Saturday, October 13, 2012

Perspective, Part Four: "The Bedlam Of Time Is An Empty Bucket Rattled"

In addition to "October" (which I posted recently), Patrick Kavanagh wrote a second poem set in that month.  The second poem is more about perspective than it is about autumn.  Just as "October" is more about what it means to say "something will be mine wherever I am" than it is about autumn.  But I wouldn't entirely discount autumn's role in the poems.  The season does tend to evoke these sorts of glimpses into what is important.

                Kenneth Rowntree, "Old Toll Bar House, Ashopton" (1940)

                         October 1943

And the rain coming down, and the rain coming down!
How lovely it falls on the rick well headed,
On potato pits thatched, on the turf clamps home,
On the roofs of the byre where the cows are bedded!

And the sun shining down, and the sun shining down!
How bright on the turnip leaves, on the stubble --
Where turkeys tip-toe across the ridges --
In this corner of peace in a world of trouble.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on October 27, 1943.

      Kenneth Rowntree, "Underbank Farm, Woodlands, Ashdale" (1940)

Those who are "politically-" or "socially-engaged" may feel that Kavanagh is not evincing sufficient concern for a world that, in 1943, was going up in flames.  They might feel the same way if Kavanagh were alive today and wrote the same poem, titling it "October 2012."  I would respectfully disagree with them.  I confess that I am one of those who think that the term "political poetry" is a perfect example of an oxymoron.  (Whether the politics are left, right, or Martian.)  And, if I hear the words "socially-engaged poetry," I immediately run for the exit.  (Whether the "social-engagement" is left, right, or Martian.)

            Kenneth Rowntree, "Bridge End Farm, Derwent Village" (1940)

               Beyond the Headlines

Then I saw the wild geese flying
In fair formation to their bases in Inchicore,
And I knew that these wings would outwear the wings of war,
And a man's simple thoughts outlive the day's loud lying.

Don't fear, don't fear, I said to my soul:
The Bedlam of Time is an empty bucket rattled,
'Tis you who will say in the end who best battled.
Only they who fly home to God have flown at all.

Patrick Kavanagh, Ibid.  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on March 29, 1943.

              Kenneth Rowntree, "Bridge to Cox's Farm, Ashopton" (1940)


WAS said...

Interesting thoughts and poems, per usual Mr. Pentz. Most “political poems” in my reading experience are of the “Beyond the Headlines” variety, expressions of the ineffectuality or triviality of political processes in the face of the larger personal sphere. Usually, as here, there is a quasi-silent idealism supportive of the social change politics is supposed to effect, but the rope is kept long and loose. That’s in the nature of poetry, whose muse doesn’t much like the machinations of ego, and politics (like business, history, literature, relationship bickering, any manifestation of opinion that asks to be truth) is the province of ego. Poetry is about what happens when all of that breaks down, and one is forced to look at what is left. One may wonder why so many poems so badly violate such a simple distinction, but it took many years for me to learn this simple truth.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as always, thank you for your thoughts.

However, I'm afraid that I'll have to respectfully disagree with your suggestion that Kavanagh displays "a quasi-silent idealism supportive of the social change politics is supposed to effect." I think that you are putting thoughts/words into Kavanagh's mouth that he hasn't spoken (or even implied).

Particularly since, for example, Kavanagh in later life came to regret the political stance that he espoused in "The Great Hunger." Thus, I would be chary of imputing such thoughts to Kavanagh. I don't like this word, but I'll use it anyway: I think (with all due respect) that you are "projecting" your views onto Kavanagh.

On another note: the word "idealism" always troubles me. In my experience, most "idealists" like to tell other people what to do. I'm not saying that this applies to you. But "idealism" and utopianism and repression are usually bedfellows.

Thanks again.

WAS said...

I read the poem as being broadly supportive of the value of giving one's life to one's country in war. I don't think he was advocating it, because he understood things are not quite as clear-cut as that. You may not agree that that is a idealistic sentiment, or that the idea is even in the poem. Fair enough. My main point was about the delicacy required for poems to take on matters of politics. Thank you as always for your thoughtful response.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: I think that you and I are on the same page, but are simply coming at it from slightly different angles.

