Poetry and Poets: July 2002 Archives

In Honor of the


In Honor of the Good Lady Mentioned Below

Spoiler warning: yes, for those who have not read it nor heard Loreena McKennit's magnificent rendition, I'm giving away the climax of the poem:

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

There, now don't you want to go and read the whole thing? Try here. I send you to the top of the Tennyson portion so you can choose the 1832 OR the 1842 version--what excitement!

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For St. Martha's Day


A Kipling fan, I am not. I don't despise his stuff, but was never really interested in his poetry and most of his novels were colored by a political intelligence I do not share nor have much patience with. While the poem that follows suggests some of this, it does seem quite a nice bit for St. Martha's Day.

from "The Sons of Martha"
R. Kipling

The Sons of Mary seldom bother,
for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favor their Mother
of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once,
and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons,
world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages
to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages;
it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly;
it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly
the Sons of Mary by land and main.

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Poet for Today: Richard Crashaw


Richard Crashaw was a 17th century poet, who with George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, and John Donne produced some of the most splendid devotional poetry of their era. (I leave Milton out, because while he produced some devotional poetry, it is hardly his best work nor the work for which he is best known). Crashaw died at the age of 36 in 1649, leaving behind a volume of poetry that must include one of the earliest tributes in English to St. Teresa of Avila. But for today, here's a less formidable (but no less lovely) work:


On the Water of our Lord's Baptism.
EACH blest drop on each blest limb,
Is wash't itself, in washing Him :
'Tis a gem while it stays here ;
While it falls hence 'tis a tear.

What I find most appealing in this very short piece is the notion that through the Baptism of Jesus, water itself was purified. What a wonderful image you could have of a stream flowing out into the world, washing all clean, removing from it the stains of sin, cleansing nature itself. For more of Crashaw's poetry, you might wish to start by visiting The Luminarium

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A Sonnet for Christians


I suppose that seems rather narrow, as a great many sonnets can be read by most Christians much to their improvement both in the spiritual and the secular order. However, this sonnet, possibly one of the most difficult in English, is certain the Master Sonnet for Christians, and for Catholic Christians at that.

The Windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rólling level úndernéath him steady áir, & stríding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl & gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty & valour & act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, o my chevalier!
No wónder of it: shéer plód makes plóugh down síllion
Shine, & blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gáll themsélves, & gásh góld-vermílion.

What a masterful working of the sonnet form! It isn't often that you see a rhyme scheme of AAAAAA BCBCBC. Admittedly, the first line-break is something of a cheat to get the scheme, but nevertheless we arrive. As one might expect from a Jesuit, the poem practically needs someone to guide you through it. While I'm not qualified to talk about all the nuances, I can give the reader a rough map and leave it to her/him how best to approach the magnificent and sometimes tortured language and thought behind the poem. First, a little bank of definitions:

Windhover-a kestrel or small hawk with pronounced red breast plumage
dauphin: the heir apparent to the French throne and by extension to any throne
wimpling: (probably clear by context) rippling
sillion: the furrow caused by the plow

Now, what to say about the poem? It is an ecstatic evocation of the soul's movement within us when we connect to an image outside ourselves that helps us understand God. It could be seen as an exultant reading of what Paul terms "the second book." The first is, of course (in St. Paul's view), the Hebrew Scriptures, but the second is nature itself.

What always moved me about the poem is the tremendous energy of the Windhover and its associations and the feeble motion it causes in the viewer who has locked himself up too much, "my heart in hiding/stirred for a bird..."

In addition there is the very mysterious conclusion in which Jesus ("my chevalier") is compared to the windhover and found a billion times more lovely and dangerous. Then we conclude with the statement that it is hardly a surprise as nature shows other examples of profound beauty as when by sheer effort the soil of the field lay in shining furrows and when an ashen covered ember falls and glows golden.

But this last three lines may also refer to Hopkins's reaction "my heart stirred for a bird." The preceding explanation "No wonder of it" may give the poet some consolation at the enormous strength and power of his reaction to this scene as he recalls that in other ways he has felt similar though smaller things. In a certain way it could be seen as an examen that allows Hopkins to list a few ways in which the knowledge of God has entered his otherwise closed world.

Hopkins is difficult to understand. But once again, read and read and read and read and then read aloud. Enjoy the sheer mastery of the language, the unexcelled beauty of what Hopkins is trying to do.

Hope this brief guide gives you the opportunity to explore more on your own. In works of real art, as in works of nature, the Lord of All makes His appearance.

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Quote of the Day


From John Milton, Comus: A Mask

The Spirit sings:
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of Lillies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair,
Listen for dear honour's sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save!

No reason, just because. And a good because it is too! Because it is lovely language, because it is utterly unexpected by anyone who knows John Milton well, because it is a Thursday and a melody is never harmful on such a day, because God gave us poets to celebrate the beautiful things in life, because I like it very much and like very much to share such a beautiful work.

Read it aloud and listen in wonder to the assonance in the third line where the liquid "L" of "glassie" is reflected in both of the following words and suggests the body of water in which the Nymph Sabrina lives. Then the soft "S" of "glassie" is captured again twice in "translucent," once again suggesting both the water and perhaps the reeds along the bank as they sway in the wind. More than any of this the very loose prosody allows the words to wind rather sinuously, not held to the rigorous meter (mostly iambic) that so clearly blocks out much of the rest of the poem.

I had long loved this little snippet of the larger poem and for the longest time did not realize where it had come from. Thank goodness for Google! I hope you are able to enjoy it as well, and perhaps, moved by the small piece, will seek out the larger.

