Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Power of a Poem 4

One of  my favourite poets is Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973), better known as W. H. Auden.  I was first introduced to him by a great college lecturer called John Devitt back in the late 1970s.  John had a great impact on us students as he opened our minds and hearts to great poetry and great authors.  W.H. Auden was an Anglo-American poet who was born in England but who later became an American citizen.  He is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century because his poems are finely crafted pieces of a high quality of stylistic and technical achievement. His work is also noted for its timely and often lively engagement with moral and political issues.  John Devitt taught us how to read poems, how to engage with them as text and how to unravel the various strands and layers that make them up.  In Auden we found a wide variety of tone, form and content.  As young students we also encountered the central themes of his poetry  such as love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.

Marie Heaney, spoke of the poem I have appended below - Musée des Beaux Arts - as one of her favourites in a recent publication.  Here is what she had to say:

This poem contemplates beauty, suffering and human indifference in a clear-eyed way.  By being a beautiful thing itself, it assuages pain to some degree.  It does make something happen. (Lifelines: New and Collected, TownHouse, Dublin, 2006, p. 81)
The title of this wonderful poem refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.  Auden visited the museum in 1938 and viewed the painting by Brueghel, which the poem is basically about.  Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a painting in oil on canvas (73.5 cm × 112 cm) long thought to be by Pieter Brueghel the elder.  The story of Icarus is largely derived from Ovid, though obviously its provenance was in Greek mythology.  In Ancient Greek mythology, Icarus succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father Daedalus, using feathers secured with wax.  However, poor Icarus chose to fly too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water in this painting, just below the ship.  The painting itself became the subject of a poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams, and is described in W. H. Auden's poem Musée des Beaux-Arts, named after the museum in which the painting is housed in Brussels.

Nietzsche often referred to the indifference of nature to humankind's suffering - a far cry from the Romantic/Victorian idea of pathethic fallacy (a concept proposed by the art critic John Ruskin the famous Victorian art critic) where nature is seen as reflecting the feelings of human beings.  Here in this poem Auden reflects on the theme of apathy with which humans view the suffering of others.  It is interesting and indeed insightful for us when we read that Auden wrote that "In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate."  Indeed, we expect all art to be truthful and honest, to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

This poem below juxtaposes ordinary events and exraordinary ones, although extraordinary events seem to be transformed  into everyday ones with his descriptions.   Life goes on while a "miraculous birth occurs", but also while "the disaster" of Icarus's death happens. Brueghel's painting portrays several men and a ship peacefully performing daily activities in a charming landscape. While this occurs, Icarus is visible in the bottom right hand corner of the picture, his legs splayed at absurd angles, drowning in the water.

The allusions in the first part of the poem to a "miraculous birth" and a "dreadful martyrdom" refer obliquely to the Christian story that is also the subject of other paintings by Breughel in the museum that the poem evokes  The "forsaken cry" of Icarus alludes to Christ crying out on the cross, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Musée des  Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Above Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Peter Brueghel the elder (c. 1525 – 1569).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Power of a Poem 3

Intensity and Depth of Feeling

Many years ago when I was a young man of twenty-five a good friend described me as being intense, and hastened to add that his opinion was in no way negative or, indeed, a criticism of any kind.  Of course, I did not take it as such nor would I ever have.  Indeed, I have always delighted in my intensity, because I have always associated it with depth of character, and the absolute opposite to shallowness.   There are several definitions of the word "intense," but the one I allude to here is the following meaning (a)  "Deeply felt; profound: intense emotion." and (b) Tending to feel deeply: an intense writer.  This is exactly what I have in mind here in this short piece.  Now, the great poet and short story writer, whose poem I wish to append below is none other than the great Raymond Carver who died at the relatively young age of fifty. Carver's career was dedicated to short stories and poetry. He described himself as "inclined toward brevity and intensity" and "hooked on writing short stories."  This is precisely what we get in Carver's short stories and also in his poems.  The poems are short and pithy, and almost epigrammatic, while the stories are brief and succinct.

I also love Raymond Carver's epitaph which runs:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
It will not surprise the reader that Raymond Carver was an alcoholic for a lengthy period of his life and that when he was sober and writing he was always a member of the AA.  The poem I wish to append here today is one called Gravy, and as far as I know this is also inscribed on his tombstone.  Carver was dying of cancer when he wrote this poem, and I love his absolute determination to celebrate life and the good years that he had lived.  He had, in fact, almost died from alcoholism ten years before he wrote this poem, but he succeeded in giving up drinking and then met his second wife, having divorced the first.  He also found peace of mind and soul, and the last decade of his life was very happy and very productive as he published several volumes of wonderful short stories and poems.  This poem, then, is about being given a second chance, and about really appreciating life.  Reflect on this poem and you will gain a lot.


No other word will do. For that's what it was.Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"
he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it."



Above, Raymond Carver in a typically strong pose.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Power of a Poem 2

The beauty and truth of poem lie in its very distillation of human experience.  I often marvel at how this or that maker of poems managed to create such a wonderful vehicle of words which sound so many meanings simultaneously.  Words are the very stuff of communication.  A good poem jumps out at us and leaps from the page.  A good poem can cheer us.  Again, a good poem may depress us.  Yet again, a good poem can make us run the whole gamut of emotions.  I cannot leave this blog tonight without sharing a wonderful gem of a poem with my readers.  I discovered this little gem in a wonderful treasure chest of poems called The Rattle Bag edited by our very own Nobel Laureate for Literature, Séamus Heaney.  The poem is called Elegy though, I believe it had no title as it was included in a letter to the poet's wife on the eve before the poet was executed for treason in Elizabethan times.