My point (which is NOT directed at any of your comments) is this: anyone who sits down to write a "poem" with the intention of espousing a particular political viewpoint and/or effecting "social change" has, by virtue of their intentions, automatically disabled themselves from writing poetry. What they thereafter produce is propaganda or agitprop (for a captive -- literally or figuratively -- audience), but definitely not poetry.

I am only clarifying my point because I may have been inarticulate in my post. It is not a rebuttal to anything that you have said, just a clarification of my views. At bottom, I think that you and I agree.

Thanks for the responses.

Anonymous said...

As always a joy to step into the calm unruffled waters of First Known When Lost. Apropos of probably nothing, I'm currently reading Literature and Politics in the Age of Nero by J.P.Sullivan. His argument is that poetry and politics were closely linked in this period, often fatally so, as the fate of Seneca and his nephew Lucan show. He also argues that this relationship did not always result in poor poetry, prose or plays, as the works of Seneca and Lucan show. I've just received today my copy of the Penguin Classics Roman Poets of the Early Empire. So, time to see if he is correct.

Stephen Pentz said...

literarytaste: it's good to hear from you again. "Calm unruffled waters" -- that's a pleasant thought.

Sullivan's book sounds interesting. My knowledge of Roman poetry and plays of that time is sadly lacking. (I am fond, however, of Seneca's letters and essays, since I have an interest in the Stoics.) Hence, I am not qualified to make any statements about the subject matter of the book.

As for my rant about "political poetry," it's merely a pet peeve. Probably a reaction to the politicization of most art during my time on earth.

As always, thank you very much for your thoughts.

John Trotman said...

Hello again Mr Pentz. On my walk through sun-dappled autumn woodland today I have been reflecting on your correspondence here. In large measure I tend to agree: poetry which has political designs upon us often fails, but Billie Holiday's song 'Strange Fruit' keeps going through my head and I offer it here (sans haunting music, alas, which you may feel is key) as an example of political poetry which seems to me to work:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

[ Lyrics from: ]

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Trotman: I agree that "Strange Fruit" is very effective, and you correctly anticipate my response: "sans music" is, I think, crucial. This may take us a bit in a different direction, but I think that you raise an excellent point.

As one who grew up in the late 60s and early 70s, I appreciate the political power of music, whether it be rock, pop, folk, or country. But it's all about the music, isn't it?

Bob Dylan is usually the starting point for discussions about whether song lyrics can be "poetry." As I'm sure you know, Christopher Ricks (who I greatly admire) has made the strongest argument that Dylan should be treated as a poet. I love dozens of songs by Dylan, but I'm afraid that I can't classify him as a poet. And I say that as someone who is devoted to (and knows by heart) "Desolation Row," "Visions of Johanna," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," and many others.

To explain myself, I come back to your point about "sans music," using one tiny example from Dylan. (Using a non-political song.) One of my favorite songs by him is "If You See Her, Say Hello" from "Blood on the Tracks." And my favorite moment in the song (I go misty nearly every time) is when he sings:

Sundown, yellow moon,
I replay the past.
I know every scene by heart
They all went by so fast.

Nice words, yes. But, unless you hear how Dylan sings "fast," you have only caught about 1% of the impact of those lines: the anguished despair of how he draws out and keens "fast" is breathtaking (and heartbreaking), and is the key to the whole thing.

I heartily agree with you that songs such as "Strange Fruit" and "If You See Her, Say Hello" are "poetic." And I also agree that I have heard many effective political songs. But, using my (admittedly narrow) definition of "poetry," I'm not sure that they qualify as poetry on the page.

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing from you.

WAS said...

Sorry to take up three spots on this thread, but I find this evolving discussion fascinating. You are on a roll, Mr. Pentz, for speaking some hard and unarticulatable truths. Not only about politics and poetry, but about songs and poetry.

Lyrics and poetry are apples and oranges, though I think I would connect them more if we heard poems as often as we read lyrics. When I think of lyrics that work as poetry, I don't think of the "great" lyricists: Hart, Gershwin, Dylan, Lennon, Springsteen, Costello, I think of lines that stand on their own long after the musical setting has passed, like "the shroud tailor measures him for a deep-six holiday / the stiff was froze the case was closed on the one that got away" (Tom Waits) or "White flags of winter chimneys / Waving truce against the moon / In the mirrors of a modern bank / From the window of a hotel room." (Joni Mitchell).

