Monday, December 7, 2015

Poetry

I suspect that, by most people's standards, the speed at which I read poetry is slow and slothful.  As I have mentioned here in the past, I intentionally limit myself to one or two poems a day.  If a poem is lengthy, it may take me several days to finish it.  Thus, for instance, reading Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" will take me at least a week -- at 32 stanzas, four stanzas or so a day seems about right to me.

I am not stating this as a matter of pride, nor am I asking for plaudits.  This is simply the way it goes for me.  I need to mull things over.  I need to listen closely.  I need to let a poem sit.  I feel that I owe it to the poet and the poem to give them time and extended attention.

For the same reason, I return again and again to the old chestnuts.  I never tire of them.  Hence, the past few weeks I have been spending time with two of my favorite anthologies: The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Helen Gardner, and The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks.  The current century is of no interest to me.  I prefer to visit dear friends from long ago.

               The Coming of Good Luck

So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow; or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are, by the sun-beams, tickled by degrees.

Robert Herrick, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1999).

David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), "Drambuie, Wester Ross"

In browsing through the two anthologies, it was nice to be reminded how little poetry has to do with current events.  Of course, there are exceptions: "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" (Charles Wolfe), "England in 1819" (Shelley, as self-regarding, disingenuous, and mendacious as ever), "The Convergence of the Twain" (Hardy), "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (Hopkins), for instance.  But these are few and far between. The general themes are, as one would expect, Love, Death, the Game of Life, the Beauty of the World.

This makes perfect sense.  Who wants poets to write about the passing happenstance of The News of the World?  Think of all the wasted emotion and energy some people devote to cultivating, and propounding, what they perceive to be the "correct" political, economic, and social views about what is "wrong" with the World, and how it ought to be fixed.  Think of all the utopian chimeras that these same people (left, right, and Martian) preoccupy themselves with on a daily basis.  They will never be happy.  For them, something will always be wrong with the World, something will always need to be fixed.  And they (totalitarians at heart) have appointed themselves to be the fixers.  Good luck with that.

I, on the other hand, believe that the World is perfect just as it is.  Are human beings perfect?  No.  Am I perfect?  Certainly not.  But the misery we create for each other is never going to disappear as the result of somebody concocting a grand theory about How We Should Live.  We are best advised to tend to our own soul, while being mindful, and careful, of the souls around us.  This is the true subject matter of poetry.

                    Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

Coventry Patmore, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1972).

David Macbeth Sutherland, "The Breakwater, Stonehaven Harbour" (1950)

I am simple-minded.  I need to be reminded of certain things over and over again.  Although I do not believe that it is the function of poetry to set out to instruct or edify, I do believe that a good poem can embody human truth -- the truth of what it means to make one's way through the World as a unique soul, touching, and touched by, others.

                            An Epilogue

I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.

John Masefield, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse.

This is the sort of poem that I love to return to often.  Eventually, its truth gets through my thick skull, at least temporarily.  There are scores like this. Fortunately, the beauty of the poems is always there, regardless of my obtuseness.  Thus, returning to them is an everlasting delight.

David Macbeth Sutherland, "Evening in Skye, Loch Carron, Highlands"

Gratitude in the midst of evanescence.  This is poetry's ultimate message to us.

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam 

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse.  The title of the poem comes from Horace's Odes, Book I, Ode 4, line 15, and may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope."  Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (University of Birmingham Press 2003), page 225.

Poetry shakes us by the shoulders, gently, and whispers in our ear:  Pay attention.  Live.

David Macbeth Sutherland, "Plockton from Duncraig" (1967)

22 comments:

R.T. Davis said...

Yes,I too slowly savor whispers.

Sam Vega said...

Many thanks again for an excellent little selection. it is worth noting how poetry often takes contemporary events and uses them as a path into a deeper and more timeless reflection. Hardy is especially good at this. You are probably familiar with his poem "Channel Firing", which seems like some lightweight and humorous thoughts provoked by military manoeuvres, but has real depth.

I agree with you about Shelley. Exciting in places, definitely moving, but he has always struck me as lacking sincerity.

Acornmoon said...

I love the painting of Plockton, surely one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. Your reverence for poetry is admirable. especially in this world of short attention spans.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Thank you very much for that thought. "Savor" is an excellent way to describe how we ought to appreciate poetry (and art in general). Thanks for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you for your kind words about the post. I'm pleased you like the selection of poems.

I agree with you about Hardy, and about "Channel Firing." Now that I think about it, I have to make an exception to my own proscriptions when it comes to Hardy, since, as you know, he wrote a fair number of poems prompted by current events. But I also think that his "topical" poems are usually set within the framework of his overall view of the world, history, and humanity. No hectoring. For instance, I am reminded of "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'": "topical," yet timeless.

