Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Two Rabbits And A Paramour

Gentle readers, Time's winged chariot has brought us to August, which calls for a visit to my August poem.  As long-time visitors may remember, I make it a practice to annually visit my April poem (Patrick Kavanagh's "Wet Evening in April"), my May poem (Philip Larkin's "The Trees"), my August poem,  and my November poem (Wallace Stevens's "The Region November").  Please humor me:  I like the familiarity of these stepping stones that await me across the year.  I'm slow on the uptake and I need reminding of where I have been and where I am going.

     Journeying through the world, --
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 290.

I'm content to harrow my small field.

Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), "Studio Window" (1934)

Here is another way of looking at it:  are any of us the same person we were a year ago?  Who knows what revisiting a poem might reveal?  Thus, each year I beg your indulgence as we revisit a rabbit in August, "the most peaceful month."

       A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).

I've lived with this poem for 35 years or so, but I am not able to "explain" it. I once made a feeble attempt at "explanation," which may be found here, for anyone who is interested.  But I confess:  the first time I saw the title, I was certain I would love the poem.  And that's how it turned out.

There's no accounting for these things, is there?  At a different level, I feel much the same way about, for instance, Glen Campbell singing "Wichita Lineman," circa 1968.  Some things find their way to you and just stay with you.  But there is a single thread that winds through them all.

I acknowledge that some of you may regard the poem as nonsense, as a trifle.  I completely understand that reaction.  But I would gently suggest -- without twisting your arm -- that you give it time, let it revolve in your mind for a while.  Come to think of it, that goes for "Wichita Lineman" as well.

Josephine Haswell Miller, "Winter Afternoon"

The following poem features a more down-to-earth rabbit.  It is a compendium of the lineaments of rabbit-hood.  Or so it seems.

                 The Rabbit's Advice

I have been away too long.
Some of you think I am only a nursery tale,
One which you've grown out of.
Or perhaps you saw a movie and laughed at my ears
But rather envied my carrot.
I must tell you that I exist.

I'm a puff of wool leaping across a field,
Quick to all noises,
Smelling my burrow of safety.
I am easily frightened.  A bird
Is tame compared to me.
Perhaps you have seen my fat white cousin who sits,
Constantly twitching his nose,
Behind bars in a hutch at the end of a garden.
If not, imagine those nights when you lie awake
Afraid to turn over, afraid
Of night and dawn and sleep.
Terror is what I am made
Of partly, partly of speed.

But I am a figure of fun.
I have no dignity
Which means I am never free.
So, when you are frightened or being teased, think of
My twitching whiskers, my absurd white puff of a tail,
Of all that I mean by 'me'
And my ludicrous craving for love.

Elizabeth Jennings, After the Ark (Oxford University Press 1978).

Jennings admired the poetry of Wallace Stevens (although I am not suggesting that "The Rabbit's Advice" owes anything to "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts").  The following poem by her sheds some light on what Stevens was generally up to.

     (Homage to Wallace Stevens)

Wonder exerts itself now as the sky
Holds back a crescent moon, contains the stars.
So we are painters of a yesterday
Cold and decisive.  We are feverish
With meditations of a Winter Law
Though Spring was brandished at us for a day.

Citizens of climate we depend
Not on the comfortable clock, the warm
Cry of a morning song, but on the shape
Of hope, the heralding imagination,
The sanguine making and the lonely rites
We exercise in space we leave alone.

Prophets may preside and they will choose
Clouds for a throne.  The background to their speech
Will be those fiery peaks a painter gives
As a composer shares an interval,
As poet pauses, holding sound away
From wood, as worshippers draw back from gods.

Elizabeth Jennings, Growing Points (Carcanet 1975).

Stevens's characteristic vocabulary appears throughout the poem. "Meditation" and "imagination" are his talismans. "Winter Law" (line 5) may refer to "The Snow Man" (although winter is a recurring presence throughout Stevens's poetry).  "Citizens of climate" (line 7) echoes Stevens's poem "The Poems of Our Climate."  The lines "The sanguine making and the lonely rites/We exercise in space we leave alone" apply to the poetry of Stevens as a whole, but they also provide a clue as to what is happening in "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" in particular:  "You sit with your head like a carving in space."

Josephine Haswell Miller, "Memories of the Sea" (1936)

As I have observed in the past, Stevens believed that the constant interplay between Imagination and Reality is the essential human activity.  There is, however, a risk of coldness and abstraction in acting upon this belief. Stevens seemed to realize this in his final years.  Consider the opening lines of "First Warmth":  "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life/As a questioner about reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?"

