Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Life As A Work Of Art, Part One: "Written, Directed By And Starring . . ."

The poetic conceit that life may be compared to a work of art -- most commonly, a play -- is an old one:  Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage" being perhaps the best-known example.  But Sir Walter Raleigh tried his hand at the comparison as well:  "What is our life?  A play of passion . . ."  As, later, did Walter Savage Landor:


Alas, how soon the hours are over,
Counted us out to play the lover!
And how much narrower is the stage,
Allotted us to play the sage!

But when we play the fool, how wide
The theatre expands;  beside,
How long the audience sits before us!
How many prompters!  what a chorus!

John Forster (editor), The Works of Walter Savage Landor (1846).

                              Charles Ginner, "The Winged Faun" (1926)

The conceit continues to be visited in our time, and is often expanded to include novels, movies, and other entertainments.  The following poem is by James Simmons (1933-2001).

       Written, Directed by and Starring . . .

The scripts I used to write for the young actor --
me -- weren't used.  And now I couldn't play
the original parts and, as director,
I'd turn myself, if I applied, away.

My break will come; but now the star's mature
his parts need character and 'love' is out.
He learns to smile on birth and death, to endure:
it's strange I keep the old scripts lying about.

Looking them over I've at times forgot
they've never been put on.  I seem to spend
too much time reading through a final shot
where massed choirs sing, they kiss, and then THE END.

It's hard to start upon this middle phase
when my first period never reached the screen,
and there's no end now to my new screen-plays,
they just go on from scene to scene to scene.

The hero never hogs the screen because
his wife, his children, friends, events intrude.
When he's not on the story doesn't pause --
not if he dies.  I don't see why it should.

James Simmons, Late But In Earnest (1967).

                      John Lavery, "The Countess of Oxford and Asquith,
                                   The Wharf, Sutton Courtenay" (1925)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Beyond All This, The Wish To Be Alone"

Ah, the allure of solitude.  But it is likely that, after a stretch of being alone, we will long for company.  Even Montaigne found that, for reasons other than mere loneliness, retirement to a life of solitude was not all that it was cracked up to be:

"Lately when I retired to my home, determined so far as possible to bother about nothing except spending the little life I have left in rest and seclusion, it seemed to me I could do my mind no greater favor than to let it entertain itself in full idleness and stay and settle in itself, which I hoped it might do more easily now, having become weightier and riper with time.

But I find -- Ever idle hours breed wandering thoughts (Lucan) -- that, on the contrary, like a runaway horse, it gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself."

Michel de Montaigne, "Of Idleness," Essays (translated by Donald Frame) (1588).

Yet, a romantic notion about the pleasures of solitude persists, and I would be disingenuous if I claimed not to share that notion.  Hence, I confess that something like this appeals to me (even though I have never been a fan of D. H. Lawrence):

                         Delight of Being Alone

I know no greater delight than the sheer delight of being alone
It makes me realise the delicious pleasure of the moon
that she has in travelling by herself:  throughout time,
or the splendid growing of an ash-tree
alone, on a hill-side in the north, humming in the wind.

D. H. Lawrence, Last Poems (1932).

                     J. A. G. Acke "In the Stockholm Archipelago" (1910)

But, when it comes to the putative joys of being alone, Lawrence cannot (needless to say) hold a candle to Philip Larkin.  And thus, as is so often the case for me (which, I acknowledge, is surely a sign of some sort of malign pathology), I shall give the last word to Mr. Larkin (who, as always, is brutally honest, appalling, and, alas, correct -- after a fashion).


Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff --
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death --
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (1955).

When, decades ago, I first read "Wants," I was taken with "the wish to be alone" business.  Now, however, I think that the finest part of the poem is this:  "The costly aversion of the eyes from death."

                      Charles Ginner, "Dahlias and Cornflowers" (1929)

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Matter Of Perspective

Yes, whether speaking of the state of civilization or the state of our own soul, we should keep things in perspective, as the old saw goes.  Yet, sooner or later, you end up on the beach, or in the field, or on the threshold of the house.  And this, of course, is as it should be.

