Poetry and Poets: November 2002 Archives

Christina Rossetti I love Project


Christina Rossetti

I love Project Canterbury (see left column) they produce such wonderful Anglo-Catholic stuff. In this week's e-bulletin was a brief on-line biography of the poet who gave us the wonderful carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter." Go here to read it. An excerpt follows.

It is sometimes said that Christina Rossetti dwells overmuch on the physical aspect of death. Her poetry has, indeed, its sombre strain, but the trails of glory are never far away. Like that other singer of the Catholic Revival, John Mason Neale, it is for the dear, dear country that her eyes keep vigil. Beyond the dull street on which her bedroom window looks out is the vision of Urbs Beata:

I saw the gate called Beautiful
And looked but scarce could look within.
I saw the golden streets begin
And outskirts of the glassy pool;
On harps, on crowns of plenteous stars,
On green palm branches many-leaved
Eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard,
Nor heart conceived.
I hope to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night,
To see them with my very sight
And touch and handle and attain
To have all Heaven beneath my feet
For narrow way that once they trod;
To have my part with all the saints
And with my God.

This biograpphy makes me think I have neglected the poet who gave us the wonderful "Goblin Market" overlong. I have a magnificent pre-Raphaelite illustrated version of that single poem, but it is evident that I will need to seek out a more complete "Works." If anyone knows of an on-line resource, please let me know in the comment box or send me an e-mail. Thanks.

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Rashomon for Basho


So, how does one translate Japanese poetry. In the column to the left there is a link to Basho's most famous work variously translated Narrow Road to the Deep North or Narrow Road to Oku. I have selected stop 26 on the journey to look at the translations offered of a single haiku.

Station 26 - Ryushakuji

[translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa]

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada's voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

[translation by Dorothy Britton]
In this hush profound,
Into the very rocks it seeps -
The cicada sound.

[translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susume]
into rock absorbing
cicada sounds

[translation by Helen Craig McCullough]
shizukesa ya Ah, tranquility!
iwa ni shimiiru Penetrating the very rock,
semi no keo a cicada's voice.

[translation by Helen Craig McCullough]
In seclusion, silence.
Shrilling into the mountain boulder,
The cicada's rasp.

You can see that all five give us a sense of the main elements--the quiet or stillness, the cicada's voice (which by the way, if it's anything like the cicadas I've heard precludes any sense whatsoever of quiet) and some sort of rock. In the first translation, the translator introduces the notion of a temple which is nowhere present elsewhere, Britton gives us rocks rather than rock, McCullough gives us a mountain boulder.

The difficulty of most haiku is that the fourteen syllables of the poem may never be united. They may remain fourteen syllables that have little relations to one another. For example, it might be like saying in English,

clock dripping water deathwatch beetle Huxley's surprise

It is up to the translator to have these seemingly random elements make sense. Britton chooses to do so through rhyme, Korman and Susume seem to wish to give the closest sense of the original, in doing so it is the sparest and probably least appealing to American ears.

Which translation do you prefer and why?

(Tip for homeschoolers seeking to inject some diversity of culture--this is one of the most famous and most translated books of Japanese Poetry available. In addition, it is a rather interesting travelogue. With some of the prints of Hokusai illustrating some of the places referred to in Basho, this can make a pretty neat lesson. In addition, Hokusai has some very appealing prints of things like cat and butterfly. His masterpiece--One-Hundred Views of Mount Fuji includes one of the most often reprinted images--"The Great Wave of Kanagawa." Finally, the haiku, like the diamante is kind of a school-figure for the writing of poetry. Most kids enjoy them and most adults can help guide them. This book gives a sense of how profound and beautiful a haiku can be.

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How to Read St. John of the Cross


How to Read St. John of the Cross
Part I: The Poem Introduction to Ascent of Mount Carmel

The Dark Night
St. John of the Cross

Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation.

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

First, it seems ridiculous, but we must recall the genre. This is poetry. You cannot assume that the "I" speaking is the poet. The "I" of the poem may or may not be the poet himself. It depends upon the type of poem and the author. For example, the "I" of the confessional poet is almost always the poet, but much of the time the first person is an invitation to read substituting yourself for the "I" of the poem.

