Friday, December 1, 2006

Richard Wilbur, "The Beautiful Changes"

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne's Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as the forest is changed
By a chameleon's tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.


From: The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947)

To conclude the week, this delicate poem by the eminent Richard Wilbur (b. March 1 - we share the same birthday! - 1921), whose work has been criticized by some (I believe unfairly) for being too positive, as well as too formally deft. Last year I wrote an essay partly on Wilbur's (and, in comparison, Wallace Stevens') sense of the vitality of imaginative transformation. This may serve as a segue into next week's theme: the Ars Poetica, or a poem dealing with the art and purpose of poetry (Wilbur's own extended meditation on the subject, the masterpiece "Lying", may make an appearance ... we'll see!).
In this poem the composition subtly reinforces the sense of transformation - as Blake wrote, "The eye altering, alters all" - from the "turns" of the line-breaks in the first stanza, to the unconventional use of select nouns and verbs throughout: "the slightest shade of you / Valleys my mind", "a mantis, arranged / On a green leaf", and, of course, "The beatiful changes". Though Wilbur would generally not be taken to use modernist defamiliarization, his work and this poem perhaps reveal the wide applicability of such notions as that expressed by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky: "Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony." For Wilbur, such "a second finding" is one of "wonder." Such wonder is a transcendent potential, always present in everyday "things" ... "The beautiful" that changes - when we engage with the world, or when we read poetry - is at once our perception and ourselves.

(More about Richard Wilbur, including audio:
(More poems by Richard Wilbur:

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Louis MacNeice, "Train to Dublin"

Our half-thought thoughts divide in sifted wisps
Against the basic facts repatterned without pause,
I can no more gather my mind up in my fist
Than the shadow of the smoke of this train upon the grass -
This is the way that animals' lives pass.

The train's rhythm never relents, the telephone posts
Go striding backwards like the legs of time to where
In a Georgian house you turn at the carpet's edge
Turning a sentence while, outside my window here,
The smoke makes broken queries in the air.

The train keeps moving and the rain holds off,
I count the buttons on the seat, I hear a shell
Held hollow to the ear, the mere
Reiteration of integers, the bell
That tolls and tolls, the monotony of fear.

At times we are doctrinaire, at times we are frivolous,
Plastering over the cracks, a gesture making good,
But the strength of us does not come out of us.
It is we, I think, are the idols and it is God
Has set us up as men who are painted wood,

And the trains carry us about. But not consistently so,
For during a tiny portion of our lives we are not in trains,
The idol living for a moment, not muscle-bound
But walking freely through the slanting rain,
Its ankles wet, its grimace relaxed again.

All over the world people are toasting the King,
Red lozenges of light as each one lifts his glass,
But I will not give you any idol or idea, creed or king,
I give you the incidental things which pass
Outward through space exactly as each was.

I give you the disproportion between labour spent
And joy at random; the laughter of the Galway sea
Juggling with spars and bones irresponsibly,
I give you the toy Liffey and the vast gulls,
I give you fuchsia hedges and whitewashed walls.

I give you the smell of Norman stone, the squelch
Of bog beneath your boots, the red bog-grass,
The vivid chequer of the Antrim hills, the trough of dark
Golden water for the cart-horses, the brass
Belt of serene sun upon the lough.

And I give you the faces, not the permanent masks,
But the faces balanced in the toppling wave -
His glint of joy in cunning as the farmer asks
Twenty per cent too much, or a girl's, forgetting to be suave,
A tiro choosing stuffs, preferring mauve.

And I give you the sea and yet again the sea's
Tumultuous marble,
With Thor's thunder or taking his ease akimbo,
Lumbering torso, but finger-tips a marvel
Of surgeon's accuracy.

I would like to give you more but I cannot hold
This stuff within my hands and the train goes on;
I know that there are further syntheses to which,
As you have perhaps, people at last attain
And find that they are rich and breathing gold.


From: Poems (1935)

Thursday finds us getting rather deep into the thick of things. "Train to Dublin" meditates on all the themes that we have found explored in the week so far - O'Hara's antipathy towards stasis and enthusiastic search for a mode of art adequate for the vibrancy of the passing now, Muldoon's energetic naming of things, ranging among the cosmopolitan variety of the modern everyday, and Levine's confrontation and acceptance of the darker side of life, the challenges and frustrations that are as essential as joy, and the melancholic vitality of the insatiability of our hunger for life.
I find many of the lines of this poem simply exquisite. There's the interplay of the rhythms, consonant repetitions, and syntax in the opening stanzas dealing with the train. There's the passivity and artifice of the idols in the train in contrast to "living for a moment, not muscle-bound / But walking freely through the slanting rain, / Its ankles wet, its grimace relaxed again." Then there's the generosity of the voice in the repeated "I give you"'s of the second half of the poem, reminiscent of Levine's "Eat" in the ambivalence that carries through. "And I give you the sea and yet again the sea's / Tumultuous marble" is for me one of the finest things anyone has ever written about the ocean - it has become the gloss or kind of mantra in my own life, often recited to myself when thinking of or visiting the sea. And, finally, the final stanza - how perfectly it expresses the in a meditative mode the manic lust for life. The aching desire to experience everything in the entire world, and the sincere gratitude, even in the failure to do so, for that portion we have experienced.

