Thursday, September 29, 2011

"You Will Not Arrive But Pass Through"

Seamus Heaney's "Postscript" (which appeared in my previous post) is paired in my mind with an earlier poem of his.  I think that I am fond of the two poems because they remind me of a long-ago autumn day -- clear, windy, and charmed -- spent driving along the west coast of the Isle of Skye.

It was one of those unwonted days (we all have them) when you realize at the time that you will never forget what passes.  This realization is accompanied (for me, at least) by a poignant pang.  At what?  You know: the relentless and remorseless march of time and all that.

But enough.  The day will never disappear.

                         The Peninsula

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks so you will not arrive

But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you're in the dark again.  Now recall

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog

And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this:  things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.

Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark (Faber and Faber 1969).

       William Monk, "Sunburst Over the Mountains of Donegal" (c. 1906)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"When The Wind And The Light Are Working Off Each Other"

For the past few days, autumn squalls have been quickly moving through from the west.  Puget Sound has alternated between bright-blue and white-capped and milky-grey and white-capped.  At times, yellow shafts of sunlight angle down through the ragged, travelling clouds.  I was reminded of the following poem by Seamus Heaney.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly.  You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber 1996).

                                     Rockwell Kent, "Seascape" (c. 1933)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Life Explained, Part Twenty-One: "We Are On A Kind Of Stair"

We have previously heard Christina Rossetti ask of Life:  "Does the road wind up-hill all the way?"  Ian Hamilton takes a similar view of things in the following poem.


Where do we find ourselves?  What is this tale
With no beginning and no end?
We know not the extremes.  Perhaps
There are none.
We are on a kind of stair.  The world below
Will never be regained; was never there
Perhaps.  And yet it seems
We've climbed to where we are
With diligence, as if told long ago
How high the highest rung.
Alas:  this lethargy at noon,
This interfered-with air.

Ian Hamilton, Sixty Poems (Faber and Faber 1998).

In an interview, Hamilton noted that the poem "starts off with a line from Emerson."  The London Review of Books (January 24, 2002).  In fact, much of the poem echoes the opening sentences of Emerson's essay "Experience":

"Where do we find ourselves?  In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.  We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.  But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: Second Series (1844).

Hamilton wrote a poem titled "Larkinesque" about a couple's divorce proceedings (and their annoying solicitors).  I hear a Larkinian note as well in the final two lines of "Steps," particularly in the phrase "interfered-with air." (With a nod to Emerson for "lethargy at noon," which has its source in his "the lethargy now at noonday.")

                                     Eric Ravilious, "Beachy Head" (1939)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Memory: "There Is Nothing To Be Frightened Of"

I intended to move from the subject of love to the subject of memory.  But, as it happens, the three poems that I had in mind turn out to have (perhaps not surprisingly) a waft of love about them.

                                                  George Charlton
      "The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Spring" (1942)

First, the antipodes:


Is Memory most of miseries miserable,
Or the one flower of ease in bitterest hell?

William Rossetti (editor), The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Volume I (1886). 

Of course, the answer to Rossetti's question is:  "It depends."

                                                  George Charlton
                  "The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley: Summer" (1942)

Next, a rare short poem by Robert Bridges (he usually tended to go on at greater length).


Mazing around my mind like moths at a shaded candle,
   In my heart like lost bats in a cave fluttering,
Mock ye the charm whereby I thought reverently to lay you,
   When to the wall I nail'd your reticent effigys?

Robert Bridges, October and Other Poems (1920).

"Reticent effigys" is the fine thing here, isn't it?  As is the idea of nailing them to the wall.  As is the idea that one could believe for a moment that they might be "reverently" laid to rest.  Fat chance.

                                                    George Charlton
                     "The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley: Autumn" (1942)

And, finally, something that may hold out some hope.

            In the Blindfold Hours

In the blindfold hours,
in the memory wars,
don't fool yourself it never happened,
that you never loved her.
Don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.

Go to the window.  Listen to the trees.
It is only air we live in.
There is nothing to be frightened of.

Hugo Williams, Dock Leaves (1994).