Here St. John makes the interpretation somewhat easier by announcing his intent at the beginning of the poem. " Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation. " From this follows two points. The "I" of the poem is the soul transported and this eight-part poem is not a single song. The stanzas do not flow one into the other but they constitute a number of songs. However, there need not be eight. One reading of the poem, the one I shall pursue here, would find two different songs--stanzas 1 through 5 which all seem bound by a common thread and stanzas 5 or 6 through 8. Stanza 5 seems pivotal and its importance is signaled by language that very much resembles liturgical language. Something about it suggests the Exultet of Easter.

Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says:
"The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy."

The power of this holy night
dispels all evil, washes guilt away,
restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly

Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth
and man is reconciled with God!

Earlier in the Exultet we find the line concerning the night in which the pillar of fire led the people out of bondage.

It seems that central to St. John's point is this stanza, that is why I could see it associated with both "songs." By his language St. John of the Cross refers directly to the central event in the Christian Experience. This is the pivot upon which the entire spiritual life turns. Thus you could view stanza 5 as ending one song and beginning another. Try reading the poem as two songs--the first a song of a person leaving their still house driven by the search for the beloved, the second a song of the loved and the beloved together in union.

We are still left to pursue the understanding of the poem. St. John of the Cross ostensibly wrote two books explicating the poem (although Ascent leaves the poem fairly early on and only Dark Night of the Soul visits the entire poem.

One other important point to remember about the poem, is that as with all spiritual poetry when you read it, you mustn't merely look for the authorial intent--you need to plumb the depths and see what it is saying to you. You need to become the "I" of the poem. Because this "I" is female, such a reading is at surface somewhat more difficult for men than for women. It is very difficult to put yourself in the place of the female of the poem until you remember that in God's embrace all souls are "female." This has less to do with sex than it has to do with the role and response defined in classical terms of the female to the male. Modern sensibilities have often brushed this aside, but the meaning of this poem can only be captured in that classical understanding. The soul is bending, yielding, and fruitful under God's ministrations. When reading the poem set aside your modern sensibilities and accept the notion of the time during which the poem was written.

As with all poems read it, reread it, and read it aloud. If you understand Spanish, seek it out in Spanish and read it aloud. Let the music and the rhythm of the poem have their proper place.

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The Poetry of Nature


I know Gilbert White more from his pioneering studies of what we would today call ecology. He worked in the eighteenth century and wrote a number of works about wildlife near his native Selbourne. He also happened to be an ordained, but non-practicing minister. Despite its unflinching metrical regularity (blame Dryden and Pope) this poem is quite nice in its evocation of some of the rhythms and sights of a summer night in the 18th century.

The Naturalist's Summer Evening Walk
Gilbert White

equidem credo, quia sit divinitus illis
Ingenium. Virgil

WHEN day declining sheds a milder gleam,
What time the may-fly haunts the pool or stream;
When the still owl skims round the grassy mead,
What time the timorous hare limps forth to feed;
Then be the time to steal adown the vale,
And listen to the vagrant cuckoo's tale;
To hear the clamorous curlew call his mate,
Or the soft quail his tender pain relate;
To see the swallow sweep the dark'ning plain
Belated, to support her infant train;
To mark the swift in rapid giddy ring
Dash round the steeple, unsubdu'd of wing:
Amusive birds!- say where your hid retreat
When the frost rages and the tempests beat;
Whence your return, by such nice instinct led
When spring, soft season, lifts her bloomy head?
Such baffled searches mock man's prying pride,
The God of Nature is your secret guide!

While deep'ning shades obscure the face of day,
To yonder bench leaf-shelter'd let us stray,
Till blended objects fail the swimming sight,
And all the facing landscape sinks in night;
To hear the drowsy beetle come brushing by
With buzzing wing, or the shrill cricket cry;
To see the feeding bat glance through the wood;
To catch the distant falling of the flood;
While o'er the cliff th'awaken'd churn-owl hung
Through the still gloom protracts his chattering song;
While high in air, and pois'd upon his wings,
Unseen, the soft enamour'd woodlark sings:
These, Nature's works, the curious mind employ,
Inspire a soothing melancholy joy:
As fancy warms, a pleasing kind of pain
Steals o'er the cheek, and thrills the creeping vein!

Each rural sight, each sound, each smell, combine;
The tinkling sheep-bell, or the breath of kine;
The new-mown hay that scents the swelling breeze,
Or cottage-chimney smoking through the trees.
The chilling night-dews fall:--away, retire;
For see, the glow-worm lights her amorous fire!
Thus, e'er night's veil had half obscur'd the sky,
Th'impatient damsel hung her lamp on high:
True to the signal, by love's meteor led,
Leander hasten'd to his Hero's bed.