Still, in a poem that was published one year prior to his death, Stevens returns to his great theme.

     Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one . . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954), in Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America 1997).

The poem feels like a restatement and a reaffirmation of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts."  We are the rabbit:  "The whole of the wideness of night is for you,/A self that touches all edges."  And we are the interior paramour: "We make a dwelling in the evening air,/In which being there together is enough."

Perhaps these are abstractions, but, if so, they are deeply felt, profoundly moving abstractions.  Think of what is at stake here:  "We collect ourselves,/Out of all the indifferences, into one thing."  What could be more human?

Josephine Haswell Miller, "The House on the Canal"


Bex said...

Of course, you must have known one of us would race over to YouTube and bring up Witchita Lineman by Glen Campbell - as background to reading your entry! Well, you would have been correct! I did and still am... thank you... I loved the Glen Campbell songs of old... and this starts my day out well.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I recall the first time I came across " A Rabbit as the King of Ghosts". I was captivated and entranced by it, but did I understand it? No. Does it matter? Again I would answer no.
There are some poems, places too, which have a power to lock themselves deep within you. Once you have read those words, or trodden that ground, place or poem are forever inside. The poem may be, as you say nonsense. The place may very well appear ordinary and uninspiring to another. Again I would say it doesn't matter.

There is a place I try to visit whenever I am in Norfolk. A lane that soon becomes a track, it wanders down past a field and large barn and reaches a ford, crossed by a small footbridge. Beyond,the narrow, fast flowing river runs looping low lying meadows. I know it is quite ordinary, and lying between a road and a village atop a hill, and yet the first time I walked there and every time since, following the same route, it is just like reading a particular poem that has that power to be wholly familiar, and yet like a world, that no matter how many years you may know it ,remains forever discoverable, always surprising you with unexplored corners. It cannot be explained, but it's there deep inside you, and woken once again.

I'm never entirely sure whether I understand any of Stevens poems. Some I like more than others, but he is a poet I find myself returning to more often as I get older.
It's always good to see Elizabeth Jennings, a sadly neglected poet. " Wonder" which is new to me I think particularly fine.
It is always a delight to visit First Known When Lost. Good poems, your own interesting thoughts and the comments from others too. Long may it continue.

Unknown said...

The first haiku says it all; well, it serves as a fine rendering of my harried life. As always, my visit to your site has been a pleasant excursion. Now, although it is rather self-serving to mention this, I invite you to my new blog where I will be serving up discussions of 19th century American literature; perhaps the content will occasionally interest you.
Now, having been refreshed by your posting, I am off to tend my own fields.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bex: Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for sharing your thoughts.

By the way, one of those YouTube videos consists of someone playing the original 1968 Capitol Records vinyl record version, which gives us the sound I grew up with. Which ages me a bit, doesn't it?

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: First, thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I owe you additional thanks for being a loyal, long-term reader and commenter, which I greatly appreciate.

And thank you as well for the lovely description of your Norfolk walk. You capture perfectly what I was trying to get at when discussing the revisitation of well-known poems. Of course, I still search for the new and undiscovered, but the familiar and loved provide a necessary accompaniment, as you suggest. "Woken once again" is an apt way of describing how these things work.

You and I are the same when it comes to Stevens, and the understanding of his poems. I remain puzzled over much that he writes. Still, I, like you, return to him often, particularly the poems he wrote in his final years.

I agree with you that the poetry of Elizabeth Jennings is "sadly neglected." But, as long as some of us continue to read her poems, the work will survive. And it is good to note that Carcanet published her Collected Poems as recently as 2012, which is a hopeful sign.

As always, thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Thank you for stopping by. I'm pleased you liked the haiku. I think it is a helpful statement of how we ought to see our lives. And thank you as well for sharing the link to your new blogging effort. I will definitely be visiting.

WAS said...

Jennings' "Wonder" poem reveals the difficulty of elucidating Stevens in a way reams of critical analysis (including your own admirable attempt) can't. As careful as she is to say nothing, she says something, a problem Stevens never seems to have.

Jennings makes art-making some kind of poor man's spirituality in a veiled world, but Stevens actually leaves such propositions open to allow whatever truth can seep through.

When Stevens writes "We say God and the imagination are one... / How high that highest candle lights the dark" he is spotlighting the human (albeit part of some "central mind") able to create all these forms and thoughts.

