Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Becoming A Poem

Those who have departed often return unexpectedly.  One then feels ashamed for having failed to properly attend to one's memories of them. This is not a matter of ghosts or of spirits, but of full-bodied presences in the mind's-eye:  when they return, they are right there in front of us.  Silent.

          Last Poem

Stand at the grave's head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.

And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And her
Long silences;
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.

F. T. Prince, Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).

Here is the lovely inspiration for Prince's poem:

"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."

Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May 29, 1872, in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978).

I'm surprised that Prince uses "common" rather than Hardy's "prosaic": the transition from "prosaic" to "poem" is wonderful.  I'd wager that Hardy would have described himself as prosaic.  Aren't we all?  And "common" as well.  Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't faced the facts.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Midsummer, East Fife" (1936)

The following passage perhaps provides a roundabout instance of what Hardy has in mind.

Thus did he speak.  "I see around me here
Things which you cannot see:  we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left."

William Wordsworth, "Book First: The Wanderer," lines 469-474, The Excursion, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume V (Oxford University Press 1949), page 24.

The lines are spoken by "the Wanderer."  "The Author" has found him drowsing in the sun, "the shadows of the breezy elms above/Dappling his face."  Ibid, lines 440-441.  The Excursion is a diffuse poem, with a tendency towards the long-winded, but one of the things that Wordsworth may be getting at is that we all have it in us to live, like the Wanderer, in our own "peculiar nook of earth."  But does that nook indeed die with us?  Is there "no memorial left" of how we have lived?

Hardy suggests that each of us ("prosaic" though we are), together with our peculiar nook, becomes a poem.  It certainly seems that way when the departed return to visit us.  A sentimental notion, I concede.  But I have no quarrel with sentimentality.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A Castle in Scotland"

I suspect that the subject matter of this post may be traceable to the fact that I have been visiting Thomas Hardy's poetry over the past few weeks.  As I have noted in the past, communings with the departed are a matter-of-fact occurrence in Hardy's poetry.  Things are seen out of the corner of one's eye.  There are tappings on windows and whispers in the boughs of trees. But these signals are never a cause for alarm.  Hardy -- sunk in the past as he was -- treats them as commonplaces.  Who does not think of the dead? And who's to say they are not thinking of us?

Hardy admired the poetry of Charlotte Mew, and he, along with others, helped procure a Civil List Pension for her when she was in financial straits.  The departed are plentiful in her poetry as well.

                              Here Lies a Prisoner

               Leave him:  he's quiet enough:  and what matter
               Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
          that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                                   Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Downie Mill" (1962)

In the end, we all return to silence, don't we?

       The Best Thing to Say

The best thing to say is nothing
And that I do not say,
But I will say it, when I lie
In silence all the day.

C. H. Sisson, Collected Poems (Carcanet 1998).

"The Best Thing to Say" is one of Sisson's harrowing final poems, a selection of which appeared here five years ago.  He doesn't present a pretty picture.  Thus, it falls upon Thomas Hardy -- the purported "pessimist" -- to provide us with hope.  Yes, each of us returns to silence.  But we each become a poem.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"

28 comments:

R.T. said...

Lovely, Stephen!
May I add two offerings. The first is from Ben Jonson:

On My First Son
by Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

I cannot read this poem without being tossed again into an endless maelstrom of memories: my own son's death. He is silent, but he is not silent. The paradox remains after 40 years.

And then there is the brilliant line in what Harold Bloom calls the "poem unlimited," Shakespeare's _Hamlet_:

"The rest is silence."

Well, yes and no. The paradox persists.
All the best to you, Stephen, from a humble blogger at Beyond Eastrod; the welcome mat is always out for visitors.

Anonymous said...

The Lovemaker
by Robert Mezey

I see you in her bed,
Dark, rootless epicene,
Where a lone ghost is laid
And other ghosts convene;

And hear you moan at last
Your pleasure in the deep
Haven of her who kissed
Your blind mouth into sleep.

But body, once enthralled,
Wakes in the chains it wore,
Dishevelled, stupid, cold,
And famished as before,

And hears its paragon
Breathe in the ghostly air,
Anonymous carrion
Ravished by despair.