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On Poetry (part 9,847,715,235.1)


My friend Tom Abbott gives me much cause to rethink old thoughts about poetry and to examine them closely. Commenting on his blog, which today features the wonderful "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost, I had this to say of it.

So--surely what you read here seems valid, [a poem about death and eternity] but I would point you toward other indications in the poem--indications of something hidden--"Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village though; he will not see me stopping here. . ." why is this important? (By the way, it isn't as though I have some secret answer you have to guess, I'm just asking you why in your schema or understanding this might be important.)

Another indication is at the end of the poem, "The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and mmiles to go before I sleep. . ." A suggestion of a desire to abandon all for an unseen something--a possible recommitment.

Work with some of those suggestive ambiguities and add it to what you already have--you'll find all sorts of new things springing out of a familiar work.

Poetry works on productive ambiguity, it gives rise to great meaning through little things. Watch the little signposts of the words and be prepared to account for each one. For poetry, like the cautious Christian is ultimately called to account for every word.

End original post and now this addendum. And that is why the PoMo and the deliberately vague commit such a sin against the art. Poetry is the most tightly packed of all the literary arts. It is called upon to attain a precision and concision not demanded of any other written art form. Think about it--it's difficult to write a coherent, deeply meaningful sentence of only seventeen syllables, and yet there are entire schools of poetry devoted to this very compact poetic form. In poetry there is no room for fat everything is lean, lithe, and has the tensile strength of carbon monofilament. And so, when it does not. . . let's just say, I am disappointed, the artist has done less than what is called for.

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Poetry Considered Again


Dylan commented with respect to another post on poetry here:

I should have said in my notes on the epic, that whether the work is traditional (narrative, Prelude-like) or a sequence of smaller moments (Berryman's Dream Songs; Lowell's Notebook), or radically fragmented like the Waste Land -- the ultimate test is that highly subjective, almost romantic : Does the writer entice us, does he or she involve us, seduce the reader & bring the reader into the poet's particular vision? I'm more tolerant of experiment than most, I'd say, but it has to be experiment that brings me in somehow.

There's a quotation of Dickinson's, don't know from whence : If it takes the top of my head off, and knocks me over, I know it's poetry. Seems as good a test as any. Also : Do we return to it, year after year (Hamlet!), do we see new things in it with each reading?

There is much here to ponder. I think the first paragraph actually encompasses my definition of poetry. Poetry is a very, very deep, very still lake. You can admire the surface, see the water, the trees reflected in it, the clouds and the mountains passing by--you can take your boat out in it and get a gander at the shore from the middle of the lake. You can choose to put on your snorkel and plumb the depths to see what treasures may lie there. Perhaps you will discover the next Loch-Ness monster. What bothers me about much of the PoMo and even many of the modernist schools is that rather than a lake, they have made poetry a Sargasso. The water is glassy still and deep, and if you decide to jump into it to explore for treasure you will be mired and ultimately drowned by Sargassum a tangled mass of thick seaweed. More, you are likely to be stranded there forever in the doldrums, no longer reading poetry because poetry promises only depths you cannot plumb and a surface that is all too familiar.

I am relatively intolerant of experiment in poetry. Thanks to the things Dylan posts and writes I am becoming somewhat more accustomed to these things and rather than regarding them as similar to the execrations (or excretions) of modern "artists" who cannot draw a straight line with a ruler, I am coming to see them more as the expressionism and abstract renderings of a Picasso who is very deliberately breaking long-established rules to achieve a certain effect. This is successful experimentation. Even when such fails, it provides an interesting study. What is problematic to me isn't disjunctions, jumblings, and typographical anomalies, it is raw pretension. I am most disturbed by the casual toxic dumping of references to things the ordinary reader is unlikely to encounter or understand. Now, to give Eliot some credit, he did provide footnotes to The Wasteland that help with this. However, I studied poetry with an exceedingly fine teacher (not, in my estimation a great poet) who based much of his poetry on a character in an obscure novel by Djuna Barnes, and so all of the references centered around an intimate knowledge of Nightwood. Whatever you may think of the book, poetry that requires this degree of knowledge simply to begin to approach it is, for the most part, utterly useless.

