Friday, June 24, 2016

Poem of the Week 6.23.16: I Got Off the Train

I Got Off the Train

I got off the train
And said goodbye to the man I'd met.
We'd been together for eighteen hours
And had a pleasant conversation,
Fellowship in the journey,
And I was sorry to get off, sorry to leave
This chance friend whose name I never learned.
I felt my eyes water with tears...
Every farewell is a death.
Yes, every farewell is a death.
In the train that we call life
We are all chance events in one another's lives,
And we all feel sorry when it's time to get off.

All that is human moves me, because I'm a man.
All that is human moves me, not because I have an affinity
With human ideas or human doctrine
But because of my infinite fellowship with humanity itself.

The maid who hated to go,
Crying with nostalgia
For the house where she'd been mistreated...

All of this, inside my heart, is death and the world's sadness.
All of this lives, because it dies, in my heart.

And my heart is a little larger than the entire universe.

Alvaro De Campos
aka Fernando Pessoa
Translated by Richard Zenith

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Poem of the Week 3/22/2016: "& so to tenderness I add my action"

Poetry asks us to pledge to one another, I see you. Poetry has been for centuries our great social media. You are its great theme.

"I should have made my way straight to you long ago." - Walt Whitman

My life has been one of too much care, which ruins a person. To summarize: we are invisible to each other. Let's look into the first person's claim of being first. Let's look past the first person to see the second person.

"Then you, hey you." - Claudia Rankine

But let us pledge that it's not enough to see you, in the poem, in the world. Let's also set the poem humming so that the world may hum. Let me be you in the poem, and let me look up from the poem and still be you. Let me look up from many pages. Let me be you and you and you, and even you.

"Let's be simultaneous" - Christopher Gilbert

April to-do list:
1. If prose is called for, write a poem.
2. Write to someone, not to no one.
3. You will do.

"A challenge for you, You-ness/Add yours." - Thomas Sayers Ellis

- Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor, Graywolf Press

 This one is simply a comment on poetry, but does it go beyond a comment to speaking of something about the essence of poetry itself? I'm sorry not to have more to say after this long, four-year gap in writing on the poem of the week blog... but. Couldn't help it. There's something of "I and Thou" in this poem. As if "thou" was the "second person" - the "thou" being an entire alternate way of perceiving others. Read, the last line. "3. You will do."  What is referred to when Shotts writes, "you"? To be a little clever,  who are "you"? That Shotts looks for a connection between the poem humming in oneself, and looking up, and seeing "you." Somehow that the poem contains this world of "you" (which is, like the second person, simultaneously personal and generic) and wants to connect it with our everyday... is hopeful.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Poem of the Week 8/25/2012: Keaton


I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain
— witness the diameter of my hat band
and the depth of the crown of my hat.

I will be correct; I know what it is to be a man.
I will be correct or bust.
I will love but not impose my feelings.
I will serve and serve
with lute or I will not say anything.

If the machinery goes, I will repair it.
If it goes again I will repair it again.
My backbone

through these endless etceteras painful.

No, it is not the way to be, they say.
Go with the skid, turn always to the leeward,
and see what happens, I ask you, now.

I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
and many colors dropped out.
The rigid spine will break, they say—
Bend, bend.

I was made at right angles to the world
and I see it so. I can only see it so.
I do not find all this absurdity people talk about.
Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands
and everything works.
I am not sentimental.

 Elizabeth Bishop

This poem is meant to be taken contrapuntally to the one that will follow tomorrow, as a vision of the human will, its force, tension, and sadness, in this one form. There's a lot more to say on this, tomorrow. I find it very touching and important, an impetus to go lightly, since it is so restrained.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Poem of the Week 6/27/2012: Sneeze Ode

Sneeze Ode

Here comes the sneeze with its end-of-the-world,
mobster-motor, a-gog cog.
You better not be holding nothing full,
better not got hurt ribs.
Rip right through your billet-doux, weed-whip
your honeysuckle before any bees get sip.
Unlike its wussy brother hiccups, its argument
is politics not music, neither poetical like the cough,
if there's blood it's on the wall
not crumpled in no hark-a-lark hankie.
Flu's coup but too like the wow of wooing,
there's nothing you can do, not the court
stenographer, not the pilot or his co--
so think about that next time you're landing in O'Hare.
Even the cathedral's got a crack in it's lunette,
there's a demon in the lemon, semen
in the seamen and out out it's got to come.
Opposite of hum-drum, nowadays
it's the best gods can do for visitation,
no shower of gold coin but a cold draft,
no whole swan but a feather tickle to the nose
then kerBOOM your body's not your own,
its shrapnel in orbit for years and years
before burning up in the atmosphere.

Dean Young 2006

Some notes about Dean Young's lithe and electric postmodern ode.

The first line opens with the announcement of the coming of the sneeze; this pulls directly into mind Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," with its line, "and what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be Born." Yeats' poem addresses the human at a time when God has dropped away, and when the world is changing from its ancient order.

Also standing behind this poem, I think, is Philip Larkin's poem the old Fools - which reads - (At death you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see). And of course there is the entire history of Odes - Keats' comes famously to mind, Ode on a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, etcetera.

What do these references do? Well - they inform the backdrop of the poem - it's as if all of literature is a stage, and the plays are composed of poems / scenes. This play opens with odes, moves to Yeats, Philip Larkin, and finally Sneeze Ode. 

So what is the sneeze ode? The poem's first half focuses on the sneeze itself, mocking Yeats and weaving in the strains of apocalypse, too. Its darkness is a bit hidden, I think, beneath its cheerful exterior. The darkness of blood in a handkerchief is probably the reference to Keats, who died of Tuberculosis. The sneeze is also dangerous, like Yeats' beast. It could crash your Chicago plane. This is one aspect of the sneeze - a cheerful, energetic destruction.

