkeley, CA, the land of interesting facial hair and mandatory recycling, with a day trip to Sonoma. Dunn’s volume, which was composed shortly after his wife’s death, clashed with everything I saw around me in California. The Scotsman’s reflective grieving process charted out so methodically on every page simply did not fit with the notes of elderflower I detected on a Gerwurztraminer in the Mayo Tasting Room. And how was I to sympathize with death while those around me vehemently squeezed every ounce of life out of a plastic bag, a water bottle, or even the straw from a juice box?

Luckily, I am in Ohio now. Thinking about death, mourning, and heartbreak just feels so right when it’s 35 degrees and raining outside. Apparently the real estate phrase applies to understanding poetry as well: “Location, location, location.” Here in the Buckeye state, where tomato juice is the state beverage, and flint is the state stone, I feel transported to Dunn’s Lowlands. This is the Scotland of America.

I originally purchased the slender Faber and Faber copy of Dunn’s Elegies in London at least five years ago. The Scottish poet first came to my attention through comparison with my beloved Philip Larkin; Dunn graduated from the University of Hull before working briefly at the Brynmor Jones Library under Larkin. This week’s choice also features some continuity with last week’s. We have homonymic poets (Donne and Dunn), identical structures (sonnets), and a shared theme (death), although Douglas Dunn might have gained some much needed comfort were he to seek solace in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X.

The Kaleidoscope – Douglas Dunn

To climb these stairs again, bearing a tray,
Might be to find you pillowed with your books,
Your inventories listing gowns and frocks
As if preparing for a holiday.
Or, turning from the landing, I might find
My presence watched through your kaleidoscope,
A symmetry of husbands, each redesigned
In lovely forms of foresight, prayer and hope.
I climb these stairs a dozen times a day
And, by the open door, wait, looking in
At where you died. My hands become a tray
Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin.
Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry
For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.

Dunn’s late wife, Lesley Dunn, is the focus here, as in most of the poems in Elegies. As the addressee of the poem, Dunn describes her habits in the two quatrains of the sonnet.(1) The first image of her cataloguing clothes suggests organization. She is not preparing for a holiday,(2) but merely appears to be doing so. Lesley Dunn implicitly cannot prepare for a holiday because of her terminal cancer. This diagnosis becomes clear in another fine poem in the collection called “Second Opinion.” Understanding the poem in this way also adds a connotation to “pillowed” in the second line. Lesley is “pillowed” not from laziness or comfort, but from weakness. Framing this image as holiday preparation instead of a chore of bequeathal keeps the poet’s spirits elevated.

Dunn postpones these bleak connotations in the second quatrain, which introduces an image of Lesley that is wholly playful, even if the object of her attention reveals her sickness. Kaleidoscoping (officially a verb, now that I’ve turned it into a gerund) has nothing to do with preparations for death. It is an activity of pure recreation. Yet it metaphorically points to a classic image of death: the dying person briefly returns to childhood through the use of a childhood object or upon seeing an old photograph. Instead of dealing with the rigmarole of what shall go to whom, Lesley has advanced a stage to simply enjoying her final days or weeks of life. Simply put, she is having fun, while in the first quatrain she was consciously preparing for death, even if her husband tried to spin the action as holiday preparation. Sadness sneaks into the end of this quatrain in the form of the aforementioned object of Lesley’s attention. The poet climbing the stairs in the first stanza was still in denial. He did not want to think about his wife’s death and her preparations for it. Now, however, his kaleidoscopic expressions (“foresight, prayer and hope) reveal that Dunn has reached a more advanced stage of acceptance.

This elegant switch of focus serves as an early turn(3) in the sonnet and eases our path into the closing sestet, which focuses on Dunn’s grieving. The first half of the eleventh line (“At where you died.”) hammers home the meaning of the sonnet with its emphatic monosyllables. In the next sentence, occupying the latter half of the eleventh line and the entire twelfth line, epitomizes Dunn’s devotion using the Christian image of offering. The poet wants to offer himself completely in place of his dead wife.

If the poem were to end with the twelfth line, Dunn’s grieving process would appear as simple and one-dimensional. But in the last two lines, he turns back on his offering, suggesting that it is an example of how his grief has wronged him. By leading him to such a sacrificial state, his grief has misrepresented his beliefs. Instead, he seeks some sort of forgiveness, while still realizing that such forgiveness is “absurd.” We are left with a difficult situation. The sonnet has ended, but poet has not resolved his problem.

1. Since two friends have recently told me that they cannot understand most of what I write in this blog, I will endeavor to translate technical terms to layman’s terms. A quatrain is a group of four lines of poetry. A sonnet is a form of poetry that consists of two quatrains (each of four lines) and one sestet (a group of six lines). Different sonnet structures have different rhyme schemes, but Dunn’s sonnet does not follow any of these rhyme schemes exactly.
2. Dunn uses “Holiday” in the British sense, which is almost identical to the American word vacation. Using the American meaning, one could interpret this first quatrain to mean that Dunn’s wife has an special outfit for each public or religious holiday: a Christmas sweater, a charming pant suit for Burns Night, and a Guy Fawkes Night strapless number. Dashing.
3. The “turn” or “volta” of a sonnet traditionally occurs in the ninth line and introduces a new tone or a resolution to a problem stated in the first two quatrains (eight lines).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Vote or Die

In order to draw your attention to an oft-neglected feature of this modest blog and in order to prove the efficacy of said feature, I have let said feature dictate, in part, this week’s entry, postponed due to circumstances out of my control and caused entirely by an extensive game of cards and a gallon-sized container of cheap Tom Collinses. The feature in question is in fact the poll. It’s over there, on the right. Please direct your attention to the poll momentarily.