Perhaps I was too hard on Shelley! I too am fond of a number of his poems. But reading "England in 1819" this time around prompted my perhaps too hasty judgment. I recall how much I admired that poem when I was 19 or 20 years old.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. It's not to early to say: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bruce Floyd said...

The generation of men is like that of leaves. The wind scatters one year's leaves on the ground, but the forest burgeons and and puts out others, as the season of spring comes round. So it is with men: on generation grows on, and another is passing away.
--Achilles in "The Iliad"

I sometimes wonder, "pace" Stevens, if that part of human life that contains the imperishable core of human truths is a small one, the residue left in the alembic of living, what is left after the white hot flame has cooled. One might say, though one might be wrong, that the best poetry always examines a relatively few themes--though "themes" seems the wrong word.

It seems to me that Achilles, quoted above, is saying the same thing about life that the Dowson poem you quote is (how lovely Dowson's poem!): life is brief. We come like wind, we go like water. We are dry leaves on trees the wind will strip away, we are roses that die with the kiss of the pale frost. The coming and going of the seasons announces, among other things, our pitiful finitude.

Is it wonder or terror (or both) a single self-conscious being feels, a being rotten with mortality, its heart counting out its allowed beats, yes, when this being shackled inside the carapace of corruptible flesh, this finite creatures, when this being stands alone under the night sky, the darkness a shroud, and looks into eternity, into the cold and indifferent night sky, constellations flying from some imagined center toward the forever endless, does he tremble?



John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I like your phrase "I need to let a poem sit". Something we should all do far more,not just with poetry, but with essays, paintings and landscape too.

We need to give each of them our time and attention. How else will we develop our understanding? Poetry,like place needs to seep slowly and deeply into our heart and soul.

There's a small woodland relatively close to my home, I try to walk there at least once a week, and have done for many, many years now, and though it's very familiar to me. I never tire of coming there again, or of pausing to reflect on its shapes and colours, scents and sounds altering through the year. It is a kind of living poem to me and I'm more than happy to give it my time. It is in its way a very dear friend.

Reading John Masefield's Epilogue prompted me to look into my copy of his Collected Poems and re-read two of my favourite old chestnuts; On Eastnor Knoll and Beauty, I'm sure you know them. Thank you for reminding me,I hadn't read Masefield in too long a time.

As I have said before the continued existence of your blog is one of the highlights of my week, and I always look forward to the poems you post and to reading your own words too. May I take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tom Hillman said...

Slow is better. To borrow a phrase, the world is too fast with us.

Stephen Pentz said...

Acornmoon: I've never been to Plockton, but, based upon the photographs I've seen on the Internet, I agree with your assessment. Until I looked at a map today, I hadn't realized that it is fairly close to the Isle of Skye, which I have visited. I wish I had known of it at the time -- I would have paid a visit.

Thank you very much for your comment about my "reverence" for poetry, but I must confess that my attention span is nothing to brag about: I'm afraid I'm part of the "world of short attention spans." It's a constant struggle to carve out contemplative space, but poetry and art are two places where I make a particular effort to do so. On the other hand, it is clear from your beautiful work on display on your blogs that you are a person with great patience and contemplative power, which I greatly admire.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on transience and mortality. These are subjects that are difficult to contemplate at length (at least for me). Your final paragraph brings to mind Frost's "Desert Places" and Edward Thomas's "Out in the Dark," both of which are harrowing, but oddly comforting. I suppose there is always some comfort (cold comfort perhaps!) in facing these things directly, which Frost and Thomas are never afraid to do. But this is what good poets do, and what they teach us to do.

Thank you for stopping by again. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I appreciate your comments about the woodland you have walked through for years: I feel the same way about the route I take on my afternoon walks. I know it well, but it is always in a state of change, and thus ever new. Perhaps I don't know it as well as I think I do. There is always a reservoir of mystery. Which, as you suggest, encourages me to slow down and to pay greater attention. I agree with you that, not just poetry, but all things deserve this sort of time and attention.

Coming across "An Epilogue" in Ricks's anthology also prompted me to revisit Masefield's Collected Poems. Yes, "On Eastnor Knoll" is one of my favorites too. A lovely and haunting poem.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. And thank you as well for your long-term presence here, which I greatly appreciate and greatly value. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Hillman: Very well said! Your thoughts fit perfectly with Herrick's "The Coming of Good Luck": we need to let things move of their own accord, and not constantly push and hurry them. (I am lecturing myself here!) "Like noiseless snow; or as the dew of night . . . Not all at once, but gently." A wonderful way to approach life.

Thank you very much for visiting again. It is a pleasure to hear from you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Jeff said...