                                                    George Charlton
                      "The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley: Winter" (1942)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"And Myself, Too, If I Could Find Where It Lay Hidden And It Proved Kind"

I would like to stay with the subject of love a moment longer.  I have been thinking about a couple of things written by Edward Thomas.  In February of 1916, Thomas was in the army, but he was still stationed in England. He periodically sent drafts of his poems to his wife Helen.  He sent her some poems which mentioned love, and she expressed concern that the poems were about another woman.  On February 24, Thomas wrote to her:

"As to the other verses about love you know that my usual belief is that I don't and can't love and haven't done for something near 20 years.  You know too that you don't think my nature really compatible with love, being so clear and critical.  You know how unlike I am to you, and you know that you love, so how can I?  That is if you count love as any one feeling and not something varying infinitely with the variety of people."

R. George Thomas (editor), Edward Thomas: Selected Letters (1995), page 119.

Of course, this must have been a difficult passage for Helen Thomas to read.  But it would have been out-of-character for Thomas to have written anything but the truth to her.

                              Kenneth Macqueen, "Waves and Reef" (1945)

On April 9, 1916 -- exactly a year prior to his death at the battle of Arras -- Thomas wrote the following untitled poem:

And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose.  I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me.  If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (2008).

The final two lines are classic Thomas, and are an excellent instance of something that I have remarked upon before in connection with his poetry (and that of Frost and Larkin):  the giving and then the taking away. Or, to use Larkin's fine observation about Thomas's poetry (which, again, I have mentioned before):  "The poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."

                               Kenneth Macqueen, "Summer Sky" (c. 1935)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Two Further Variations On A Theme

I have remarked previously that I don't mind circling back on my tracks. Thus, I beg the pardon of any loyal (and, of course, greatly appreciated) readers for retracing my steps to the following two poems, which have appeared here before.  The theme of love (love with a somewhat melancholy cast, I admit) brought them to mind, and I believe that they go well with Elizabeth Jennings's "Delay" and Richard Church's "Be Frugal."

                      Love Without Hope

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire's own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

Robert Graves, The Welchman's Hose (1925).

It is quite an accomplishment to express so much about love in a four-line poem:  joy, exaltation, giddiness, longing, despair, and loss (and whatever else you might think of) all rolled into one.  I never tire of this poem.

                                    Paul Nash, "Nest of the Siren" (1930)

                          To Not Love

One looked at life in the prince style, shunning pain.
Now one has seen too much not to fear more.
Apprehensive, it seems, for all one loves,
One asks only to not love, to not love.

James Reeves, Subsong (1969).

"To Not Love" may be too bleak for some.  I avoid biographical "explanations" of poems.  However, it may (I emphasize may) be helpful to know that James Reeves's wife Mary died in 1966 at the age of 56 after a long illness.  Notice the effort to maintain distance and control by the use of "one" in each line of the poem.  (In contrast, Reeves uses "I" for the speaker in many of the other poems collected in Subsong.)  Then notice how the distance and the control seem to dissolve with the revealing repetition in the final line:  "One asks only to not love, to not love."

                                   Paul Nash, "Lupins and Cactus" (1927)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Be Frugal In The Gift Of Love"

One of the nice things about poetry is that one thing leads to another. Elizabeth Jennings's poem "Delay" ends with this lovely line:  "And love arrived may find us somewhere else."  I had been thinking about the line over the past couple of days.  And then the following poem by Richard Church (1893-1972) arrived out of the past.

                  Be Frugal  

Be frugal in the gift of love,
Lest you should kindle in return
Love like your own, that may survive
Long after yours has ceased to burn.

For in life's later years you may
Meet with the ghost of what you woke
And shattered at a second stroke.
God help you on that fatal day.

Richard Church, The Solitary Man (1941).

In mid-20th century England, Richard Church was what used to be called "a man of letters."  He and his work are now mostly forgotten, I fear.  I have spent some time with his poetry over the years, and there are several quiet, fine poems like "Be Frugal" to be found there.  I am not suggesting that his work should displace that of the "Major Poets."  However, I now find that it is individual poems, not poets, that are most important to me.  I first read "Be Frugal" perhaps 20 (or is it 30?) years ago.  Now it unaccountably returns and delights me once again.

                                   Ethelbert White, "Early Spring" (1919)  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"The Star's Impulse Must Wait For Eyes To Claim It Beautiful"

I presume that most of us have had thoughts similar to those expressed by Louis MacNeice in "Star-gazer" (which appeared in my previous post).  I am wilfully ignorant of science, but the idea of starlight travelling through the ages to arrive here before our eyes is of interest to me as a mortal.  The thought that tonight's starlight left its various homes untold years before I was born is wonderful, sad, and somehow comforting.  As is the thought that starlight leaving its homes tonight will arrive here untold years after I am gone.

Likewise, the possibility of some sort of connection between time-travelling starlight and love is of great interest.  Even though it is not scientifically provable.  This, of course, is the business of poetry.


The radiance of that star that leans on me
Was shining years ago.  The light that now
Glitters up there my eye may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how

Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent.  The star's impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

Elizabeth Jennings, Poems (1953).

                                     Robin Tanner, "The Plough" (1973)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In A Train, Part Two: "Star-gazer"

I can easily picture Louis MacNeice -- that urbane and questioning figure -- deep in thought in a smoke-filled train.  Perhaps he is on his way to Holyhead to catch a boat to Ireland.  (In fact, R. S. Thomas has written about encountering W. B. Yeats on that route:  "Memories of Yeats Whilst Travelling to Holyhead.")  Or perhaps he is headed to western Scotland and the Hebrides.  And, sure enough, MacNeice did write his share of train poems, among them "Corner Seat," "Train to Dublin," and "Trains in the Distance."  I think that this is my favorite.


Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.

And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.

Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems (1966).

Given the circumstances of its composition, "Star-gazer" inevitably has a bitter-sweet air about it.  MacNeice wrote it in January of 1963.  He died unexpectedly of pneumonia in September of that year, just short of his 56th birthday.

                               Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In A Train, Part One: "But Tell Me How Your Schemes Work Out, My Fellow"

It is a commonplace that travelling by train is more conducive to observation and to contemplation than travelling by, say, car or airplane. Not surprisingly, therefore, a great store of poetry exists that has its origins in someone gazing out of the window of a train at the passing world, or in someone sizing up his or her fellow passengers (which may, in the end, lead to a sizing up of himself or herself).

                         In the Train

She is the passenger with restless eyes
Who twists the ticket in her black-gloved fingers.
None knows what calculation, what surmise
Disturb her as the train jerks on or lingers.
Above the eyes her brow is smooth and yellow.
'I grant,' her silence says, 'that all I planned
Has been like something graven in the sand,
But tell me how your schemes work out, my fellow.'

James Reeves, Collected Poems, 1929-1974 (1974).

                       Thomas Henslow Barnard (1898-1992), "Still Life"

Friday, September 9, 2011

How To Live, Part Twelve: "If One's Heart Is Broken Twenty Times A Day . . ."

At times, the sadness of Ivor Gurney's poetry makes me wince.  His pain is so palpable that I sometimes feel like turning away.  But it is crucial to recognize that his poetry is not the sort of trivial and self-regarding "confessional" poetry that we moderns have come to know.

In particular, although there can be a note of complaint in Gurney's poetry, I rarely sense self-pity (a noisome staple of "confessional" poetry). Through all of his sorrow and his pain, Gurney behaves like an adult.  There is something to be learned from this.


If one's heart is broken twenty times a day,
What easier thing than to fling the bits away,
But still one gathers fragments, and looks for wire,
Or patches it up like some old bicycle tire.

Bicycle tires fare hardly on roads, but the heart
Has an easier time than rubber, they sheathe a cart
With iron, so lumbering and slow my mind must be made,
To bother the heart and to teach things and learn it its trade.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (1996).

"Daily" was originally published in the January, 1924, issue of The London Mercury under the title "Old Tale."  Whether "Old Tale" was Gurney's own first title, or whether it was invented by J. C. Squire, the editor of The London Mercury, I do not know.  Part of me prefers "Old Tale" over "Daily."

                                 Samuel Palmer, "A Hilly Scene" (c. 1826)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Now It Is September And The Web Is Woven. The Web Is Woven And You Have To Wear It."

Today was beautiful:  warm and bright and cloudless cornflower blue.  But the wind is now of autumn.  And the yellow and angled light is of autumn. Something is incipient.

Recently, I gently questioned R. S. Thomas's assertion that Wallace Stevens's "one season was late fall."  However, I did acknowledge that some of my favorite poems by Stevens are set in autumn.  Here is one that is set in early fall.  Today's weather -- "what is there here but weather, what spirit/Have I except it comes from the sun?" -- brought it to mind.