Lovemaker, I have felt
Desire take my part,
But lacked your constant fault
And something of your art,

And would not bend my knees
To the unmantled pride
That left you in that place,
Forever unsatisfied.

I came across this poem a few days ago. When I read today's post, I thought it germane to your topic.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, Another wonderful post. Your recent visits to Hardy have prompted me to revisit him myself. I also hugely admire Charlotte Mew's poetry. Wordsworth's lines from The Wanderer are wonderful. I think perhaps we each have our own peculiar nook of earth. I know I have. Is anything of me left there when I die? I'd like to think there maybe something. Perhaps a glimpse in the corner of a future eye.
I'm off to Greece in a few days for a holiday and hoping to re-read Hardy's The Woodlanders, a long time favourite of mine,and of course there will be a couple of volumes of poetry. They'll have to be slim-ish due to restrictions on weight, choices yet to be made.
In the meanwhile thank you for continuing with such fascinating and thoughtful posts.

Ultra Monk said...

I like the title of this post. It causes my consciousness to expand.

Bruce Floyd said...

Wordsworth in 1797-1798 wrote a long narrative poem he tiled "The Ruined Cottage." He revised it several times before he published it in an expanded version titled "The Excursion." "The Ruined Cottage" was not published as an independent poem until 1949. The poem examines a constant theme of Wordsworth's work: how do we confront the bleak demands of life, "a tale of silent suffering"--suffering that is "undeserved, unrationalized, and irremissive."

In "The Ruined Cottage" an old peddler and wanderer named Armytage (having all the lineaments of what I call "the Wordsworthian hero--see "The Leech Gatherer) tells a young man who has gathered with him in coppice to avoid the heat. It is then that Armytage tells the young man that he, Armytage 'can see things here' which the young man can't. The vestiges of a cottage wall remain, and it is then, upon noting the ruined cottage, that Armytage tells the heartbreaking story of who once lived in this cottage: a man and wife and their two sons.

Hard times come. The husband abandons his family, perhaps enlisting in the Army and being killed. The wife falls into despair. She falls further into paralyzing grief as the years pass. Her older son she sends away to be an apprentice. The younger son dies of neglect, and, finally, the wife, the cottage all but collapsing now, raining pouring through great holes in the roof, dies: "Last human tenant of these ruined walls."

Armytage tells this story, and the young man, overcome, unwilling to show his tears to the older man, turns away and "in the impotence of grief" he tries to understand the sorrow life brings with it. The young man returns to the ruins of the cottage. The old man says to him (in the process giving us Wordsworth's assessment of the human predicament) that one should not give grief more than its due:

"My Friend! enough to sorrow you have given,
The purposes of wisdom ask no more:
Nor more would she have craved as due to One
Who, in her worst distress, had ofttimes felt
The unbounded might of prayer; and learned, with soul
Fixed on the Cross, that consolation springs,
From sources deeper far than deepest pain,
For the meek Sufferer. Why then should we read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye?
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o'er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
That passing shows of Being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream, that could maintain,
Nowhere, dominion o'er the enlightened spirit
Whose meditative sympathies repose
Upon the breast of Faith. I turned away,
And walked along my road in happiness."



Anonymous said...

I do not have the words to describe your post today but it felt like a beautiful prayer.

Stephen Pentz said...

R.T.: Thank you very much for your kind words, and for the wonderful (and wonderfully apt) offerings from Jonson and Shakespeare. Jonson's poem always moves me. I can only imagine (ineffectually) how it must affect you, given the sad experience you relate, something which I have never had to deal with. You have my sympathy. And you know about these silences much better than I do.

As always, I greatly appreciate your stopping by. I hope that all is well. I have been checking in on Beyond Eastrod: I am glad to see that you are keeping it active. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the poem by Robert Mezey: both he and the poem are new to me. I must confess that the poem goes over my head. I've been happily buried in Hardy's world and words for the past few weeks, and these allusive and oblique contemporary poems are difficult for me to figure out when I am residing mentally in 19th or early-20th century Dorset. Or I may simply be slow on the uptake. In any case, I appreciate your sharing it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: As ever, thank you for visiting, and for your kind words about the post.