It is in fact a re-affirmation of the earlier rabbit imagining himself as a God. It is quite amazing how we can rise in our minds above our material reality, but there is still the matter of the predator cat; is it really reduced by our imagination? That's what's essentially Stevens in that poem . But there I go.

Bruce Floyd said...

I'd wager that "A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts" is a favorite of most Stevens lovers.

"‘A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts’ was published Poetry Magazine in October of 1937 and in May of that year Stevens wrote a very curious passage in a letter to Ronald Lane Latimer, the founder and publisher of Alcestis press, who published two of Stevens’ books in short form. It gives a good view of Stevens at age 58":

…I expect to do very little writing until autumn. This is the time of year for exercise, for cheering oneself up, sitting down to dinner at 8 and going to bed at 9. Last night, after I had gone upstairs, I changed everything in my room so that when the family came up they were flabbergasted. One side of my bed there is nothing but windows; when I lie in bed I can see nothing but trees. But there has been a rabbit digging out bulbs: instead of lying in bed in the mornings listening to everything that is going on, I spend the time worrying about the rabbit and wondering what particular thing he is having for breakfast. (Letters, 321)

The year before writing the “rabbit” poem, he said to Latimer:

…I think that I should continue to write poetry whether or not anybody ever saw it, and certainly I write lots of it that nobody ever sees. We are all busy thinking things that nobody ever knows about. If a woman in her room is such an exciting subject of speculation, a man in his thoughts is equally exciting. (Letters, 306)

For sure, Stevens in his thoughts is exciting.

Jose Rodriques Feo, a Cuban critic, a young man forty years younger than Stevens but one with whom Stevens corresponded frequently, said of meeting Stevens, “I realized then that to him a piece of fruit was more than something to eat…It was good enough for him to look at it and think about it.” The experiences of such encounters were filtered into the ornaments Stevens brought into his verse. Birds, rabbits, food, and flowers enlivened him.

Yes, they did.

Anonymous said...

Another way of looking at the end of summer, one sensing change latent in the air and the light. I don't know when Kunitz wrote this poem, but it sounds as if it were written when he was an old man--and he lived over a hundred years. It's true August is a fiery tongued as July, but at dusk nature tenuously reveals to a discerning eye and ear a sight and a song of valediction.

End of Summer
By Stanley Kunitz

An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light

Admonished me the unloved year

Would turn on its hinge that night.

I stood in the disenchanted field

Amid the stubble and the stones,

Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me

The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,

A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,

The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew

That part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north

Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows

Order their populations forth,

And a cruel wind blows.

Stephen Pentz said...

WAS: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your usual thought-provoking observations.

Two thoughts (in the form of rhetorical questions). First, is the rabbit "imagining himself as a God," or is he/she simply operating at his/her full human imaginative potential? Stevens's line "We say God and the imagination are one" has always puzzled me, because I have never thought of God as entering into the matter, as far as Stevens was concerned. Although we do have the conflicting stories as to whether he made a death-bed conversion to Catholicism. So who knows?

Second (again, a rhetorical question): are we not both the rabbit and the cat? The rabbit is Wallace Stevens the Imaginer (the poet) at play. The cat is Wallace Stevens the lawyer/insurance company executive at work. So it goes with all of us.

Again, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting again.

mary f.ahearn said...

Thank you for this interesting post. I was among those who did go to Youtube to watch Glenn sing - a poignant feeling as he is somewhere in the mists of Altzheimers - sad,sad,sad. What wonderful music, though. I always loved Galveston as that is where my mom and dad were based before he was sent overseas. Beautiful song and singer.
The mystery of why certain poems, songs, affect us so deeply is fascinating. The travel haibun by Basho -my little Penguin copy bought in a wonderful bookstore many years ago in New Hope, PA has this effect on me. Sometimes I just pull it off the shelf and it has an almost healing effect.
I've rambled on too long, I fear. Your thoughtful blog is wonderful, thanks again. Wish I could offer you more scholarly comments.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for the passages from Stevens's letters, which are apt. In fact, I included Stevens's comments about the rabbits in his garden in my original posting of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" back in January of 2011. I, like you, thought that they were apt.

Stevens's letters are wonderful, as you know. You may be aware of it, but, if not, you may wish to have a look at Roy Fuller's comments on them (and on Stevens in general) in his essay "Both Pie and Custard," which appears in his Owls and Artificers: Oxford Lectures on Poetry (Andre Deutsch 1971), pages 69 to 88.

