Monday, June 30, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - How Poems Work

Summer is a monastic experience for this writer.  He takes to his attic study, reads and writes interminably alone.  He tastes a blessed solitude there among his books with his two skylight windows opening to a vast sky.  He is assailed by wonderful and wondrous thoughts; by the magic and mystery of words and sometimes by a veritable gamut of emotions - powerful energies that pour forth so naturally in laughs and sighs and tears.  There are times for reading prose - novels, short stories, articles, philosophy, science, biography whatever whim grasps the reader.  Then, there are those small moments of deep solitude which only poems can assuage and comfort, or maybe more correctly contain.  "Contain" is a far better word for comfort is not always delivered up to his beating lonely heart.  Sometimes he is disturbed, deeply disturbed that life can be so cruel, that another heart or soul can be so crushed, can feel such despair among the great beauties of his little world.

Poems are like dew drops on the grass - they fall into consciousness so naturally and so unbidden.  They are stars in a night sky, making fixed for a moment or two the vast canopy of the infinite.  They are tears in the writer's eyes as his words behave in an effort to comprehend the incomprehensible.  They are little moments of passion in an unfeeling world.  They are hands that reach out for other hands to grasp over deep chasms.  They are footprints in the sands on wintry beaches.  They are the shocking loneliness of driftwood left like a forlorn decrepit statue in the sands.  Sometimes they are uplifting like a bracing mountain walk.  Sometimes they are a vista from a secluded viewing point.  Sometimes they are the sight of two lovers walking together into the future or the past.  Sometimes they are the sight of little children at play, oblivious of any meaning at all.  Their greatest attribute is that they are and can only be.  They proclaim no messages other than themselves.  A real poem is so honest that it can often be shockingly true.

Hereunder, I want to illustrate what I have said in the above paragraph by giving examples of what I mean by a poem being so honest than it can only be shockingly true.  This to my mind, then, is how a poem works, that is, by being shockingly true.  These are random poems but they express a range of shocking emotions and feelings.

Psalm (Psalm)

by Paul Celan (1920-1970)

No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,

no one incants our dust. No one.
Blessèd art thou, No One.
In thy sight would
we bloom.
In thy

A Nothing
we were, are now, and ever
shall be, blooming:
the Nothing-, the

our pistil soul-bright,
our stamen heaven-waste,
our corona red
from the purpleword we sang
over, O over
the thorn.

Translation © 2001 by John Felstiner.

This is such a tough poem on the emotions.  It is so taut, so tightly written that there are no excess words.  That he calls this poem "Psalm" is in itself a subversive act undermining the very history of the meaning of that word.  Then again we have the marvellous Biblical tradition of the cursing psalms where literally the poet curses life, though never God.  However, here God is No One whom the poet blesses.  As I say, I love this poem for its bleakness, for its utter despair, but I can only read it sometimes when I am not too sad.  I love reading it when I am a little high on life and it earths me again, makes me real.  It is a poem to be savoured, rather like bitter herbs.  It will be no surprise, then, if it matters, that Paul Celan was a Jew, both of whose parents were murdered by the Nazis, either in concentration or work camps.  From reading his poems, I reckon he was an atheist.  Nor will it be surprising that Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine river in late April 1970.

Now for a less despairing poem, but somewhat bleak nonetheless from our own Samuel Beckett whose poems are wonderful if sobering gems.

Samuel Beckett
(1906 - 1989) way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end
my peace is there in the receding mist
when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds
and live the space of a door
that opens and shuts...

Remember what I have been saying hereto, read these poems aloud and let the meaning fall on the ears in an auditory way.  As a beach walker I quite like this poem because it is bleak and bracing like a wintry wind.  You get sand in your eyes with Beckett!


And now for a much lighter poem, which has little sombre moments. It's from the hand of A.E. Housman (1859-1936). He was professor of Classics at University College London and later at Cambridge and always said that his true vocation was in classical studies and treated poetry as a secondary activity. He never spoke about his poetry in public until 1933 when he gave a lecture, "The Name and Nature of Poetry", in which he argued that poetry should appeal to emotions rather than intellect.

Tell me not here, it needs not saying

Tell me not here, it needs not saying,

What tune the enchantress plays

In aftermaths of soft September

Or under blanching mays,

For she and I were long acquainted

And I knew all her ways.


On russet floors, by waters idle,

The pine lets fall its cone;

The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing

In leafy dells alone;

And traveller's joy beguiles in autumn

Hearts that have lost their own.


On acres of the seeded grasses

The changing burnish heaves;

Or marshalled under moons of harvest

Stand still all night the sheaves;

Or beeches strip in storms for winter

And stain the wind with leaves.

Possess, as I possessed a season,

The countries I resign,

Where over elmy plains the highway

Would mount the hills and shine,

And full of shade the pillared forest

Would murmur and be mine.


For nature, heartless, witless nature,

Will neither care nor know

What stranger's feet may find the meadow

And trespass there and go,

Nor ask amid the dews of morning

If they are mine or no.