                    Under the Mountain

Seen from above
The foam in the curving bay is a goose-quill
That feathers . . . unfeathers . . . itself.

Seen from above
The field is a flap and the haycocks buttons
To keep it flush with the earth.

Seen from above
The house is a silent gadget whose purpose
Was long since obsolete.

But when you get down
The breakers are cold scum and the wrack
Sizzles with stinking life.

When you get down
The field is a failed or a worth-while crop, the source
Of back-ache if not heartache.

And when you get down
The house is a maelstrom of loves and hates where you --
Having got down -- belong.

Louis MacNeice, Holes in the Sky (1948).

                                Henry Lamb, "Fecamp Harbour" (1937)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Life Explained, Part Twenty: "The Solvers"

I have previously posted Elizabeth Jennings's poem "Answers," which begins:

I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The following poem by James Reeves considers the role of questions and answers in Life.  To wit:  what if one sets out to be a solver of puzzles and then discovers that there are no solutions, or, perhaps, that there is nothing to be solved?

                          The Solvers

Invalids and other hotel residents
Unpuzzle themselves with patience-cards and jigsaws.
Crosswords engage saloon passengers at sea.
Philosophers invent puzzles with answers.
Each knows that what he is trying can be done.
Not all enjoy such comfort of assurance.
I, watching the backs of houses and of books,
Work away at my mind, fitting the pieces,
Pairing the cards, rejecting words.
So sitting, I become suddenly conscious
Of playing patience with crooked pieces,
While solving an incomplete jigsaw with words
In the precise non-language of a dream.
Some of the pieces fit, some of the cards match,
Only some of the pieces and the cards are lost.
I have tried to play it according to the rules,
Only the rules they sent are in Chinese.
Is it too late, I ask, to start again?
Or will extinction, when it comes, surprise me
Sorting the pieces, working out the clues?

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (1964).

                            Franklin Carmichael, "Cranberry Lake" (1931)

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Tuft Of Kelp, Birds, And A Cat

An obvious point:  in poetry, a great deal can be accomplished in a small space.  Another obvious point:  in poetry, a great deal can be accomplished with commonplace objects.  In my dotage, these features are assuming greater importance.

Who knows why certain poems stay with you and others disappear?  For some reason, the following poems have hung around.  I believe that they are fine instances of poems in which much is accomplished in a short time with what might seem to be trivial objects.

        The Tuft of Kelp

All dripping in tangles green,
     Cast up by a lonely sea,
If purer for that, O Weed,
     Bitterer, too, are ye?

Herman Melville, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888).

One is tempted to read the course of Melville's life back into the poem:  the early praise and fame; the criticism and neglect that followed; and, finally, the decades of obscurity.  (John Marr and Other Sailors was privately printed by Melville in an edition of 25 copies.)  But is such a reading necessary?  The poem can just as easily be about each of us.  And it can just as easily be about . . . a tuft of kelp.

                                                Kenneth Macqueen
               "Receding Tide, Near Coolum, Queensland" (c. 1940-1950)

The following untitled poem is by Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904).

Sir, say no more.
Within me 't is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind's poor birds.

George Cabot Lodge, et al. (editors), The Poems of Trumbull Stickney (1905).

Again, one is tempted to read the course of Stickney's life back into the poem:  he died at the age of 30 of a brain tumor, and this fragment was one of the last things that he wrote.  But, again, it can just as easily be about each of us.

                      Edward Bawden, "Emma Nelson by the Fire" (1987)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

How To Live, Part Eleven: "Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu"

Pondering the merits of a "careful" life versus a "carefree" life is all well and good, but, in the end, it is a side-show and a subplot, isn't it?  I don't deny that it is a serious business, this choosing of a "lifestyle" (a horrible 20th-century word), but there is an underlying and overarching and all-encompassing certainty out there . . .

           Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu

That would be waving and that would be crying,
Crying and shouting and meaning farewell,
Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the centre,
Just to stand still without moving a hand.

In a world without heaven to follow, the stops
Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder,
And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell,
Just to be there and just to behold.

To be one's singular self, to despise
The being that yielded so little, acquired
So little, too little to care, to turn
To the ever-jubilant weather, to sip

One's cup and never to say a word,
Or to sleep or just to lie there still,
Just to be there, just to be beheld,
That would be bidding farewell, be bidding farewell.

One likes to practice the thing.  They practice,
Enough, for heaven.  Ever-jubilant,
What is there here but weather, what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (1936).

                   Godfrey Miller, "Triptych with Figures" (c. 1944-1950)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How To Live, Part Ten: "A Life Reprehensibly Perfect"

The following poem by Philip Larkin provides a good companion piece to Frank Ormsby's "My Careful Life."  As one might expect, jolly old Philip suggests that a careless, ostensibly rebellious and romantic life may be every bit as hollow as a careful life.  This would seem to lead to what some might call a characteristic Larkinian conclusion:  we are doomed either way.

But might there be more going on here?  As is often the case (and, as I have noted before, he shares this quality with Robert Frost and Edward Thomas), Larkin gets cagey with us at the end of the poem.  Something is given; something is taken back.  Maybe, come to think of it, the choice is not between "careful" and "careless."  Perhaps, in the end, there is no choice at all.  One should remember what Larkin said about the poetry of Edward Thomas:  "The poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind, so well paralleled by his verse."

            Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (1955).

                                 William Ratcliffe, "Attic Room" (1918)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How To Live, Part Nine: "My Careful Life"

I tend to be a "belt-and-suspenders" type of person.  Hence, a poem about a "careful life" (whether that poem be humorous or deadly serious) is likely to be just my cup of tea.  After a certain amount of time on earth (or Earth), you begin to let go of things, don't you?  And you wonder why some things (which now seem laughable and/or appalling) once seemed important.  Yes, there is much to be said for a careful life.  But not wholly careful.

                  My Careful Life

My careful life says:  'No surrender.
Not an inch.'  Sometimes I wonder

what thrills the darkness as I pass
the scented gardens of excess

or pause in the twilight to condemn
the parked cars rocking in the lane.

But still my life cries:  'Work and save.
Rise early.  Stay home after five

and pull the curtains.  They are blessed
-- prudent, abstemious -- who resist.

All things in moderation.  Share
nothing.  Be seemly and austere.'

My careful life sighs:  'Love?  Forget it!
Avoid what is sexually transmitted.

The "wasteful virtues," I'm afraid,
earn nothing.  They put you in the red.

Samaritans get mugged.  Be wise.
Pass watchfully on the other side.

Your youth was stainless.  Now your joy'll
be the middle years full of self-denial,

and an old age as ripe and warm
as is commensurate with decorum.'

Frank Ormsby, A Northern Spring (1986).  A note regarding Lines 15 and 16:  the introductory poem to W. B. Yeats's collection Responsibilities (1914) contains the line:  "Only the wasteful virtues earn the sun."

                                  Jeffrey Smart, "Newtown Oval" (1961)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lists, Part Four: "Field Names"

My introduction to English field names came through a chapter in George Ewart Evans's Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay (1956), a book about the now-vanished life of rural Suffolk.  Much later, I came across the following poem by Clive Sansom (1910-1981).  Perhaps the poem provides another approach to the topic of the wordlessness (but not silence) of the World -- and our own use of words as a response.

                              Field Names

Our name-givers loved the World and loved the Word:
These two delights are only an ell apart.
Coupling, they gave birth to those field names
That map the earth in the language of the heart:

     'Wooden Cabbage', 'Three Men's Field',
     'Charity Bottom', 'Doom',
     'Perrymans', 'God's Blessing Green',
     'Fishponds' and 'Bramble Coomb'.
     'Reddleman's', Bedlam', 'Dancing Hill',
     'Troy Town', and 'Starvecrow Land',
     'Lottery', 'Drummer's Castle', 'Fleet',
     'Crocker's Knap', 'Flower-in-Hand'. . . .