The second half I find the most interesting... in it, the sneeze seems to be repeated - a fundamental feature of our lives - the sudden explosion from within, whatever that internal infernal quality (be it the demon in the lemon or semen in the seaman) that cannot help but explode, this repeated something is what we are meant to inherit. This vision of the human of the receptacle or actor of phenomena that happen throughout all scales of life - the vessel of eternal recurrence let's call it - seems to me disturbingly religious. Or if not religious than simply disturbing, in that it perturbs our calm sense of sovereignty over ourselves, and places us much more in relation with the natural order of things - Dean Young really gives us the sense that we are natural and as temporal and eternally recurring as nature when he writes: "kerBOOM your body's not your own, / its shrapnel in orbit for years and years / before burning up in the atmosphere." 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Poem of the Week 4/24/2012: London


I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

William Blake 1790

Not sure why I've been enjoying these political poems so much; "London" is an early sister-poem to Shelley's "England in 1819." Though nearly thirty years apart, both describe in prophetic voice (thanks Mr. Lehmann-Haupt for that one) the state of the political climate and the personal climate. It is as if the voice, in booming about the state of things as it is, begins to weave together the micro and macro cosms at play. In London, especially, Blake reveals that the slavery people experience is, indeed, internal rather than merely external. External forms, instead, result from the internal.

Indeed, Blake is the master of writing how internal processes like repression swing back out into our social forms and institutions. For example, marriage as the slavery of love results in the curse of the harlot in the final stanza. If humans were more free with their loving, their laws, and their possessions of one another, of thoughts, of their susceptibility to laws and law-making, command and control forms of power, or perhaps even more intelligent with these laws, internally, then perhaps we would create a more free world.

I have a LOT more ranty thoughts here about the nature of change, but I do want to note quickly how the cycle of Romantic poetry may register a past inability to change in historical consciousness, and link the French Revolution to that in Tahrir as well. With the French Revolution, for example, the country went from an idealistic, screaming freedom to the sudden blood-drenched Terror to Napoleon's reign. Rebecca Comay reads Hegel as interpreting France's revolution as failing as such because it never went through a spiritual revolution; the political and social forms changed, but the internal forms did not. What will happen with Tahrir Square? Will we have a similar problem of a revolution without a heart, or a heart without a revolution?

Indeed, I think of the first stanza as I walk through Harvard Square sometimes, perhaps because it looks something like London, and perhaps because that particular square, out of many in the city, brings together the most powerful and the most bereft. It punctures the divisions established around each and instead reveals the mind-forged manacles at play in each. The ennui and pain of the bourgeoisie, the hunger and addiction of the homeless... And in this strange time warp, still nothing changes in the world. Nothing, nothing changes in all the world...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Poem of the Week 4/18/2012: A Green Crab's Shell

A Green Crab's Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like--

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws'

gesture of menace
and power. A gull's
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
--size of a demitasse--
 open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer's firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

 if we could be opened
into this--
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky.

Mark Doty 1993

One of my very favorite poems, Doty offers us an artifact so delicate that it ends up encompassing the vast sky, the ruins of the ages, a traveling case, and the firmament...

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Poem of the Week 4/8/2012: England in 1819

Sonnet: England in 1819

 An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,--
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,--
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless--a book sealed;
A Senate, Time's worst statute unrepealed,--
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1819

Who knew Shelley was such a radical? Such a revolutionary?  (aren't poets supposed to be dusty and locked in books these days?) Probably most Shelley scholars could have told one otherwise, and many casual readers, but I constantly find his vigor surprising. One can feel breathing through the poem the spirit of revolution, the true and vital political longing for change, as keen as many feel now. Indeed, it mimics that breath he hopes comes out of the "graveyard" of politics; he once said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," and in this case he may be legislating, in a way.

A bit of background - as Shelley is writing this poem, George III, the king of England, has literally been mad since 1810. This madness was the final stroke of a reign than spanned the American Independence (losing the Americas), the French Revolution and the subsequent Terror under Robespierre, and finally wars against Napoleon for more than a decade.

Just a few suggestions of a very few things to pay attention to in this poem: Shelley's diction - (listen to the consonants in the opening line), to his syntax (try to figure out the sentence) - I must leave it to this very scant reading, perhaps to be returned to at a later date.

Good evening, viva la revolucion!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Poem of the Week 3/21/2012: Having a Coke With You

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, IrĂșn, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

Frank O’Hara

This may be one of the sweetest love poems of all modern time; simple and direct and flowing, it offers a particular picture of delight that seems just right to share during the heat and sweat of an early warm spell in Cambridge MA. It showed up in some readings in a class about queer theory - it's optimism, Jose Munoz argues, is what ought to be offered by being "queer," which is, I read, anything beyond the box of the normal, the habitual, the quotidien dull round... What is explosive and fresh! What snaps us into full and vibrant attention, flowing to that delicious other, and the world and possibilities expand; this is, he argues, the leaning in of Utopia, the faintest glimmer and promise. One should just as much say that these glimmerings light up life, make meaning, may be the revolution themselves.

Of course, there are the references to the meaning of art and beauty, the question of a lived and felt experience over that of the work of art, the way the work of art is itself propagated (Elaine Scarry writes that beauty begets beauty, a clicking brook of associations from one act of beauty to another - "this is why I am telling you about it," writes O'Hara), and these are also worth noting. And the poem takes up the great modern project of voicing the everyman, incarnated essentially by Wordsworth back in the day... Offering, alongside, another system of values - to seize the everyday! To live by loving every delicious detail of what is there - tulips and trees and coca cola and lover... Happy hot spring boston and beyond!