Now, one shouldn't dumb-down one's poetry. Billy Collins is the prime example of a poet who writes one step above Rod McKuen and intends everyone to have access. I do not think there are any mermaids singing in his work. The middle ground between these two, to my mind, is where poetry belongs. There should be something that engages and drags the reader in--either rhythm, rhyme, or imagery (preferably all three) and once there, the poem should present enough fresh and interesting material to invite the reader to stay and "look around." For example, Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" has wonderful language, rhythm and imagery, and a compelling subsurface look at those languorous, perhaps even melancholy moments when one cannot be dragged from the prison of self.

I rail against poets who feel they must show the reader how much more erudite, how much more knowledgeable, how much more profound their thought than that of anyone else. A poet thinks much as everyone else does, deeply or shallowly. The difference, I think, lies in how the poet sees and hears the world. And it is the exposition of this difference that enables others to see and hear differently. If we fail in that (as poets) then we have done a disservice to our art and our audience.

As to the second paragraph. Right on. Nothing more need be said. It is one of the reasons that I love Finnegan's Wake the sense of joy and of sheer play are overwhelming. Yes, it is difficult stuff to read--but the delight in reading it well compensates for any of the difficulty. Not true for many great "poets." As Dylan has noted, and I concur, plodding through the tedium of The Triumph of Life (about purgatory and a purgatory in itself) provides no new insights into what language can do, it provides precious little insight into the life of the poet, and its phrases drum dully and yet painfully--rain on a tin-roof for those who know what that sounds like, into the drain, suggesting that any attempt to read poetry is a futile, time-wasting endeavor. In fact, poetry lies at the base of language--its tropes, its rhythms, its means of expression enrich even our daily speech, sometimes without our awareness. Metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, all the tools of the trade that have readily entered the language because up until recently nearly everyone had a certain poetic consciousness. Now, I suppose we have a poetic unconsciousness or perhaps a bouquet of black roses--a deadness and an unseemly softness about the body that makes one queasy.

And perhaps the greatest tragedy of this, is that by alienating so many from the richness of the language, we have lost some of the power to speak of the magnificence of God. Our metaphors, our similes, our expressions need from age to age a freshening. The moribund nature of poetry has given us our NABs and other atrocious, tone-deaf, word-deaf translations of the Bible. They are the product of an age that has no ear because that ear has been drummed out of them with the arcane, the deliberately obscure, the ploddingly, deadly dull.

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The names use above were pseudonyms used by Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte to given their publications more substance in the eyes of a population that did not much value the contributions of women to literature--although with the advent of Jane Austen that was fast changing.

The following poem by Anne Bronte is exemplary of the work. Much of the poetry is quite fine if a bit regular and sometimes, depending on length, monotonous in rhyme.

Anne Bronte

ETERNAL Power, of earth and air!
Unseen, yet seen in all around,
Remote, but dwelling everywhere,
Though silent, heard in every sound.

If e'er thine ear in mercy bent,
When wretched mortals cried to Thee,
And if, indeed, Thy Son was sent,
To save lost sinners such as me:

Then hear me now, while, kneeling here,
I lift to thee my heart and eye,
And all my soul ascends in prayer,
Oh, give me-give me Faith! I cry.

Without some glimmering in my heart,
I could not raise this fervent prayer;
But, oh! a stronger light impart,
And in Thy mercy fix it there.

While Faith is with me, I am blest;
It turns my darkest night to day;
But while I clasp it to my breast,
I often feel it slide away.

Then, cold and dark, my spirit sinks,
To see my light of life depart;
And every fiend of Hell, methinks,
Enjoys the anguish of my heart.

What shall I do, if all my love,
My hopes, my toil, are cast away,
And if there be no God above,
To hear and bless me when I pray?

If this be vain delusion all,
If death be an eternal sleep,
And none can hear my secret call,
Or see the silent tears I weep!

Oh, help me, God! For thou alone
Canst my distracted soul relieve;
Forsake it not: it is thine own,
Though weak, yet longing to believe.

Oh, drive these cruel doubts away;
And make me know, that Thou art God!
A faith, that shines by night and day,
Will lighten every earthly load.

If I believe that Jesus died,
And, waking, rose to reign above;
Then surely Sorrow, Sin, and Pride,
Must yield to Peace, and Hope, and Love.

And all the blessed words He said
Will strength and holy joy impart:
A shield of safety o'er my head,
A spring of comfort in my heart.

