Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Who Has Seen The Wind?"

In terms of reading poetry, I've barely scratched the surface.  I'd guess I've read about 1% of the poetry that I would have liked to have read by this point in my life.  But I'm not concerned.  I'm not preparing for an examination.  I'm not in a contest.  In fact, I'm reluctant to read more than one or two poems a day.  A poem deserves attention.  It also needs to sit a while.  It is not a text message.  It is not a sound bite.

Many of us have experienced sensory overload when visiting an art museum:  in time, you lose your ability to see.  I've concluded that I'm better off spending a great deal of time in front of a few paintings rather than trying to look at them all.  The same principle applies, I think, to the reading of poetry:  less is better.  But perhaps I'm simply trying to rationalize my slow pace (and my slow-wittedness).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"

One advantage of my snail's pace is that it allows me to mull things over. Other possibilities may present themselves if you let a poem percolate. Some of these possibilities may lie outside of the poem. For instance, I recently read the following poem for the first time.

             Till I Went Out

Till I went out of doors to prove
What through my window I saw move;
To see if grass was brighter yet,
And if the stones were dark and wet;

Till I went out to see a sign --
That slanted rain, so light and fine,
Had almost settled in my mind
That I at last could see the wind.

W. H. Davies, Forty New Poems (1918).

I am not going to suggest that this is the sort of revelatory poem by which one can steer the course of one's life.  But it shouldn't be passed over quickly.  Consider, for example, the final line, with its implication that this is not the first occasion on which the speaker has sought to see the wind. Some may consider this madness.  Not I.

After reading the poem, I felt that this notion of seeing the wind was something that I had encountered before.  But I couldn't put my finger on it. Then, the next morning, I remembered this.

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
     The wind is passing thro'.

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
     The wind is passing by.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).

Again, this is not a life-changing poem.  But the movement from "Till I Went Out" is a pleasant one.

James McIntosh Patrick
"Rum and Eigg from Ardtoe, Acharacle, Argyllshire" (1959)

Next, Rossetti's poem prompted me to recall this untitled poem by Michael Longley.

When all the reeds are swaying in the wind
How can you tell which reeds the otters bend?

Michael Longley, Selected Poems (Jonathan Cape 1998).

I find this emergence of connections to be rewarding.  These things happen in their own easy-going fashion.  It is not a matter of study or of explication.  Each poem we read stands on its own.  Yet each poem also has a place in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of every poem we have ever read.  And there is no hurry.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn, Kinnordy" (1936)


Chris Matarazzo said...

It's probably no suprise, Steve, that I agree with you completely in terms of slowing down to allow a poem to "sink in," as it were. I am torn on the idea of "explication" (which I am forced to do with students) and wanting simply to let the poem unfold in my imagination. But, sometimes, I find "explication" to help in the process -- so long as we don't operate under the illusion that the poem is the proverbial nut to crack open in order to find the "true meaning." Some things are put in front of us to "get through" as quickly as possible; some achievements are measured in quantities. Not poetry. Poetry is measured in the immeasurable vastness contained within one, single line. That is never something to be rushed.

Fred said...

"Each poem we read stands on its own. Yet each poem also has a place in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of every poem we have ever read. And there is no hurry."

I think TS Eliot would agree with the above.

I have to wait a bit after reading a poem or a story while it percolates down below, and ideas, connections, memories slowly emerge, sometimes days later.

Mary Ahearn said...

Well stated - as always. Taking time to read something carefully, let it rest, and then seeing connections is pure joy. I hope that this is never lost.

b floyd said...

Your first paragraph of today's posting is one of the wisest comments I've read on how one should approach poetry. You are right to take your poetry sparingly, in an abstemious fashion. One or two splendid poems a day is manna enough to feed our imaginations, to sweeten or sensibilities. Gluttony in the reading of poetry is no virtue: it works against the very physic poetry can provide to us.

I have no data, possess not much more than a hunch, but it could be that excellent poetry, the truly great work, is the rarest of the arts. Probably only about one per cent of the poetry ever written, if that much, is worth reading--and yet it seems that almost every person thinks himself or herself capable of writing a superb poem.

Below is a delightful poem by Dickinson in which she cleverly personifies the wind:

The Wind didn't come from the Orchard—today—
Further than that—
Nor stop to play with the Hay—
Nor joggle a Hat—
He's a transitive fellow—very—
Rely on that—

If He leave a Bur at the door
We know He has climbed a Fir—
But the Fir is Where—Declare—
Were you ever there?

If He brings Odors of Clovers—
And that is His business—not Ours—
Then He has been with the Mowers—
Whetting away the Hours
To sweet pauses of Hay—
His Way—of a June Day—

If He fling Sand, and Pebble—
Little Boys Hats—and Stubble—
With an occasional Steeple—
And a hoarse "Get out of the way, I say,"
Who'd be the fool to stay?
Would you—Say—
Would you be the fool to stay?