Lavish as wildflowers in a Dorset hedgerow,
Fragrant as their names before the botanists came,
They startle the lawyers' deeds with their heart-language
And stake, in some fragment of England, their loving claim.

Clive Sansom, Dorset Village (1962).

                          John Aldridge, "Stubble Field, Thaxted" (1968)

Friday, August 12, 2011

"The Cool Web"

If the World is either reticent or mute, we humans, for our part, do not know when to shut up.  Lao Tzu's well-known dictum is a good starting point:  "Those who know do not talk.  Those who talk do not know." Perhaps.  Po Chu-i puts Lao Tzu in humorous perspective for us (the translation is by Arthur Waley):

                  Lao Tzu

"Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know are silent."
Those words, I am told,
Were spoken by Lao Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao Tzu
     Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book
     Of five thousand words?

Robert Graves suggests that yakking may serve a purpose.  But at a cost.

                        The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Robert Graves, Poems, 1914-1926 (1927).

                                     Norman Rowe, "Span" (1985)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"I Only Came For Speech Of Beech And Beck -- I Only Came For Speech"

In view of my previous post on the wordlessness or wordiness -- take your pick -- of the wind (and, for that matter, of the World in general), the following poem may be pertinent.  That being said, I have always felt that I have never fully grasped its meaning.  But (as I am wont to say), it sounds lovely.  Which, in this instance, may be the point.

I have presumed (perhaps wrongly) that the title refers to the musical composition of that name, defined by the OED as "a species of musical composition in which the different parts take up the same subject one after another, either at the same or at a different pitch, in strict imitation."  For musical illiterates such as I, Wikipedia helpfully states that a "round" such as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Frere Jacques" is a type of canon.  Now that I can understand.

  Beside the paper-mill at
 Burneside, Westmorland

I only spoke to see the tree
In flood -- I only spoke to see.

I only looked to hear the weir
In song -- I only looked to hear.

I listened just to tell the yel-
low rag -- I listened just to tell

The yellow ragtail how to show
And teach the yellow ragwort how

I only came for speech of beech
And beck -- I only came for speech.

Norman Nicholson, The Pot Geranium (1954).

                               Charles Ginner, "The Rib, Standon" (1939)                       

Monday, August 8, 2011

"What Syllable Are You Seeking, Vocalissimus, In The Distances Of Sleep?"

A few poems onward from "The Wind Shifts," Wallace Stevens again considers the wind in the poem that brings Harmonium to a close. Although the poem is brief, it encapsulates a recurring theme in Stevens's poetry: how do we make our way in a World (or, as Stevens preferred, in a Reality) that is beautiful, but mute?

     To the Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

This brings to mind a poem by Robert Nye about the wind, and its words.

     Words on the Wind

I heard a voice calling
"Do not be afraid
For blessed is he
Who is what he was
Before he was made."

They came on the wind
Those singular words
And on the wind went.
Perhaps all it was
Was the calling of birds?

Perhaps all there is
Is the calling of birds
As they're blown on the wind
And we just mistake it
For singular words?

God knows I don't know
But now night is falling
I am what I was
Before I was made,
And this is my calling.

Robert Nye, The Rain and the Glass: 99 Poems, New and Selected (Greenwich Exchange 2005).