Emily Bronte

HOW beautiful the earth is still,
To thee-how full of happiness !
How little fraught with real ill,
Or unreal phantoms of distress !
How spring can bring thee glory, yet,
And summer win thee to forget

December's sullen time !
Why dost thou hold the treasure fast,
Of youth's delight, when youth is past,
And thou art near thy prime ?

When those who were thy own compeers,
Equals in fortune and in years,
Have seen their morning melt in tears,
To clouded, smileless day;
Blest, had they died untried and young,
Before their hearts went wandering wrong,
Poor slaves, subdued by passions strong,
A weak and helpless prey !

" Because, I hoped while they enjoyed,
And, by fulfilment, hope destroyed;
As children hope, with trustful breast,
I waited bliss-and cherished rest.
A thoughtful spirit taught me, soon,
That we must long till life be done;
That every phase of earthly joy
Must always fade, and always cloy:

This I foresaw-and would not chase
The fleeting treacheries;
But, with firm foot and tranquil face,
Held backward from that tempting race,
Gazed o'er the sands the waves efface,
To the enduring seas-

There cast my anchor of desire
Deep in unknown eternity;
Nor ever let my spirit tire,
With looking for what is to be !

It is hope's spell that glorifies,
Like youth, to my maturer eyes,
All Nature's million mysteries,
The fearful and the fair-
Hope soothes me in the griefs I know;
She lulls my pain for others' woe,
And makes me strong to undergo
What I am born to bear.

Glad comforter ! will I not brave,
Unawed, the darkness of the grave ?
Nay, smile to hear Death's billows rave-
Sustained, my guide, by thee ?
The more unjust seems present fate,
The more my spirit swells elate,
Strong, in thy strength, to anticipate
Rewarding destiny !"

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Beginning Some Thoughts on the Epic


[The subtitle of this (originally the title, but it may not fit so well now "Fantasia on a Theme by Dylan 618" (apologies to Ralph Vaughn Williams. (Had to use the 618 to approximate the title more accurately--and I do think of this Tallis theme along with "The Lark Ascending" as some of the most beautiful bucolic music of the Twentieth Century. So much so, in fact, that I shall put them on as I compose to guide composition. Below starts the real beginning, so best to hop back up the title, skip this bracketed paragraph and continue as if I had never intruded. This is the Julio Cortazar Corner of my blog.]

Actually, probably not, but Dylan provided me with a wonderful springboard into a theory of poetry. So I quote his entire comment here for constant reference and comment. Thanks Dylan!

Comments by Dylan Yes, bash Hill's Triumph of Love if you must, & do so with my blessing ... The further I get, the more it disaffects. It is erratic, arrhythmic prose.

Much of this poem is senseless post-modernist dreck. I can't wait to get a copy of the earlier poetry to see if there are more lovely poems like the one I posted earlier this week.

I don't mind poems being obscure or fragmented, if there's a heartbeat within the obscurity, if each individual fragment implicates the mind and heart in the writer's own perspective. Heck, I'll read Clark Coolidge from time to time (not all that often) for the sheer fun of the sounds of the words -- as Stephen Fry would say, "Hoversmack tender estimate."

And then there's the jollity of nonsense.

Absolutely concur. I don't mind meaningful fragmentation. I do not mind the obvious disjunctions in Prufrock. What I despise are the deliberately obscure chunks of arcane literature dropped wholesale into the middle of the Wasteland. Wordsworth had no need of this to express the feeling and distress of his time. I do not read huge slabs of incomprehensible work in Browning (because there aren't any). Modern sensibility does not require the fragmentation of the psyche required to understand The Waste Land. One could, in fact, stop with the title of the poem and accept that as the final statement and without much trouble skip much of the rest of the poem. As Dylan has pointed out elsewhere, there are some lovely pieces within the bloat of pretension. One needs to cut down through the blubber and find the muscle--it is there--but why would anyone suffer this much to look for it? There is enough suffering in life already. There is enormous depth in other poems--some of those of Mr. Cummings, even those of Sylvia Plath (if you can get past the constant telegrams of her forthcoming/latest suicide attempts) have some incredible, beautiful depths. "Lady Lazarus," which I half-hate, has some powerful indictments of the intellects that allow for things like the holocaust. It is a brilliant poem marred only by the self-obsession of the later work.