Well, you are certainly heading to Greece at an interesting time. But you can ignore all of that and focus on the landscape. Ah, the eternal question of what books to bring along on vacation! I always tend to be over-optimistic about how much reading I will actually get done, and end up with way too many books: "What if I get in the mood to read [fill in the blanks] . . ."

Yes, I too hope that we can fashion a "peculiar nook" of our own. We'll never know, will we? But the idea is lovely.

I hope that you have a wonderful holiday. Come to think of it, perhaps you should bring Bernard Spencer's poems: as you know, he wrote a number of lovely poems about Greece and the neighboring seas and lands. Happy travelling!

Stephen Pentz said...

Ultra Monk: It's very nice to hear from you again.

As for the title of the post causing your "consciousness to expand": we can thank Thomas Hardy for that. I am continually amazed at what he comes up with.

Thank your very much for your thoughts, and for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for providing us with the passage from Wordsworth, as well as your thoughts introducing it. In recent years, I have finally gotten around to working my way partially through the Excursion/Recluse/Ruined Cottage project. The whole thing makes my head spin, so I read parts of it at a time, hoping to find beautiful nuggets. The passage you quote is the sort of thing I hope to come across when I dive in.

"She sleeps in the calm earth" is lovely, and reminds me of "A slumber did my spirit seal": "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course/With rocks, and stones, and trees." But the entire passage is very nice.

As always, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to share these things with us, together with your insightful thoughts on them.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: That's a lovely thing to say. Thank you very much.

As I mentioned in my reply to Ultra Monk's comment, all of the credit goes to Thomas Hardy, whose beautiful words set things in motion, and which thence carried us on to the other poets. I'm privileged to deliver their message, and I'm moved by your response. Thank you again.

John Ashton said...

Ah, Mr Pentz, Bernard Spencer an obvious choice. I should have thought of him myself.

The holiday was arranged long before the financial situation became what it is today. We are on one of the smaller islands, so far away from the ferment of Athens itself.

Anonymous said...

Below is the conclusion of Richard Steele's essay on how one responds to death. As one ages, one seems to cope better with death, the unexpected death. Steele talks about the death of the first woman he ever loved. In the same week, he says, he saw her dressed in a gown for a ball and then a shroud.

He sends for three of his friends. They drink wine, and, in spite of the death they are lamenting, find themselves, in not frolicsome, cheerful. With men like Steele life seems to triumph over death. Steele will get on with life.

From Recollections by Richard Steele
from the Tatler, Number 181, June 6, 1710


We that are very old are better able to remember things which befell us in our distant youth, than the passages of later days. For this reason it is that the companions of my strong and vigorous years present themselves more immediately to me in this office of sorrow. Untimely and unhappy deaths are what we are most apt to lament; so little are we able to make it indifferent when a thing happens, though we know it must happen.

Thus we groan under life, and bewail those who are relieved from it. Every object that returns to our imagination raises different passions, according to the circumstance of their departure. Who can have lived in an army, and in a serious hour reflect upon the many gay and agreeable men that might long have flourished in the arts of peace, and not join with the imprecations of the fatherless and widows on the tyrant to whose ambition they fell sacrifices? But gallant men, who are cut off by the sword, move rather our veneration than our pity; and we gather relief enough from their own contempt of death, to make that no evil, which was approached with so much cheerfulness, and attended with so much honour. But when we turn our thoughts from the great parts of life on such occasions, and, instead of lamenting those who stood ready to give death to those from whom they had the fortune to receive it; I say, when we let our thoughts wander from such noble objects, and consider the havoc which is made among the tender and the innocent, pity enters with an unmixed softness, and possesses all our souls at once.