                            The Dwarf

Now it is September and the web is woven.
The web is woven and you have to wear it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it,
The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind,

For all the thoughts of summer that go with it
In the mind, pupa of straw, moppet of rags.

It is the mind that is woven, the mind that was jerked
And tufted in straggling thunder and shattered sun.

It is all that you are, the final dwarf of you,
That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn,

Neither as mask nor as garment but as a being,
Torn from insipid summer, for the mirror of cold,

Sitting beside your lamp, there citron to nibble
And coffee dribble . . . Frost is in the stubble.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).

                                           John Nash, "Autumn" (1933)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Variations On A Theme

One of the joys of poetry is encountering a new poem that calls up a poem you had nearly forgotten.  The unanticipated connection multiples your pleasure:  not only have you gained the new poem, but you have also gained the implications that arise out of the echoes of the old poem.

I recently found this poem by Hugo Williams:

                  The Accident

The cricket ball lingered an eternity
in the patch of blue sky
before returning eventually to earth.

I was standing with outstretched arms
when the full force of the future
hit me in the mouth.

Hugo Williams, Dock Leaves (1994).

"The Accident" brought to mind one of the small gems discovered by Philip Larkin and included by him in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973).  I know little about Michael Ivens (1924-2001), the writer of the following poem.  However, I did come across a harrumphing obituary in The Guardian, which is harrumphingly titled:  "Michael Ivens: Champion of the Libertarian Right and Business Freedom."  The Guardian is reliably hilarious in its harrumphing, and the obituary, contrary to The Guardian's hopes, prompted me to think to myself:  "I like the cut of this man's jib.  He seems to have been remarkably thoughtful, clear-headed, and free of cant.  No wonder The Guardian seems to have taken a dislike to him."

But, back to poetry: 

     First Day at School

First day at school
the large boy
hurled my ball
with amazing skill
high over the roof

soaring out of sight
out of my prosaic life

I gave him
my admiration

As others have done
when their respect
honour hope and lives
have been hurled
triumphantly out of sight

Michael Ivens, Private and Public (1968).

                               Thomas Saunders Nash, "Still Life" (1929)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Life As A Work Of Art, Part Two: "The Cast Is Large. There Isn't Any Plot."

The poetry of Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) can be too acerbic for some, but I find it entertaining.  (For a more lyrical, less cynical side of Belloc, I recommend his prose works Hills and the Sea, The Old Road, and The Path to Rome.)  I was introduced to Belloc via the following sonnet, which employs Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage" as a starting point for another view of Life as a theatrical entertainment.

The world's a stage.  The trifling entrance fee
Is paid (by proxy) to the registrar.
The Orchestra is very loud and free
But plays no music in particular.
They do not print a programme, that I know.
The cast is large.  There isn't any plot.
The acting of the piece is far below
The very worst of modernistic rot.

The only part about it I enjoy
Is what was called in English the Foyay.
There will I stand apart awhile and toy
With thought, and set my cigarette alight;
And then -- without returning to the play --
On with my coat and out into the night.

Hilaire Belloc,  Complete Verse (1991).

                          Eugene Jansson, "Hornsgatan by Night" (1902)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lists, Part Five: "A Quilt Of Quilt Names To Keep You Warm In The Dark"

As I have mentioned previously, Michael Longley is a master of lists.  His collection The Weather in Japan contains several poems that have quilts as their subject.  (An aside:  Longley is fond of transposing Homeric scenes into the modern world.  Thus, Longley's lists sometimes bring to mind Homer's list of Greek ships in The Iliad.)

                         The Yellow Teapot

When those who had eaten at our table and drunk
From the yellow teapot into the night, betrayed you
And told lies about you, I cried out for a curse
And wrote a curse, then stitched together this spell,
A quilt of quilt names to keep you warm in the dark:

Snake's Trail, Shoo Fly, Flying Bats, Spider Web,
Broken Handle, Tumbling Blocks, Hole in the Barn
Door, Dove at the Window, Doors and Windows,
Grandmother's Flower Garden, Sun Dial, Mariner's
Compass, Delectable Mountains, World without End.

Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (2000).

                             J. E. H. MacDonald, "Rowanberries" (1922)