As to nonsense--Lear, Nash, Belloc (yes I said Belloc, his work can be on par with that of one of the great artists of the Twentieth Century, Ogdred Weary [here (do see F, H, and N) and here])and others show us that poetry is marvelous vehicle for the conveyance of much amusement. Lewis Carroll and even some of the very lovely rhymes for Children by Roethke and Kennedy are wonderful examples whereof you speak.

But Hill's lines in Triumph do seem tired, & tiring after a while. It is not "diction that is galvanized against inertia" (Marianne Moore's phrase). The 65th joke about typographical errors, well, after a while it's like those French Connection UK signs that say, "vive le fcuk! [acronym of French Connection UK]" Gets old quite fast.

Oh, the exquisite kindness of this understatement. The work is endlessly self-referential and self aggrandizing. It is a constant melody written on one string--and one that is pitched at a nerve-wracking shrillness.

Good Sir Geoffrey can't be judged, personally, too harshly. He's gotten quite a few laudatory reviews & blurbs, and under the influence of such praise one can start to think that one's every scrawl and scribble is divinely inspired. Plus, all writers (I think) have to experiment -- even at the risk of momentous failure or just plain silliness. The poet's mind must be kept alive, and agile -- think of a great Shakespearean actor doing funny voices, or reciting naughty limericks.

In fact, I don't hold the artist all that responsible for the reasons delineated above and others. The entire critical world is directed toward keeping a poet from his or her rightful audience--the entire world. If one keeps it in the post-modernist, relativist Ivory Tower, then it is an exclusive domain, no one else invited. We can feel good about ourselves because we can wrest meanings from deep hollows, where I suspect little to none actually exists. Much of modern scholarship is a matter of "The Emperor's New Clothes." I have pointed out before the utter preposterousness of concepts such as the (I-kid-you-not: Googilize "Judith Butler""Lesbian Phallus" [in order to protect you from who-knows-what filth]) Lesbian Phallus. Poetry has, in large part, been taken captive, and it is up to the present poets to free it. I think that is one of the reasons I extol Dana Gioia to the point I do. His lyrics have depth, meaning, and beauty (two of the three seem always lacking in some of the much-lauded poetry of his contemporaries). He has indicated a way out of the morass, and I would love to be able to follow it.

Okay, so I didn't even begin to do what I wanted to. But this gives you something to read to start as I continue ruminations. I was thinking about something like "Poetry as Apologetics" or "Poetry as Evangelism" and a continuation of the question of the Epic. Tangential, but integral to the theory I'm constructing in my head.

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A Poet to Make One Despair


A Poet to Make One Despair

Robert Browning is a poet to make one despair. Everything he writes seems nearly perfect and he sustains enormous lengths of poetry with the seeming carelessness of a master gymnast doing floor exercises. Every leap, every step, every roll, every move, choreographed and meaningful, yet done without breaking a sweat. That is not how poetry is, and particularly not when the poetry has such depths. With that tortured introduction, I present part of one of Browning's ruminations on theology. For the complete poem, check here

from "Caliban upon Setebos Or, Natural Theology in the Island"
Robert Browning

"Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself."
          (David, Psalms 50.21)

            ['Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
            Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire,
            With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin.
            And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
            And feels about his spine small eft-things course,
            Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh:
            And while above his head a pompion-plant,
            Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
            Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard,
            And now a flower drops with a bee inside,
            And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch,--
            He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross
            And recross till they weave a spider-web
            (Meshes of fire, some great fish breaks at times)
            And talks to his own self, howe'er he please,
            Touching that other, whom his dam called God.
            Because to talk about Him, vexes--ha,
            Could He but know! and time to vex is now,
            When talk is safer than in winter-time.
            Moreover Prosper and Miranda sleep
            In confidence he drudges at their task,
            And it is good to cheat the pair, and gibe,
            Letting the rank tongue blossom into speech.]

          Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
            'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.

            'Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,
            But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;
            Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:
            Also this isle, what lives and grows thereon,
            And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same.

            'Thinketh, it came of being ill at ease:
            He hated that He cannot change His cold,
            Nor cure its ache. 'Hath spied an icy fish
            That longed to 'scape the rock-stream where she lived,
            And thaw herself within the lukewarm brine
            O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid,
            A crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave;
            Only, she ever sickened, found repulse
            At the other kind of water, not her life,
            (Green-dense and dim-delicious, bred o' the sun)
            Flounced back from bliss she was not born to breathe,
            And in her old bounds buried her despair,
            Hating and loving warmth alike: so He.

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

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