As for political songs, they are just as bad as political poems! "Strange Fruit" does not need to be about lynching to have its desired effect: it's the whole gestalt of the "gallant south" turned rotten in verse. By the way, you should check out if you haven't already Nina Simone's version of this, it'll curl your eyelids.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: no problem. I'm happy to hear your thoughts.

Now, however, I feel that I have been way too dogmatic about all of this! I like this to be a blog about enthusiasms, not about criticisms and/or strictures, and I feel that I have badly violated my own rules.

For instance, this discussion got me to thinking about Siegfried Sassoon's poems about his experience in the First World War, which I greatly admire. Those probably qualify as "political poems" given his expressions of horror and outrage at what was happening. And I certainly consider them to be fine poetry.

I probably shouldn't have opened my big mouth!

In any event, I do appreciate your contribution to the discussion.

Oh, and I agree: Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" is marvelous.

Anonymous said...

Dear Stephen

I fear the second poem may not be as apolitical as it first seems.

Kavanagh's opening line refers to the 'wild geese' which has a particular meaning in Ireland, being the term for the Irish rebels driven from Ireland to continental Europe in the 1600s by the British government. They went on to win a reputation as great soldiers in the armies of the European monarchs.

What does this add to the understanding of the poem? Well, the first two lines could be a dig at Ireland's policy of neutrality in World War II – the wild geese, who were once famed for their martial exploits in Europe are now, during this great war in Europe, returning to a base in Inchicore in Dublin.

The 'day's loud lying' could be a reference to the newspaper censorship imposed by the government during the war, a censorship so strict that VE Day was marked in the Irish Times by arranging the stories on the front page in the shape of a V, as reporting the fact was prohibited.

The fact that this poem was published in the Irish Press, the newspaper of Fianna Fail, the main political party then in government (and, alas, still a powerful party in Ireland) would have reinforced this subversive message.

But am I reading too much into it? Your reading of it is more in line with the general tone of much of Kavanagh's poetry, his belief that the banal and the everyday is, in the end, what matters. Gods make their own importance.

Anyway, thanks as always for the poems and the picture.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr McMahon: thank you very much for that background information -- of which I was ignorant. It adds a great deal to the context of the poem.

I don't know enough about Kavanagh's life to know what his views were on Ireland's neutrality. His feelings may have been akin to those of Louis MacNeice as expressed in his poem (which I'm sure you are familiar with) "Neutrality": "While to the west off your own shores the mackerel/Are fat -- on the flesh of your kin." (Of course, I realize that MacNeice -- being from Northern Ireland -- may be operating with some presumption as far as those from Ireland, such as Kavanagh, are concerned. That particular subject is way beyond my ken!)

Again, thank you for providing a perspective which I had completely missed.

As always, thank you for stopping by.

Dougal said...

Well, this thread is months old, so I don't imagine this post will be read by anyone, but the discussion triggers some reactions in me. I remember listening to a lecture at uni making the case for Dylan as poet. I didn't buy it. But about a decade later I heard an "expert" explain on NPR that a popular song like the Annie Lennox hit "Sweet Dreams . . ." could not possibly be poetry, and I didn't buy that either. Now, the sympathies of Kavanagh and MacNeice are well beyond my ken (and well beyond my barbie, too), although MacNeice, I know, was moved to comment on the effects of some government policies. I'm thinking of "Bagpipe Music" in particular. But the best bits of that poem are the ones that make the least sense politically, in my opinion. But I feel the same way about The Clash!

Stephen Pentz said...

Dougal: thank you very much for visiting, and for your comments. And, by the way, no comment is ever too late! It is good to know that people still find their way to some of the old posts. (Which are, I hope, not entirely like yesterday's news.)

I think (although I am not 100% certain) that you and I are on the same page. Thus, for example, I love The Clash -- London Calling in particular -- even though my political views (such as they are) are on the opposite side of the spectrum from theirs. (Except for Joe Strummer's in his later years.)

Being from the U.S., I wouldn't dare to wade into MacNeice and Kavanagh and Ireland and Scotland! But I will say that I find MacNeice's and Kavanagh's political poetry to be their least interesting (as well as their least poetical).

Thank you again.