Clarissa Aykroyd said...

The Michael Longley poem, in particular, is a favourite. I enjoy reading your blog partly because you are good at finding those connections, the way poems seem to be related or descended from one another. I find that such connections can sometimes be so powerful as to be quite eerie. I start to wonder if there is direct inspiration at work, or if the poems are more intangibly (but still real-ly) related by similar imagery, mood, things even more indefinable. Sometimes I think that it may represent a similar wiring of the brain. Like if you analyzed those poets' brains, you would find profoundly similar results, which throw out similar patterns and metaphors.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: "the immeasurable vastness contained within one, single line" is perfect. You've said it better than I can.

As for explication, I probably overstated the case. I readily confess to having picked my way through, say, Eliot's or Stevens's poems with guidebooks in hand. And I like to read books of criticism on poets I admire. And, if poems hadn't been explicated to me by teachers like you when I was young, I would have been lost.

But you are right: the emphasis on scholarly explication during our lifetime has tended to encourage the view that poems are arcane puzzles or riddles to be solved. Which tends to dampen enthusiasm among those who do not have an inherent liking for poetry.

As always, it's good to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: well, that will be the first and last time anything I write is mentioned in the same breath with T. S. Eliot! But I do appreciate the kind words.

I know that you and I both enjoy Chinese and Japanese literature and philosophy: I think that they encourage a quiet, patient approach to these things. I am nowhere near to reaching their standards, of course, but it is something to aspire to. For instance, I feel that I am not giving a haiku adequate justice if I don't let it unfold for a while.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I hope that all is well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Ahearn: thank you very much for the kind words, and for your thoughts.

I agree with you about not losing our ability to read carefully, and to let things unfold slowly. The world we live in counsels the opposite, doesn't it? Speed, volume, and superficiality seem to be rewarded. But we all have the power to resist.

Thank you for visiting. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: thank you for the kind words about the post. I agree that "gluttony in the reading of poetry is no virtue." I'm amazed when I hear someone say, for example, that they read an entire novel over the course of a couple of days or over a week: it makes me feel like a sluggard. But then I realize that I'm just better suited (for some unknown reason) to slowly ruminating over poems. That doesn't mean my way is "better." It's just the way it is for me.

As always, I appreciate your sharing a Dickinson poem. You always remind me of what I have been missing. I particularly like: "He's a transitive fellow -- very --/Rely on that." Wonderful.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Aykroyd: it's very nice to hear from you again.

Yes, the Longley poem is wonderful isn't it? Quite a bit packed into two lines, isn't there? I don't think I'll ever get to the bottom of it.

Well, at least one benefit of growing old and still retaining (knock on wood!) one's memory is the ability to have these connections play out in front of you now and then. Although, as I noted, it may take a bit of time for things to float to the surface.

I like your musings about how various poems seem to relate to one another. I'm not sure if it is the wiring of poets's brains, or if there is a store of images and connections in all of us, and poets (and other artists) are able to articulate them for us.

From reading your blog, I know that you have a great interest in non-English poetry. I don't know as much as you do, but my experience with Japanese and Chinese poetry is that, although cultural differences in terms of form and content are certainly present, the underlying Images, emotions, etc. are recurrent throughout the world.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for your thoughts. I hope you'll return soon.

Ron Ireland said...

Thank you for this wonderful posting today. I make my living in songs, writing and singing them. The creative process is sometimes a matter of slowing down, waiting, and holding an idea until it is ready. Your way of approaching poetry honors the creative process that gave birth to the poem. On a personal note, there is nothing slow-witted about you, sir.

Anonymous said...

Here is another poem by ..w.H. Davies, one that I learned about in 8th grade, many decades ago:


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Quite on the topic of your post.
Also, I love those two lines of Michael Longley.

Stephen Pentz said...

Billy Budd: thank you very much for visiting again.

You put it well: I do like to think that a poem (or any work of art) -- and as you say, the creator and his or her effort -- deserve our attention and our time. Our culture promotes ever-shorter attention spans, and we need to resist that.

As for my slow-wittedness: thank you for the kind words. I wasn't fishing for a compliment, really! I only know that I often say to myself "Now, what's that about?" after reading a poem.

I appreciate your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: it's very nice to hear from you again.

It's a lovely coincidence that you posted Davies's "Leisure": I had thought of including it in the post, but I decided not to because it made the post a bit lengthy. So you and I are on the same wave-length. It is an old chestnut, isn't it? But one that is always worth revisiting.

Thank you very much for your thoughts. Please visit again soon.