What strikes me here is how indifferent nature is to human emotions.  Those of us who were taught English long ago in the old school as it were, are very accustomed to the idea created and popularised by the Victorian art and social critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900) namely "pathetic fallacy," that nature was in sympathy with the poet's or writer's emotions.  Here in this poem we have the idea of how indifferent nature is, how deaf and unfeeling, given that, obviously, it is totally unconscious even if animate in varying degrees.  Nietzsche has a similar view of nature, but I have forgotten his exact quote and am too lazy to find it.  I will look for it again, as that pursuit will lead me way off track.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery;
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

Matthew Arnold was a poet, writer, cultural critic and inspector of schools.  He is well known for his writings on education among other endeavours. This poem was written ns 1867 poem, when Matthew was 43, a father and an inspector of schools, depicts a nightmarish world from which the old religious truths and certainties have receded and it expresses his view that human love is mankind’s only defence against the dark and foreboding spiritual emptiness of modern life. Consequently, even, to this day it is often held up as an early, if not the first, example of the modern sensibility.  Again as an erstwhile student of theology I loved this poem, as I loved the poems of the eccentric and heterodox William Blake before him because they brought in new ways of looking at the world, new feelings, a new breadth of vision that only poems can give.

This post could go on too long, so I had better try to bring in a lighter, but no less serious tone.  There is laughter coupled with sadness in the following marvellous ditty from one of my favourite contemporary poets, Roger McGough (1937-    ).

Sad Aunt Madge

As the cold winter evenings drew near
Aunt Madge used to put extra blankets
over the furniture, to keep it warm and cosy.
Mussolini was her lover, and life
was an outoffocus rosy-tinted spectacle.

but neurological experts
with kind blueeyes

and gentle voices
small white hands
and large Rolls Royces
said that electric shock treatment should
do the trick
it did...

today after 15 years of therapeutic tears
and an awful lot of ratepayers' shillings
down the hospital meter
sad Aunt Madge
no longer tucks up the furniture
before kissing it goodnight
and admits
that her affair with Mussolini
clearly was not right
particularly in the light
of her recently announced engagement
to the late pope

What a brilliant poem and so typical of Roger McGough.  I can almost hear his scouse or Liverpudlian accent.  Notice the brilliant compounding of "outoffocus" and "blueeyes" which capture in words the actual blurring of the words.

Up and Down the Strip

by Pat Ingoldsby

It's the tingle between your legs

that takes you down to Leeson Street,

down to the The Strip

down to meet

tight jeans tight thighs

denim bottoms hopes high

standing and sitting

sipping the wine

buy you a bottle

make you mine

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.

Business men working late

grey haired overweight

white shirts club ties

credit cards white lies

cigar smoke bald spots

big stomachs big shots

wrinkles over rugby scars

randy thoughts company cars

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.


Eyes meet look away

how do you start?

what do you say?

look unmarried

like you couldn't care less

look unfrustrated

they'll never guess

pray to God that

your daughter's not here

hold in your stomach

swallow your fear

grab two glasses

bottle of wine

take a sip

make you mine

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.


Jump suits open zipped

legs crossed leather hipped

tight jeans young blood

long skirts looking good

some do some don't

how can you tell

which one won't

more important

which one will

onto the dance floor

get in for the kill

dance fast dance slow

move in closer

now you know

dance fast dance slow

nuzzle the neck here we go

will you take off

your clothes?


No! Not down here!

and not in my place

no bloody fear

you'll waken the wife

disturb the kids

we'll do it in your place

keep it all hid

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.

Up the steps

tired and slow

she drank your wine

she's still below

up the steps

tired and slow

the taxis are waiting

all in a row

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.

(Pat Ingoldby, 1942-          )

Pat Ingoldsby is a wonderful, though sadly unacknowledged, contemporary poet.  You will meet him at various locations around Dublin city and environs hawking his own poems, lovingly self-published.  I have often stopped for a chat and bought a book.  Do the same if you get the time.  He is a wonderful soul!  Well done Pat.  We need more like you!


And so the point of today's rather long, if somewhat rambling entry has been to make poems come alive and be; not to mean or to say anything preachy or didactic, not to give gems of advice or even of wisdom but just to sing "life electric" if I may steal a phrase from Walt Whitman.  Poems are blessings and curses all rolled into one.  They are little bites we take out of life.  Sometimes we relish them and suck them around in our mouth for dear life.  Other times we swallow them with gusto and say "Ah!  That's life!"  Other times we cry and weep a tear or two and gulp, "Ah that's life and death! So be it!"  Or as my father used to put it:  "That's the way, boy, that's the way!"  "Such is life!"  Poems are natural like the dew or the rain or the clouds or the flowers that peek between stones.  Often they are weeds, but sure weeds are only flowers in the wrong place.  Whatever.  Poems are always surprises, beautiful creatures like the creatures that make them.  Blessed be those poems and blessed be all the creature that make them. Amen.

Sundown, Howth May 2008

1 comment:

lifeform666 said...

Here's the entire Beckett poem:


again the last ebb
the dead shingle
the turning then the steps
toward the lighted town

my way is in the sand
flowing between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life, on me
my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to this end

my peace is there in the receding mist
when I may cease
from treading these long shifting thresholds
and live the space of a door
that opens and shuts

what would I do without this world faceless incurious
where to be lasts but an instant
where every instant spills in the void
the ignorance of having been without
this wave where in the end
body and shadow together are engulfed

what would I do without this silence where the murmurs die
the paintings the frenzies toward succour towards love
without this sky that soars
above it's ballast dust

what would I do what I did yesterday and the day before
peering out of my deadlight looking for another
wandering like me eddying far from all the living
in a convulsive space
among the voices voiceless
that throng my hiddenness

I would like my love to die
and the rain to be falling on the graveyard
and on me walking the streets
mourning the first and last to love me