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Words and Pictures


Words and Pictures

Seems that Mr. Shea has a short blurb about literature and the once-upon-a-time value and power of poetry. He mentions Billy Collins's "Forgetfulness" and provides a link to it. His comment, "And another thing: not all poetry has to be grim and serious. " Brought to mind a delightful piece by X. J. Kennedy "Nude Descending a Staircase." This particular link is very nice because in addition to the text of the poem, the graphic inspiration is also provided.

No matter what you may think of Duchamp's original (actually I haven't decided--I find it an endlessly fascinating study to see how my attitudes toward the work change through time) the poem is a powerful verbal construction that seems to catch the rhythm and grace of the Edweard Muybridge-inspired painting. In fact, when I read the poem, particularly the last stanza, I see more Muybridge than Duchamp.

One-woman waterfall, she wears Her slow descent like a long cape And pausing, on the final stair Collects her motions into shape.

[Note Muybridge's first name seems variously spelled Eadweard and Edweard.]

An answer to Mr. Shea's originally proposed question. Poetry is largely ignored by the public today because sometime during the twentieth century poets retreated from accessibility, seeking refuge in the ivory tower. It became progressively more reclusive and obscure, to the point that today it largely circulates among the poetic elite. For a much better and more profound explanation of this truly unfortunate turn of events see Dana Gioia's highly controversial essay, "Can Poetry Matter?".

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The Metaphysical Poets--John Donne I

There are any number of writings that have deeply influenced my experience of the reality of God's Presence in life. From time to time I'd like to share some of these. For some reason the poem that comes to mind today is John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14"

Holy Sonnet 14
John Donne

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

This is so much a poem of contradictions. That I may stand, God must overthrow me. Reason, which should defend me, proves untrue. I, like a town taken over by alien forces seek to let God in, and yet can do almost nothing by myself. (Surely, the act of asking is a very small step--we don't want to descend into quietism). But my favorite lines are the concluding couplet. The sonnet follows a highly unusual and powerful rhyme pattern ABBA, ABBA, CDCD, EE ( a more usual configuration of this rhyme scheme ends with a pair of tercets CDE,CDE, or variants thereof). And the EE couplet makes for an usually for profound effect. I can't think of another sonnet that packs quite the wallop of these two lines. "[For I,]/ Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

These two lines speak in so many ways and foreshadow Chesterton's fascination with paradoxes. It is impossible for me to be free unless I am God's slave. (Enthrall is a wonderful word because it has gained such a patina of meanings through time, but the original and powerful meaning is to make someone a thrall--a person held in bondage.) Unless I am God's slave, I am unfree. And if I am not completelty ravished by God's Love, I can never be chaste. Chastity depends upon grace and my will cooperating with grace. It is only possible when we love something or Someone more than we love ourselves.

Forgive me belaboring the point, but the poem is such a magnificent combination of images that it really stands as a stark reminder of the power of the Metaphysical poets--a group that wrote before we truly developed some of the mind/body dichotomy that is sometimes a mark of more rigid puritanism. (This dichotomy serves today to create an almost schizophrenic personality in many moderns.) "Holy Sonnet 14" serves as an example of what a poet truly in tune with and listening to God can produce. I would look to Donne as one of my examples when thinking of writing about the mysteries of Grace.

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Flos Carmeli


Flos Carmeli
O beautiful flower of Carmel,
Most fruitful vine,
splendor of heaven,
Holy and singular,
Who brought forth the Son of God
Still ever remaining a pure Virgin,
Assist us in our necessities.
O star of the Sea,
Help and protect us.
Show us that you are our Mother.

(as prayed at each monthly meeting of the Lay Carmelites)

Members of the Carmelite order are to have a special devotion to Our Lady. As a convert to Catholicism, this has to be one of the great hurdles I have had to leap ( I am a member of the Third Order of Carmelite, ancient observance). I am still not where I would like to be, but it is only by the grace of God that I have been brought to my present stage. Through continued prayer and continued grace I am certain that I will grow in the love and embrace of Our Lady Queen of Contemplatives, Mother of Carmelites.

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Comment on The Widening Gyre


Comment on The Widening Gyre

Okay, so I promised more on The Widening Gyre. and more particularly to the link at this point. While I have no comment to make regarding Mr. Yeats's spirituality (having no intimate knowledge of what he believed, and finding that, more often than not, such knowledge tends to distract me from enjoying the sheer beauty of the poetry and language), I must take some exception to comments regarding the poem itself. While I'm certain that there may be allusion to Viconian cycles and other absurdities of ancient historiography and philosophy of history, I find that I take exception to the characterization of the poem. While it certainly uses Christian imagery, perhaps because it would be commonly accessible to his readership, I don't know that it so much represents a "predictive" poem as a "look what's happening now poem." A minor disagreement, I acknowledge, but one worth noting. After all, Mr. Yeats and the rest of the world had just been through what they had considered the most apocalyptic conflict ever to have occurred on the face of the earth.

And frankly while there are innumerable things that could be read into the poem, it is best appreciated for the sheer power of imagery and language. As with all great poetry, the rewards of the simple literal reading (preferably aloud) are far more profound than anything that scholarship would presume to wrest from the work.

In addition to this magnificent addition to the oeuvre of modern poetry, Yeats also gave us the wonderful poetic gifts of "Leda and the Swan," "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Wilde Swans at Coole," and "The Lake Isle of Inisfree," just to name a few. His spirituality may have been confused, but grace often enters human confusion and gives a poet language to express what he himself has only misconstrued.

Another note: Viconian cycles as a historical phenomenon may be out of fashion, but they have given us that remarkable beginning (here citing from memory, so please forgive any missteps)

riverrun past eveandadam from swerve of shore to bend of bay brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to Howth Castle and Evirons. . . (first portion of first sentence of Finnegan's Wake, by James Joyce)

Look out--Here Comes Everyone!

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from July 2002.

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