(More about Louis MacNeice [1907-1963]:

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Philip Levine, "The Simple Truth"

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat," she said,
"even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.


From: The Simple Truth (1994)

I'm afraid I had a hard time picking today's poem. I'd decided to extrapolate this week's theme from Monday's poem, without giving what would come afterwards any forethought; and, to make matters worse, I only have the small, Belfast portion of my library currently lodging with me (so you must also forgive a potential Irish bias in the weeks to come). I'd thought of what I wanted for Thursday and Friday, but it took a while to come to this poem. Also, because I haven't thought about it in a few years, I just found a copy on-line, and it's late, I don't have much in the way of considered commentary to provide, but here goes.
"The Simple Truth" offers a slightly darker, grittier approach to the vitality of the everyday. Beginning by savoring the simple things in life, there is an ominous undercurrent ("boiled them in their jackets", "dried fields", "dark furrows", etc.) of the difficulties that also attend our lives. Though it exalts the immediacy of sensory experience and of certain essential human concerns - food, love, truth, death - there is also a sense in the poem of such things being overwhelming, too much to be eaten raw, too raw to be assuaged through expression. To experience the world in all its naked immediacy is to face both these sides of life, that both choke and sustain us. Every day of our lives is a struggle to meet this experience, to be true to it, accepting and savoring its mix of sweetness and bitterness.

(More about Philip Levine [b. 1928], including audio:
(More poems by Philip Levine:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Paul Muldoon, [Untitled]

As we zoomed past Loyola and Tulane
I could think only of my nephew, Dillon,
born two days ago in Canada.
‘Let him,’ I heard, ‘let him be one ignited by the quaint

in this new quotidian: a mound
of coffee beans in the ‘Café du Monde’;
the New Orleans School of Cookery’s

monious gumbo; a dirigible of Paul Prudhomme
floating above the Superdome;
let the Prince of the Quotidian lead an alligator

along the banquette of Decatur
yet let him not, with Alejandro O’Reilly,
forget the cries of the bittern and the curlew.’


From: The Prince of the Quotidian (1994)

Continuing this first week's theme of embracing the vitality of the quotidian, this poem is an ode and mimetic invocation of cosmopolitan variety: our globalized marketplace, the ‘Café du Monde’. It comes from a collection titled The Prince of the Quotidian, which documents the one-month success of a New Year's Resolution to write a poem a day. It is not among his best poems (those will no doubt come eventually), but the eccentric, daring rhymes, along with the loose use of the sonnet form, is characteristic Muldoon (b. 1951). The vibrant language reflects the dazzling array of objects that are part of everyday modern life; t the same time, the poem does its best to fit that abundance into the order of the rhyme scheme. "Quotidian", though meaning 'everyday' and 'mundane,' in its polysyllabic latinate excellence reflects the world of objects at once common and exotic. The final couplet offers a turn, exhorting this international (Irish-Canadian) child born unto plenty not to forget his heritage (the bittern and curlew are birds that figure prominently in Irish literature) - in the same way, the poem itself has incorporated a world of references while remaining (marginally) faithful to the traditional sonnet form.

(Paul Muldoon homepage, with audio:

Monday, November 27, 2006

Frank O'Hara, "Having A Coke With You"

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluoresent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I'm with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o'clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it's in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven't gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn't pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it


From: Love Poems (Tentative Title) (1965)

I've picked this as the first poem of The Poetic Quotidian, partly because of my having recently moved to New York, partly because of its vitality, and partly because it anecdotally illustrates the everyday and social aspects of poetry to which this site is dedicated.
Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) is a champion of spontaneity in poetry. Many of his poems were dashed off as notes to friends or, as in his collection Lunch Poems, were written during his lunch hour (he worked for many years at the Museum of Modern Art), incorporating whatever he saw and did and felt.
This particular poem was introduced to me by my friend (and fellow poet) Lewis. It's still Lewis' voice that I hear when I read the poem. Read it to someone else, and perhaps it will be your voice that will forever speak the words of O'Hara in their head!
I don't see how anyone can help but be won over by the manic enthusiasm of this oddball profession of love: "partly because of my love of you, partly because of your love of yoghurt". I also find the poem exceptionally vivid, both utterly original and true in its engagement with the world: "the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary" ... "as still / as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary".
As when one is in love, he sees the details of the world afresh - I've often since encountered "a tree breathing through its spectacles". The poem is a frenzied exaltation of the vitality of love, of living things, in juxtaposition with the static stoniness of statuary and perhaps even art - the poet himself frenetic in trying to capture something that is antithetical to being captured: "some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it". Poetry is much like love - it causes us to see the wonder of the everyday world, and we feel compelled to share it.

(More on Frank O'Hara: - with audio)