That should be enough time. Last week, as only two people can definitely attest to (last week’s poll attracted a meager three votes, one of which was mine), I surveyed you, intelligent, discerning reader, with hopes of allowing you to choose a broad category of poetry to blog on. Since the response “Canonical English and American poets” edged “Foreign poets whose work has been translated into English” by a nail-biting score of two to one, I’ve tracked down a famous poem about death by a famous dead poet.

Perhaps now is neither the time nor the place to reveal the detailed results of the aforementioned poll. The dead guys, represented this week by Donne, defeat the foreigners in something resembling a soccer score (I definitely wasted two minutes deciding between “soccer” and “football.” Neither will fully satisfy my true stance, a quiet perch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, slowly drowning in the convergent linguistic waves of Britishisms and Americanisms that crash down upon me). This result could be somewhat invalidated by revealing my vote. In opting for the canons of the Anglo-Americans, I essentially chose the poem myself, since the two external votes canceled each other out.

Before reading Donne’s words, infinitely more efficient than mine, glance up that poll in the top right again. Go ahead, answer it! And be thankful that, after much beard scratching, I decided against a meta-poll on whether or not you read, or even respond to the poll.

Holy Sonnet X (Death, Be Not Proud) – John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

This strikes me as a rarity, but this week’s poem came to me while watching a film. In an attempt to explain the lesser-known tidbits of some famous director, I found Wit, a 2001 Mike Nichols take on a Margaret Edson play. The made-for-TV film focuses on the life of Vivian Bearing, a middle-aged Donne scholar who has just been diagnosed with cancer. The film explores the scholar’s musings on her own death and on Donne’s take on it; as you can imagine, this sonnet plays a significant role in this process.

In the film, several characters remark on the complexity of Donne. The professor’s class on Donne is considered one of the most challenging in the university at which she teaches. As a result, the film instilled in me an impression of Donne’s poems as being exceptionally meaty and rich with meaning. Fitting in with my misted memories of being navigated through dead-ends in Donne’s poetry as an undergraduate, this richness sparked hesitation. Could I handle Donne?

One potential difficulty paradoxically springs from simplicity. While Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, three poets of a value equal to or greater than Donne’s, all floor the first time reader in archaic verbosity, Donne’s relatively limited vocabulary might lull said reader, disarming him of his protective shield he wields when confronting the canon.

With only three words containing three syllables or more (“overthrow,” “delivery,” and “desperate”), the poem would probably trip off the tongue of even a mediocre reader. The opening line’s nine monosyllables signify this simplicity from the outset. The pair of Death’s epithets in the second line, “Mighty” and “dreadful,” garners emphasis from the rest of the first quatrain, which features only one more polysyllable, “overthrow.” Notice that these three polysyllables in the opening quatrain all describe Death as he thinks he should be described. All three are mentioned by the speaker only so that he might point out that death deserves neither this pair of adjectives (“mighty” and “dreadful”) nor the identification as the one who overthrows people. Death is characterized by the pomposity of his polysyllables, which Donne’s speaker denies him.

In the second quatrain, possibly the most difficult to explain, might also perturb the reader unaccustomed to transposed word order. The quatrain’s opening clause, spanning the fifth line and half of the sixth, starts with a prepositional phrase (“From rest and sleep”), the objects of which (“rest” and “sleep”) are modified by a relative clause (“which but thy pictures be). Finally, in the sixth line, our much longed for subject and verb arrive on the scene (“much pleasure”).

One aspect of this poem that I would like to find out more about is that subject and verb, “much pleasure.” At least I assume it is a subject and a verb. The alternative, as I see it, is for an omitted verb phrase: something along the lines of “Much pleasure comes from rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be.” Either the verb phrase is removed, or the clause is ungrammatical. If “much” were the subject of the verb “pleasure,” it would surely have to stand for “many people.” My interest in this issue might well stem from a topic I am currently teaching: the difference in usage between “less” and “fewer.” The basic rule states that “fewer” is used with countable items, while “less” modifies uncountable ones. An unfortunately high number of you readers have probably been corrected by me on this issue at some point. If you haven't an amusing debate on the topic can be found here. However, “much” and many” pair up with “less” and “fewer” perfectly. “Many” suggests countable items, while “much” suggests uncountable. This explains the issue. People are countable. If asking about the number of attendees at a party, for example, you would ask, “How many people were there?” Is this an example of archaic style, or, as I suspect, simply a purposeful error for metrical purposes?

To return to the argument of the second quatrain, Donne shows Death that people enjoy sneak peaks of him during sleep and as a result, these habitual dozers would look forward to death, to enjoy more of the same. This aspect of Donne’s creative argument carries with it the calm approach of the opening’s monosyllables. But Donne is still just warming up. The sestet opens with an elegant structure of lists decreasing in size. The ninth line features a list of four causes of Death that call him to do his work. He is essentially employed by all these and constantly at their beck and call. Line 10 then lists Death’s three sordid bedfellows, and the eleventh line opens with a pair of drugs that do Death’s job better.

These lists reveal a departure from the original line of attack, which was much more subtle and subdued. As Donne finally cools off from his listing of Death’s employers, co-conspirators, and earthly replacements, he reveals the holy aspect of this Holy Sonnet. Legitimate Donne criticism can ignore neither Donne’s religious beliefs nor the religious climate of seventeenth century England. However, since this is a blog, I will close by saying that Donne only needs to decorate the top of his argument with a mere slice of cherry hinting at the Christian afterlife. This is more than enough, in Donne’s opinion, to vanquish death for good. As a secular reader, my attention is drawn to all the arguments in the first twelve lines of the poem. Yet I cannot ignore his confidence that closes this poem off so calmly and puts the issue to bed. Donne is so confident that we will “wake eternally” that he chooses it as the knockout punch.