As ever, I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing Kunitz's poem, which is new to me. It captures this time of year quite well. I was thinking earlier this week that we are due for a change in the angle of the light within the next few weeks, which is both sad and exhilarating. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. Number one: you never "ramble on too long." Number two: any and all comments are welcome -- "scholarly," "non-scholarly," whatever. Personally, I begin to worry when I hear myself sounding "scholarly"!

I agree with you about Glen Campbell: it is very sad to see him now. But he brought joy to many people. And "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" (and others) will be around for ever. (I hope.)

I remember you mentioning before your Penguin edition of Basho's haibun. We all have talismanic books, don't we? And, as you say, they carry a wonderful emotional essence with them, no matter how old and battered.

Thank you again for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now

The below Dickinson poem has been quoted before in the Comment section of your superb blog, but, once again, it seems apt--though I don't pretend to comprehend it completely.

No one, except perhaps Stevens, was more attuned to the turn of the seasons than Dickinson. New England is a place where four discrete seasons arrive and then leave. In late August the crickets perform their "pathetic mass." Summer has come and now is dying so unobtrusively, dying of fecund excess, of over-ripeness on the cusp of decay, that one hardly notes the subtle changes. Dickinson notices though. To her the days of late August possess a "Druidic Difference."

Dickinson said in a letter: "Autumn is among us, though almost unperceived — and the cricket sings in the morning, now, a most pathetic conduct." ~ (L #936)

Anonymous said...

The below poem by William Cowper has nothing, really, to do with your latest posting. Pardon my irrelevance. But when you wrote about Rabbits, I could not help thinking of poor William Cowper, who for all his life was marked with deep despair and a relentless wish to kill himself. Probably the three things Cowper loved most in this world were his three rabbits: Puss, Bess, and Tiny. He included his three hares in his poetry and letters. He wrote articles about them.

Perhaps they soothed his heavy melancholy, provided him a moment or two of happiness. I hope so.

He went to great lengths to learn all he could about the proper care of and best diet for his three little friends, who were a comfort and strength for him, especially Puss who had become so tame. He wrote about Puss in his famous poem "The Task". In Book III of that work in the section "The Garden", he describes his close relationship with Puss:

The Rabbit-Human Bond

Well – one at least is safe. One shelter’d hare
Has never heard the sanguinary yell
Of cruel man [see note below], exulting in her woes.
Innocent partner of my peaceful home,
Whom ten long years’ experience of my care
Has made at last familiar; she has lost
Much of her vigilant, instinctive dread.
Not needful here, beneath a roof like mine.
Yes – thou may’st eat thy bread, and lick the hand
That feeds thee; thou may’st frolic on the floor
At evening, and at night retire secure
To thy straw couch, and slumber unalarm’d.
For I have gain’d the confidence, have pledg’d
All that is human in me to protect
Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.
If I survive thee I will dig thy grave
And, when I place thee in it, sighing, say,
I knew at least one hare that had a friend.
--William Cowper, from The Task, Book III, “The Garden”.

Note: when I was a boy I had a neighbor, a boy about my age, who was born with Down's Syndrome. He had a rabbit for a pet. At night and when the boys' family was gone for a few hours, the boy put his beloved rabbit in a large cage outside, in the backyard. One afternoon while the family was visiting out of town, the rabbit in his cage, another boy crept into the backyard, opened the cage, took out the rabbit, and strangled it to death. The rabbit's owner came home to find his rabbit dead. Cruel humankind indeed.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing the poem by Dickinson. Like Kunitz's poem, it captures well the feeling of this time of year. "A minor Nation celebrates/Its unobtrusive Mass" is particularly lovely. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Yes, Cowper and his hares are touching. I'm fond of the essay he wrote about them for The Gentleman's Magazine, as well his poems about them, including the passage you quote. I do think they provided him with a great deal of peace and comfort. As for "cruel man": well, that is why we need people like Cowper: to remind us of what is best in us. Thank you for sharing the passage from The Task, and for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

There's been such an outpouring on this post that I will join in. You posted it on my birthday, August 5 (my 78th this year). I have felt before, & felt again this year, that my birthday falls at the very height of the summer, the day on which the fountain of summer reaches its highest point & begins its fall.
This post, with even one of my favorite Dickenson poems in the comments, is like a birthday gift for me. Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: A belated happy birthday, with wishes for many more to come! I'm delighted that the post turned out to be so timely.

I agree with your comment that August 5 and thereabouts do feel like "the very height of summer." Even this week, I've begun to notice a slight change in the light.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.