                         Eric Ravilious, "Two Women in a Garden" (1933)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"This Is How The Wind Shifts"

I have often stated (ad nauseam by now, I fear) that I prefer the late poetry of Wallace Stevens to his early poetry, with its "Tum-ti-tum,/Ti-tum-tum-tum" ("Ploughing on Sunday") and "But ki-ki-ri-ki/Brings no rou-cou,/No rou-cou-cou" ("Depression Before Spring").  That being said, there is a sparer, more direct (please notice that I say "more direct," not "direct"), and less rococo style sitting side-by-side with these floridities.  For instance, "The Snow Man," "Anecdote of the Jar," "Domination of Black,""The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad," and "The Death of a Soldier" (to name a few) appear in either the original (1923) or the supplemented (1931) Harmonium.

I place the following poem in the "sparer" category.  Which is not to say that I have ever made head or tail of it.  But it sounds lovely.  And I think I get the drift.

           The Wind Shifts

This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human,
Who still thinks eagerly
And despairingly.
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

              James Bateman, "The Pool, Blockley, Gloucestershire" (1926)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Art Is Not Life": R. S. Thomas And Wallace Stevens

I recently posted Wallace Stevens's "This Solitude of Cataracts," which begins with these four lines:

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

Through many places, as if it stood still in one,
Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered.

The third line perhaps shares an affinity with a poem by R. S. Thomas, who wrote more than a few fine poems about streams and rivers.


Taking the next train
to the city, yet always returning
to his place on a bridge
over a river, throbbing

with trout, whose widening
circles are the mandala
for contentment.  So will a poet
return to the work laid

on one side and abandoned
for the voices summoning him
to the wrong tasks.  Art
is not life.  It is not the river

carrying us away, but the motionless
image of itself on a fast-
running surface with which life
tries constantly to keep up.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (1983).

I haven't looked into what R. S. Thomas thought about Wallace Stevens, but I should.  Thomas did write a poem titled "Wallace Stevens," so he was familiar with his poetry.  This is the final stanza:

There was no spring in his world.
His one season was late fall;
The self ripe, but without taste.
Yet painfully on the poem's crutch
He limped on, taking despair
As a new antidote for love.

R. S. Thomas, "Wallace Stevens," in The Bread of Truth (1963).

"His one season was late fall."  Hmmm . . . I'm not so sure about that. Many of my favorite Stevens poems are indeed set in autumn.  But some might think of him as the poet of winter:  "The Course of a Particular" and, of course, "The Snow Man."  Or "deep January":  "No Possum, No Sop, No Taters."  And then there is March: "Vacancy in the Park" and "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself."  And July:  "July Mountain."  As well as August:  "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts."

                                Pekka Halonen, "The River Bank" (1897)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Life Explained, Part Nineteen: "One Into Darkening Hills Leads On, And One Toward Distant Seas"

I find Walter de la Mare's poetry to be at its best when he abandons the late-Victorian diction of much of his verse.  Although he was close to Edward Thomas, and greatly valued Thomas's poetry, he seldom used the straightforward (but deep) approach that Thomas and Robert Frost embarked upon.  Nonetheless, de la Mare's poetry is still enjoyable.

The following poem is more plain-spoken, and I can almost hear a trace of Thomas in it.  (And not simply because it shares the same scene as "Adlestrop.")  As to the subject:  I suppose that journeys and way-stations on those journeys lend themselves to larger considerations.

                 The Railway Junction

From here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; and one of these
Wheels onward into darkening hills,
And one toward distant seas.

How still it is; the signal light
At set of sun shines palely green;
A thrush sings; other sound there's none,
Nor traveller to be seen --

Where late there was a throng.  And now,
In peace awhile, I sit alone;
Though soon, at the appointed hour,
I shall myself be gone.

But not their way:  the bow-legged groom,
The parson in black, the widow and son,
The sailor with his cage, the gaunt
Gamekeeper with his gun,

That fair one, too, discreetly veiled --
All, who so mutely came, and went,
Will reach those far nocturnal hills,
Or shores, ere night is spent.

I nothing know why thus we met --
Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:
And what shall I remember, except --
The evening growing late --

That here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; of these
One into darkening hills leads on,
And one toward distant seas?

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (1933).

                                Spencer Gore, "Letchworth Station" (1912)