This poem was crafted at white heat by its author sometime before his execution, and hence it contains much depth of emotion, and yet a very balanced sobriety of language.  The author's name is truly wonderful and poetic in itself, and is none other than Chidiock Tichborne who was a staunch Catholic as was his father and all his family.  They were conspirators to murder the Protestant Queen Elizabeth 1 who was Head of the Church of England founded by her father Henry VIII. On September 19, 1586, the night before he was executed, Chidiock wrote to his wife Agnes. The letter enclosed three stanzas beginning: "My prime of youth is but a frost of cares."  This elegy is so restrained yet so eloquent, so lacking in self-pity, so objective, so spontaneous, and so skillfully made that it must be ranked among the little masterpieces of all literature, never mind that of England. The solemn but far from depressing music of the lines is emphasized by the repetition of the rhymed refrain, as though the poet were anticipating the slow tolling of the bell announcing his death.  The music of this poem caught my ear, choked my heart and brought a tear to my eye when I first read it.  Like all brilliant poems I read it aloud when I first stumbled on this wonderful gem from the treasure trove of English literature.  Here it is for you.  Savour every word.  Read it aloud and let its music move your heart!
Tichborne's Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Power of a Poem


We can be such deluded beings, can we not?  How many times in our lives have the saner amongst us mused as to why so-and-so, this person or that other, got carried away on a power trip, trying to control, control, control... Why do we creatures delude ourselves so with our own inflated importance?  We are all aware of the famous quotation from the great historian, Lord John Edward Acton (1834–1902) , viz., "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely," and indeed that of the famous British Prime Minister William Pitt, the Elder, The Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778, who is sometimes wrongly quoted as the source of the above quotation.  However, he did say something similar, in a speech to the UK House of Lords in 1770: "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it."  Simply marvelling at how (limited, never mind unlimited) power tends to deflect a growing number of lesser mortals amongst whom we ourselves live has never ceased to both amuse and disturb me in turns.  Why do they get so carried away with power, at being right at all costs, at never having to admit they were wrong?  Why do they become so ensnared in the web of ego-tripping or power-tripping?  Well, let me suggest a reason and offer a poem by the great Nobel Laureate for Literature, W.B. Yeats as a reflective piece on such intrigue with power.

Lack of Connection:

Today in most circles when people lose the plot as it were, and especially when politicians get low poll ratings, when the top echelons of bankers and entrepreneurs run amok and become mere gamblers who squander the wealth of nations, good critics speak about how they were "living in their ivory towers," "living in a world, nay universe, of their own" or quite simply did not connect with the ordinary man and woman in the street, with the commonality of the human herd as it were.  They often speak of the "lack of connection."  I have even heard the term "lack of connect," though I dispute its grammatical correctness. These critics are even more correct than they think in their analysis, and consequently in one proposed cure, of the malady shared by these unfortunately disconnected individuals. 

Those of us who live in the world and grapple with it on a daily basis in order to survive have a more experiential, existential, spiritual interaction with that world.  Our real life power, if we can call it that, comes from a sense of connection with others, with our deep inner Self, with our own sense of innate justice, with our own sense of authenticity, of which the existential philosophers and psychotherapists speak so passionately and so well.  This is a different type of power, but power nonetheless - it is a spiritual power, an enlivening power, an enthusing power, a power which empowers others rather than disempowers.  Power rooted in the ego becomes corrupt in the above mentioned Actonian or Pittian sense.  But, real power rooted in the Soul or in the Self or in our essential integrity as human beings who are very much social animals is always a spiritual power, a spiritual electricity which connects us one to the other.  It is essentially what good leadership is all about - leading others by empowering them, not disempowering them.

The Solution: Reconnection

Like many problems, the solution is always obvious, but very hard indeed to do.  When our computers or computer-aided technologies break down, the obvious place to "troubleshoot" is with the hardware and by checking all the possible connections in the hardware.  After that one can check the virtual world of the software.  Where is the system breaking down?  Where is there a lack of connection?  How do we reconnect?  It's the same with the power-driven and the power-corrupted ego.  I rememeber the great contemporary Irish psychologist and psychotherapist, Dr. Tony Humphreys saying at a conference of his which I attended that "all control is self-control," and how right that gentleman is.  All real power, likewise, is self-power, knowing the limits of one's very own personal gifts, that is, knowing intimately our very own strengths and weaknesses.  This, in itself, is a life-long goal.  I am reminded here of the wonderfully strong, dignified and wisdom-laden lines from the first seection of Part 1 of The Four Quartets by T.S.Eliot, Burnt Norton:
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
However, that's the cure.  The cure is, then, to be found in all the therapies and indeed concrete actions in the world that help "human kind" to bear that reality.  This is essentially the way - in order to enable us human animals to deal effectively with our own mortality without crushing others, that is disempowering them through our own desire for power, through our own ego-tripping or power-tripping, we must have recourse to all activities that heighten our awareness, and awaken us from the sleep of deception, especially self-deception.   Therefore, with this in mind I suggest that the "gentle reader" of this blog might ponder this great poem by W.B. Yeats.  It is much easier to grapple with than with the almost epic sweep of The Four Quartets.  Here Yeats offers us a lyric of both high intensity and profound beauty, and from that beauty wisdom is never too far away.  Read it and ponder these great words.  Let their enlivening power sink in slowly!

Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand upon his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding resides
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence