Saturday, January 06, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 7

Poems for Pleasure 7

There are so many wonderful poems to read and to listen to.  The choices are too many to pick from really.  And so I can almost understand the angst an anthologist must feel when he or she has to decide.  When all the classical parameters of so called literary brilliance have been exhausted inevitably the whole selection in the end is a personal one, coloured by each selector’s tastes and indeed prejudices.  Robert Graves (1895-1985), the great classicist, writer and poet has written many astute and moving poems.  He had served and was badly injured during the First World War, at the Battle of the Somme in fact (1916).  Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were both good and loyal friends of Graves.  Poems from these latter two I also love – but more about that anon in another post.

This poem hereunder is a beautifully haunting and strange love poem.  It recounts what a lover says while half asleep, while somewhere between unconsciousness and consciousness.  It’s called “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep.”

She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep

She tells her love while half asleep,

In the dark hours,
With half words whispered low;
As earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.

The whole movement of this poem is slow and silent like the falling snow.  Like the snow the semi-consciousness of the loved one is mysterious and dark – snow falling at night is paradoxical in a way because we know it is white yet bereft of light it is dark.  Earth and lover share the pronoun “her” – that is when he uses this third person possessive pronoun it can refer to either his lover or to the earth.  Shades of Hughes’s “Thought-Fox” again here no doubt!  Then one can only love the brave repetition in the last two lines, and exult in the addition of the adjective “falling” to qualify the snow.  A wonderful poem indeed!

Poems for Pleasure 6

Poems for Pleasure 6

Another poet I quite like is Stevie Smith (1902-1971), the British novelist and poet.  A lot of her poems tend to be dark and somewhat bleak.  No wonder indeed as her father ran away from home, never to return, when both his business and his marriage failed.  Stevie was only 7 or 8 at this time.  Also she was a sickly child and suffered from tuberculous peritonitis at 5 years of age.  All her life she felt deeply abandoned because of this.  In consequence of all the above a lot of her poems deal with sickness and death.  One is reminded here of the great Irish poet Seán Ó Ríordáin, all of whose poems bear the mark to some degree or other of his suffering from tuberculosis.  Her most anthologized poem, my favourite, is “Not Waving, but Drowning.”

Not Waving But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

As you can see, or hear if you read this poem aloud, that it is bleak, dark, yet strangely or peculiarly humorous.  The critic Hermione Lee says of Smith: "Stevie Smith often uses the word 'peculiar' and it is the best word to describe her effects."  This is undoubtedly a peculiar poem and a brilliant one for all that. Its short, dark, humorous story concerns a man whose thrashing - whilst drowning in the sea - is mistaken for waving by people on the shore.  Also Smith allows us to “hear” the dead man speak which is an unusually good device.  It is also clear that this is a metaphor for any situation in which a cry for help is misinterpreted or ignored by friends and family.  The final two lines always stick in my throat, but they are really brilliant.  They are a good caption almost for the picture of a lot of modern life.  Of how many people would it be true that they might say on their deathbed:  “I was much too far out all my life/ And not waving but drowning.”

Friday, January 05, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 5

Poems for Pleasure 5

Some keep the Sabbath

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard for a Dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for church –
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I'm going, all along!

The above is a fine short poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).  Indeed all her poems are short and fine.  Early editors and anthologists managed to destroy her unique system of punctuation by long dashes instead of the usual commas, full stops, colons, semicolons etc.  If you search for her poems on line you will find them mostly destroyed by editors who did not know better in the early twentieth century.  Thankfully later editors knew better and reverted to what was in Emily’s manuscripts.  virtually unknown in her lifetime, Dickinson has come to be regarded, along with Walt Whitman as one of the two quintessential American poets of the 19th century.  Emily is famous for being a recluse and upon her relatively early death by modern standards (56), her family found 40 hand-bound volumes of more than 1700 of her poems.

The above little poem appeals to me because Emily was a strongheaded and strongwilled woman in that she refused to go to formal Church services.  She was simply not to be “hemmed in” or suffocated by any system of religion.  The Wikipedia, always a good source of information I find, informs us that “In 1847, at 17, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which would later become Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley. Austin (her brother) was sent to bring her home after less than a year at the Seminary, and she did not return to the school. Some speculate that she was homesick, however there is also speculation that she refused to sign an oath stating she would devote her life to Jesus Christ, and realizing she no longer wanted to attend there, went home and never returned.” (q.v. Wikipedia article on Emily).

Emily is my kind of person, strong in her opinions and raedy to stand up for her beliefs.  In the above poem a “bobolink” is a songbird.  Outside that note the poem is fairly readily accessible.  Another fact to note is that Emily used capital letters wherever and wherever she wanted, rather like William Blake who died in 1827, just three years before Emily was born.  Like Blake, once you compare her badly and wrongly edited poems with their originals, you will be quite horrified with the dreadful results.  Not alone does the poem not look right, it also does not sound right.  After all, poems are made for the ear more than the eye.

I must also admit that I subscribe aslo to her radical theology for an 1860s American.  If only we more of such radicals in contemporary USA today.  

Poems for Pleasure 4

Poems for Pleasure 4

Ted Hughes, once Poet Laureate, is also good on animal poems, though his thought and style take a bit of getting used to.  I always loved J.H. Cardinal Newman’s statement that “style is a thinking out into language”.  Never was a phrase as accurately descriptive as it is of Ted Hughes’s style.  One of my favourite poems by Hughes is his marvellous “The Thought-Fox”.  You’ll have to read and ponder this poem several times before it works its magic as it were.


I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:

Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.  

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near

Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

“The Thought-Fox” is a tough poem, but one which repays any struggles we may have with it.  It appeals to me because it is a poem not about a fox per se but rather about the very act of writing a poem.  Having written many poems myself, both in Irish and English, I am fascinated by a poem about a poem being made or even making itself.  It is complex indeed because Hughes as it were melds two different ideas together into a new hybrid unity – the approach bit by bit of the fox towards the writer or creator of the words and the very act of composing a poem about a fox or about a new reality somewhere in between called a thought-fox  This approach is tentative and secretive as it occurs during the dark of the night.  There are many paradoxes at work here – snow which is now colourless at night is just one of them.

Then the sheer audacity of the poet to fuse two contradictory ideas together, indeed even more audacious still of him, to fuse the thought of a physical being, fox in this case, with the abstract idea of creating or making a poem.  This fusing is itself apparent in the title as he has to hyphenate the new word to describe the new “reality” of animal and thought – “The Thought-Fox.”

Strange and weird indeed!  Yet the whole act of creating, composing, making words behave upon a page is a strange act after all.  As Edmund Hillary once remarked to a question as to why he climbed mountains, “because they are there”, the reason as to why poets or writers or musicians or artists create is no less paradoxical, namely, “because I have to, or need to, or want to or like to.”  

I will leave it to the reader’s interest to read the more scholarly literary criticisms of this great poem.  I’ll confine myself to pointing out what strike’s me.  “Something else is alive/Besides the clock’s loneliness” I think are marvellously profound lines.  This “otherness” is stirring in the darkness – the otherness of a real fox coming towards the house on one level; the otherness of inspiration and certain combinations of words about to form themselves in the poet’s mind and then on the blank page.  Other lines like “deeper within darkness” add to the mystery and haunting nature of the poem being created.  Then a cold nose, then a pair of eyes, the un-see-able (as distinct from invisible) prints of the fox’s feet in the snow.  Then the final verse hits us like a slap across the face.  We get the sudden animal stench as the fox is literally eye-to-eye with the writer of the poem, and now with its reader.  This daring stinking fox leaps right into our brain, right into the mind, into what is surely not a comfortable sitting room with equally comfortable “mental furniture” if I may turn a good philosophical phrase to some good use here.  In fact the mind at work functions somewhere weirdly and strangely within “the dark hole of the head”.  And weirdly still we may say that the Fox is the Poem and the Poem is the Fox.  Weird and strange indeed is this world we are all part of, and weirder and stranger still the means at our disposal to make sense of it.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Poems For Pleasure 3