Here (were there words to express such sentiments with proper tenderness) I should record the beauty, innocence, and untimely death, of the first object my eyes ever beheld with love. The beauteous virgin! how ignorantly did she charm, how carelessly excel! Oh death! thou hast right to the bold, to the ambitious, to the high, and to the haughty; but why this cruelty to the humble, to the meek, to the undiscerning, to the thoughtless? Nor age, nor business, nor distress, can erase the dear image from my imagination. In the same week I saw her dressed for a ball, and in a shroud. How ill did the habit of death become the pretty trifler! I still behold the smiling earth--A large train of disasters were coming on to my memory, when my servant knocked at my closet-door, and interrupted me with a letter, attended with a hamper of wine, of the same sort with that which is to be put to sale on Thursday next, at Garraway's coffee-house. Upon the receipt of it, I sent for three of my friends. We are so intimate, that we can be company in whatever state of mind we meet, and can entertain each other without expecting always to rejoice. The wine we found to be generous and warming, but with such a heat as moved us rather to be cheerful than frolicsome. It revived the spirits, without firing the blood. We commended it until two of the clock this morning; and having to-day met a little before dinner, we found, that though we drank two bottles a man, we had much more reason to recollect than forget what had passed the night before.



Anonymous said...

I've always thought Louise Bogan a much underrated poet. I'd never compare Bogan with Hardy, but Bogan's poem reminds me of Hardy, if only that Hardy wrote many poems to the dead, writing as if those in the Great Shadow could hear him. I find Bogan's final lines quite Hardyesque, an enunciation of sad resignation.


To a Dead Lover

By Louise Bogan


The dark is thrown

Back from the brightness, like hair

Cast over a shoulder.

I am alone,


Four years older;

Like the chairs and the walls

Which I once watched brighten

With you beside me. I was to waken

Never like this, whatever came or was taken.


The stalk grows, the year beats on the wind.

Apples come, and the month for their fall.

The bark spreads, the roots tighten.

Though today be the last

Or tomorrow all,

You will not mind.


That I may not remember

Does not matter.

I shall not be with you again.

What we knew, even now

Must scatter

And be ruined, and blow

Like dust in the rain.


You have been dead a long season

And have less than desire

Who were lover with lover;

And I have life—that old reason

To wait for what comes,

To leave what is over.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: How fortunate to be on a Greek island, and away from the hubbub. As for bringing Spencer's poems, it was just a thought. As you know, often it is best to bring something completely unrelated to where you will be. Which is why your choice of Hardy's The Woodlanders is a good one. Enjoy your holiday!

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the passage by Steele. He certainly hits the mark when it comes to unexpected deaths. His thoughts are apt here. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing Bogan's poem, which is new to me. Very nice. I can see why it reminded you of Hardy. I've been meaning to explore Bogan's poetry, but have never gotten around it. I really ought to. Thank you again for posting this here.

Anonymous said...

Hardy wrote few poems which are narrated by women. In his poem "The Haunter" one of the poems of that magnificent collecting called "Poems of 1912-13," Hardy imagines his dead wife speaking to him ("His Visitor" is another one). I think the penultimate stanza as lovely as anything Hardy ever wrote. Of course this poem, like all of the ones in "Poems of 1912-13" is about Hardy. These poems are lovely, but I wonder what Hardy was trying to exorcise from his heart with this series of poems on the unexpected death of his wife. Here's the poem:

He does not think that I haunt here nightly:
How shall I let him know
That whither his fancy sets him wandering
I, too, alertly go? -
Hover and hover a few feet from him
Just as I used to do,
But cannot answer his words addressed me -
Only listen thereto!


When I could answer he did not say them:
When I could let him know
How I would like to join in his journeys
Seldom he wished to go.
Now that he goes and wants me with him
More than he used to do,
Never he sees my faithful phantom
Though he speaks thereto.


Yes, I accompany him to places
Only dreamers know,
Where the shy hares show their faces,
Where the night rooks go;
Into old aisles where the past is all to him,
Close as his shade can do,
Always lacking the power to call to him,
Near as I reach thereto!


What a good haunter I am, O tell him,
Quickly make him know
If he but sigh since my loss befell him
Straight to his side I go.
And if it be that at night I am stronger,
Go, too, by day I do:
Please, then, keep him in gloom no longer,
Even ghosts tend thereto!