Stephen, the slow reading process you describe is also how I treat your blog posts. Often they sit in an open tab on my browser for days or even weeks, providing me with welcome opportunities to resist the temptations inherent in sitting at a computer. Instead, I slow down and enjoy them all the more.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: That's extremely nice of you to say. Thank you very much. Although my first reaction was: "I'm not worthy!" Of course, as I've observed here in the past, the credit goes to the poets and the painters; I am only the messenger.

Yes, I know all too well "the temptations inherent in sitting at a computer." A mixed blessing. On the one hand, there's The News of the World. On the other hand, today I was able to find on the Internet Archive the text of a volume of poems by a 17th century poet which, without the Wonders of Technology, would not have been instantly available to me.

All in all though, as Mr. Hillman noted above: "Slow is better."

Again, thank you very much for your kind thoughts. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bovey Belle said...

I gave Christmas joy to a Hay-on-Wye bookseller yesterday. He runs the Poetry Shop there (and of course I bought a book from his shop. . .) and was delighted when I told him about your blog. He was checking it out as we closed the door behind us!

I can see why you understand the poems so well which you write about. You have a methodical mind (mine is like a naughty little puppy - I think the word flibbertigibbet suits it well!) Some poems can be digested reasonably quickly - but not thoroughly - others I return to again and again and begin to just get an inkling of the writer's mind.

Leaving your blog entries open permanently on a tab sounds like a good idea to me . . .

David said...

Stephen, I was glad that you quoted a bit of Masefield. I was brought up in his part of the world and still live close by. I had a very country childhood and as a teenager became especially fond of his poetry, which I found to be so evocative of the local landscape. Only the other day I was walking the southern end of the Malvern Hills, from which one gains splendid views over Eastnor. I've never discovered exactly where the Eastnor Knoll of the poem is. There is an Eastnor Hill but the whole area undulates with knolls! Mercifully, the land doesn't lend itself to agricultural intensification so it may have looked not dissimilar in Masefield's day.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I envy you your excursions to Hay-on-Wye, and I enjoyed your recent photos on Codlins and Cream of all the shops decorated for Christmas. Wonderful! Thank you for recommending the blog to the bookseller, which was very thoughtful of you.

Well, my mind can be like "a naughty little puppy" as well, jumping around from bright object to bright object. To the extent that it is "methodical", that may partially be a product of me being a lawyer: obsessive attention to detail, never a stone unturned, constant worry, etc. Although there is a chicken-or-egg issue: I think I was born with these traits (for good or ill), and it turns out they may fit well with being a lawyer. Who knows? But, as you know, I am against picking poems apart. But I do like to let them sit.

As ever, thank you for visiting. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you very much for sharing your first-hand knowledge of Masefield's world. Although, as you know, he is now mostly known (if at all) for his "sea poems," I am more taken with his countryside poems, which I am fond of for exactly the reason you state: their evocativeness. (Although I have never lived in the countryside they evoke!) In addition to "On Eastnor Knoll," I am thinking of, for instance, "Twilight," "Personal," "Tewkesbury Road," and "On the Downs," all of which I'm sure you are familiar with. You have prompted me to take down his Collected Poems from my shelf and visit him again, for which I am grateful.

Thank you for visiting, and for your thoughts. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

David said...

Stephen, I'm delighted that you find pleasure in Masefield's poems. As you say, he isn't much read these days. When I was in my early twenties I spent a while working in Sudan and remembered poems helped to get me through some difficult periods there. In particular, I kept coming back to Masefield's rural poetry and I discovered just how much I was a creature of place and how profoundly my sense of identity was tied up with a particular landscape. The opening words of 'Twilight' seemed so resonant in that alien world where there were no woods or rooks and very little in the way of twilight! Sometimes reciting 'The West Wind' could almost reduce me to tears! The writer J. A Baker speaks of landscapes being 'coloured by love' which I think is very true. So many of the wonderful rural scenes you feature on your blog convey this intangible sense of belonging to me. It runs very deep.

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you very much for your follow-up comment. I can understand how Masefield's poetry might have helped to assuage homesickness in Sudan. I wish that he had written more short, lyrical poems about the countryside, rather than so many sea poems (which I do still appreciate) and his long narrative and dramatic poems. But I understand: he gained his reputation through those sorts of poems, and so was inclined to continue in that vein. In any event, I'm not complaining; I'm happy that he gave us what he did.

Thank you very much for the quote from J. A. Baker, which is very nice. The quote prompted me to do some Internet research on him, and his two books sound wonderful. I see that both books, plus extracts from his diaries, were recently republished in 2011. I will track a copy down. His book Peregrine appears to receive universal praise. He seems to have been an interesting person.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, do give yourself The Peregrine for Christmas! It is a strange & fascinating book.
Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I will take your advice, especially since it is now available, as I noted above, in a single volume along with his only other book, and his diaries.

Thank you very much for your visits this past year. (And in past years!) I wish you a happy holiday season and a wonderful New Year!