Poems For Pleasure 3

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) was a famous English novelist, storywriter, critic, poet and painter, one of the greatest figures in 20th-century English literature. "Snake" is probably his most anthologized poem.  It was in our own Intermediate Certificate Poetry anthology at school.  I won’t mention any of his famous or even infamous novels here, but I remember delighting in them when studying English literature at college many years ago.  The Rainbow remains one of my favourite novels to date.  However, I always loved his poems.  While I was training as a teacher I used many of his wonderful little poems on animals.  That’s what’s so appealing about Lawrence – his empathy with the animal kingdom, and what child does not like animals?  So I taught many of his poems as a trainee teacher back in the late seventies of the last century.  One of my favourite animal poems by D.H. is one about elephants.

Elephants in the Circus

Elephants in the circus
Have aeons of weariness around their eyes.
Yet they sit up
and show vast bellies to the children.

There is so much in this simple little poem.  Like all great poems it has many levels – so all ages will get as much as they want from this beautifully wrought poem.  “Aeons of weariness” is a loaded image and you can spend ages teasing out the “meaning” or rather implications or connotations here.  With a senior class one could go into the difference between denotation and connotation.  Asking the class how they feel about this poem is also a worthwhile question.  How did the author feel, do you think?  How do the children feel?  How does the elephant?  Can animals feel the way we do? (Is this too deep?)  Why do they sit up?  Why do they show their bellies?  What does showing your belly imply? (I’m getting at trust here, because belly is one of the most sensitive and vulnerable spots in one’s physiology).  Then the words about size are also worth looking at.  Brilliant little poem, I’m sure you will agree.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 2

Poems for Pleasure 2


This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam,
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

I’m almost sorry I started this small project as I find it rather hard to refine my favourites down to a certain number.  There are so many gems to pick from.  I have included this second one from Hopkins because it is such a beautiful nature poem – almost in the Gaelic tradition.  It is no wonder that Hopkins should have picked a Scottish locale for the setting of this wonderful poem.  Both Wales and Scotland, both lands of the Celt, were dear to Hopkins’s heart.

Inversnaid is a spectacular and historic reserve on the banks of Loch Lomond.  “Old (ancient West Atlantic) oak woodlands run down the hillside to the loch shore while clearings and more open areas allow views to the Arrochar Alps and other surrounding mountains. Tumbling burns add variety to the scene, while the damp conditions are ideal for ferns and mosses.”  So says the official site, q.v., at .

When I read this poem aloud I hear the sounds of the small stream becoming bigger and bigger as it rushes down into the Loch.  Hopkins had a wonderfully musical ear and was a good musician – all his life he was composing songs and melodies and particularly loved the music of the composer Purcell.  The musicality of his language is so obvious here even to the untrained ear like my own.  As per normal I love his compounding of words – always a trait of Hopkins as it was of the great Gaelic poet Seán Ó Ríordain a century later who also has a fine ear for music – “darksome” instead of “dark”; “horseback” rather than simple “horse”; windpuff-bonnet” and “fawn-froth” etc.  I don’t need to go on.  With Hopkins there is never a redundant word – all are there for the sound and rhythm and the musicality of the whole enterprise.

I simply love the power of the line which is ever so graphic and so physical or rather physiological: “the groins of the braes that the brook treads through.”  Wonderful stuff!

And then the final stanza is especially dear to me as it sings of that Celtic wildness beloved of Synge and portrayed so well in his wonderful
Playboy of the Western World. (Is it any wonder that Synge was a musician too?   See a previous post on Synge and wildness in these pages).  This stanza is a strong plea for the wildness and sheer strength of nature.  Pure Romanticism no?  No harm to indulge ourselves a little.  I shall leave G.M. Hopkins there.  God rest you Pater Gerardus S.J.!