Anonymous said...

Hamlet indeed says "The rest is silence," and Sisson ends up mute, words (even if he does use them) worthless. Dark, dark is his vision, though I think the man incapable of lying. I find a comfort in his truth. This is another poem he wrote near the end of his life:

No garden to walk in
Nothing to say
The moon at full now
As if it were day

Nobody to meet there
On the wide scene
The world empty of creatures
And myself unseen

Empty world, empty world
What use in calling?
Is, was and has been
Are the names of all.

Jeff said...

Stephen, before I read this post, its title and the opening paragraph both made me worry that you were closing up shop. I haven't said so in a while, but: thanks for doing what you do here. Your blog remains an oasis of thoughtfulness, beauty, and calm on an otherwise frantic Internet.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for "The Haunter," which is lovely. And I agree with you about the penultimate stanza. As to what Hardy was trying to "exorcise": regret, guilt, longing . . . He wrote this long after "Poems 1912-13," but I've often felt that it gets to the core of what his feelings about Emma were:

The Peace-Offering

It was but a little thing,
Yet I knew it meant to me
Ease from what had given a sting
To the very birdsinging
Latterly.

But I would not welcome it;
And for all I then declined
O the regrettings infinite
When the night-processions flit
Through the mind!

As for poems written by Hardy in which women are narrators, perhaps they are few, but they are memorable. In particular, there is "Lost Love," which appears to be written from Emma's point of view. The last stanza is heart-wrenching:

So I wait for another morn,
And another night
In this soul-sick blight;
And I wonder much
As I sit, why such
A woman as I was born!

No doubt blame goes both ways in that marriage. As we all know, no one is in a position to know what goes on in another marriage. And Hardy is often criticized for not pulling out his regret and guilt until after Emma died. I disagree with that view. And Hardy was aware of the charge. For evidence that he knew, see "An Upbraiding" (again in Emma's voice). This is the second stanza:

Now I am dead you come to me
In the moonlight, comfortless;
Ah, what would I have given alive
To win such tenderness!

I'm sure you're familiar with them, but the poems by Hardy with women as narrators that stick in my mind are: "The Farm-Woman's Winter," "Dream of the City Shopwoman," "We Field-Woman," and "Her Apotheosis." There are others I have forgotten.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the poem from Sisson. The poems of his final years are difficult to read (for me at least) because of their sadness and stark honesty. One wants to turn away. But, as you suggest, because of Sisson's life-long fidelity to speaking his mind, one is compelled to read. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: What a nice surprise to hear from you again! I greatly appreciate your kind words. No, I'm in this for the long-haul. Although I do confess to occasionally having doubts, along the lines of: "Have I exhausted the contents of my mind?" "Is anybody reading this?" As it turns out, your message is perfectly timed: I have been going through one of those periodic periods of doubt.

So you have bucked me up at an opportune time with your thoughtful comment. I always assume you are out there, but it is a pleasure to have this confirmed in such a nice fashion. (As for me and "Quid plura?", I visit regularly, but I am my usual reticent self when it comes to leaving comments. Sorry.)

Again, thank you very much. I hope you are having a happy Fourth!

Constance Steckel said...

This was one of your very best, most moving posts. It made me go back to Cafavy to begin to see all I had missed. All the day's poems were piercingly right on - the late August emotions, thinking about the present boat refugees, and indeed this age of refugees. The ache of longing for home, etc. Thank you!
Constance Steckel

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Steckel: Thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate. I'm pleased you liked the post. It's a nice feeling to know that what I post resonates with others. Thank you again. I hope you will return soon.

Anonymous said...

Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970)
Nostalgia
(Quando la notte è a svanire)
When
night fades
a little before the springtime
and of a rarity
someone passes
a dark colour
of weeping
thickens over Paris
on a poem
of a bridge
I contemplate
the boundless silence
of a slender
girl
our
ills
flow together
and how, borne away,
she remains

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing Ungaretti's poem, which is new to me (as is Ungaretti himself). Very nice.