Poems for Pleasure 1

I thought I might do a short series of reflections on poems I love for the New Year.  So I went to my poetry shelf and unburdened it of too many volumes.  I’ll have to replace them soon as I shall not be able to beat a path to my desktop.  Having spent some hours of delightful perusal of words fashioned, formed and shaped by great craftsmen and craftswomen over many years, I shall start with this beautiful poem composed by the great convert Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), in honour of the little girl Margaret.  ;

Spring and Fall:
to a young child

Márgarét, áre you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I suppose we’ve all studied the great G.M.Hopkins, SJ, at school and have had to learn many of his wonderfully unusual musical poems by heart.  You, like I, probably wrestled with his sprung rhythm and his concept of inscape.  However, it’s all really in the ear and all the jargon just serves as a smoke screen.   A poem is always written for the ear, not the eye!! I was always transfixed at school when our great teacher Mr. Michael McLoughlin, B.A. (Hons) read The Windhover.  (The school in question is the great O’Connell School, North Richmond Street, the foundation stone having been lain in 1828 by the great Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell.)  I could not resist reading it aloud to my younger brother Pat when I returned home to our then old townhouse in Ballybough.  (North Inner City, Dublin).  I think my father thought I was mad – he could never fathom why I was always reading things aloud!  
This poem is dedicated to a young girl who simply cannot understand why the leaves of the beautiful trees have to fall and die.  It is at a deeper level a poem about the inevitability of ageing and death, the inevitability of suffering in life.  It is a poem about all our griefs, whether big or small.  Like all good poetry it does not offer any answers.  Rather it sings the soul song of the mystery of the thing, or more accurately the mystery of the very human condition.

I was always drawn to GMH’s simpler lyrics like this one above.  “Unleaving” is a rather beautiful third person form of “unleafing” from  the verb to “unleaf”, that is to let fall its leaves.  There is, of course, a pun within this formulation also, in so far as Margaret may not get to leave Goldengrove soon.  This is where poetry really delights me – the possibility here of two meanings.  Then, we have the juxtaposition of the young girl (youth) with age and ageing and death which are hinted at from the beginning of the poem almost.

There is something sad in this little poem, and it is quite therapeutic to let a tear fall for little Margaret, too!  Then Hopkins’ usual compounds of old and odd words like “wanwood leafmeal”.  Wan can mean “dark” from Old English or indeed our own “pale and tired” and “leafmeal” is probably a hint at the word “piecemeal” that is, bit by bit.  Hence a rather unpoetic, prosaic rendering might be…”the dark forest is shedding its leaves bit by bit.”

He realizes that the child will weep, because weeping is part of the human condition after all.  Indeed, psychotherapists tell us that unwept grief eats the soul away.  How true!  Again, he tells her she will know why she is weeping.  GMH was after all a convert Jesuit priest, employed by the great John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) as professor of Greek and Latin at the Catholic University in Dublin, forerunner of UCD.  This poem, like all his others is suffused with Christian doctrine.  Then there is the hard and hitting line “It is the blight man was born for” which is, of course, a reference to the original sin of Adam and Eve, who through their greed brought sin into the world.  Hence also the title “Spring and Fall” which is quite complete and/or circular – the Fall refers both to the fall of leaves and to the Biblical Fall of Adam and Eve.  The spring, of course, is new life which is only hinted at in the title.  Other poems of Hopkins’s cover the spring amply!

When we grieve for things; when we grieve for others; when we grieve for the loss of our parents, we are really grieving for our own loss of self, for own inevitable leaving of this sentient world.  Hence the grim last line:  “it is Margaret you mourn for.”  Well, reader, all you have to do is insert your own name in this lovely lyric and read it again.  I promise you, it is really profound.