Friday, December 8, 2006

Sinéad Morrissey, "Reading the Greats"

Is it for their failures that I love them?
Ignoring the regulation of Selected Poems,
with everything in that should be in —
all belted & buttoned & shining —
I opt instead for omnivorous Completes.
For their froth. Their spite. For avoidable mistakes:
Larkin on Empire, say, or Plath on Aunts.

The thrill of when they dip, trip up, run out
of things to write about before they start,
is the consolation of watching
a seascape suddenly drained and stinking
of flies & fishheads & bladderwrack.
And the tide impossibly distant. And no way back.
Yes, I love them for that.


From The State of the Prisons (2005)

To end this week considering the nature of poetry, its purpose, and the proper role of the poet, something a little lighter to keep things in perspective. Sinéad Morrissey (b. 1972) is an excellent poet from Norther Ireland who I got to see read and meet while in Belfast (she has been associated with the Queen's English department for a few years now). Though I would not class this as one of her exemplary poems, it does express a feeling I share, of the 'rewards' of reading Complete Works rather than Selected volumes - the chance to see that even 'the greats' are at times not-so-great. For those who write, it's encouragement to keep trying; for others as well, I think, a reminder that are heroes are really normal people, just like us, who sometimes fall short of the mark, just like us, and that, contrapositively, we are capable of reaching great heights, just like them. Whether in success or failure, poetry is a testament to our shared humanity - and hopefully inspiring, for all that.

(More about Sinéad Morrissey:

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Seamus Heaney, "Digging"

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.


From Death of a Naturalist (1966)

This poem mines a similar vein to yesterday's - that of the poet's personal conception of his own poetic activity, with implications of how that poet and activity are related to society. Throughout his work, Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) exhibits an interest in the characteristic (Northern) Irish obsessions with "rootedness", lineage, and tradition in a general sense. Here these common threads are particularized using Heaney's own rural experience, made vivid by his evocation of the sense and deft crafting of sound - "the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots awaken in my head." As with Neruda, a history of political oppression and unrest lurks behind the poem (though it was written before the beginning of the late-twentieth-century Troubles in 1969), as well as a question of value of poetry compared to the productive labor of farm work - these matters of course highlighted in the bookending first and last stanzas. In [his own] defense {of poetry}, the poet suggests it as a force of connection with his lineage and tradition, as in other poems in the next couple collections he will "dig up" history. A more critical reading, however, might begin by noticing the acknowledgment of the break, the sense that Heaney is not following in his fathers' work, that for all the "rootedness" of the poem's imagery, the roots in the penultimate stanza are cut. The gender valence of the poem also begs mention - not just the patrilineal conception of lineage and tradition, but phallic and sexual nature of the pen/gun/shovel, and the question of whether such activity may be a violence upon the land.
These readings certainly complicate the assured authority of the voice and the position professed. What the final judgment is - of the poem's "meaning", what we ought to think of it, or what we ought to think of Heaney for writing it - I can't tell you. I guess reading poetry is also a bit like digging - we uncover many layers in our work, but each only tells part of the story of the land and what might grow from it.

(More about Seamus Heaney: - audio)

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Pablo Neruda, "Deber del Poeta" / "The Poet's Obligation"

A quien no escucha el mar en este viernes
por la mañana, quien adentro de algo,
casa, oficina, fábrica or mujer,
o calle o mina o seco calabozo:
a éste yo acudo y sin hablar ni ver
leego y abro la puerta del encierro
y un sin fin se oye vago en la insistencia,
un largo trueno roto se encadena
al peso del planeta y de la espuma,
surgen los ríos roncos del océano,
vibra veloz en su rosal la estrella
y el mar palpita, muere y continúa.

Así por el destino conducido
debo sin tregua oír y conservar
el lamento marino en mi conciencia,
debo sentir el golpe de agua dura
y recogerlo en una taza eterna
para que donde esté el encarcelado,
donde sufra el castigo del otoño
yo esté presente con una ola errante,
yo circule a través de las ventanas
y al oírme levante la mirada
diciendo: cómo me acercaré al océano?
Y yo transmitiré de la ola,
un quebranto de espuma y arenales,
un susurro de sal que se retira,
el grito gris del ave de la costa.

Y así, por mí, la libertad y el mar
responderán al corazón oscuro.


To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking "How can I reach the sea?"
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the grey cry of seabirds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

(Translation by Alastair Reid)


From Plenos Poderes / Fully Empowered (1962)

Today we move part way from a critical and metaphysical consideration of poetry to something more social and personal. Wallace Stevens' ideas verge in a way on solipsism - not that he would think our mental experience is all there is of reality, but perhaps that it is all there is of my or your reality anyway. Neruda (1904-1973) was staunchly opposed to such a position, at least in terms of a theory of poetry and the role of the poet. During large portions of his career, Neruda was a fiercely political poet, writing entire books about the Spanish Civil War, the colonization of South America, and the struggles of Communism ... he was even a senator and diplomat for his native Chile. But Neruda was also a very personal lyric poet - he is perhaps best known for his first book Veinte Poemas de Amor y un Canción Desesperada / Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair and for his many odes to the simple, "elemental" things in life, such as an artichoke, a pair of socks, a lemon, or a suit.
I selected "The Poet's Obligation" as a mid-point between these two relations to poetry. On the one hand, the sense of social responsibility and a public role for poetry - as expounded in poems such as "The Invisible Man" - is evident in the titular "Obligation" or 'duty', and in the references to work - the office and factory - as well as imprisonment. Poetry is depicted as being a liberating force - but in this case that liberation is not strictly political, but more metaphysical, being symbolized as a reconnection with the elements.
One the other hand, this is not a discussion of poetry in the abstract, but of the poet's relationship with it - something explored more explicitly in poems such as "Poetry" and "Bread-Poetry" - poetry is a mode of communication that mediates between him, his experience, and the world, as well as between him and society, and between society and the world. But throughout there is the clear presence of the personal "I" of the poet, so that in the final it is the poet himself, and only implicitly poetry, which mediates between "freedom and the sea" and "the shrouded heart."
Though the stance taken here may seem authoritative, to the point that Neruda can come off as arrogant, he struggled with the issue of the poet's obligation throughout his life. His Communist impulses made this all the worse - or, perhaps, it was his sense of duty that disposed him towards Communism - as he had trouble reconciling poetry with the value of physical/industrial labor or political action. In one poem (I do not have it to hand at the moment) he questions whether his life would have be to more purpose had he made just one broom rather than his many hundreds of poems.

(More about Pablo Neruda:

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Wallace Stevens, from "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven"


The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.

The mobile and immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembiling the presence of thought
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.



If it should be true that reality exists
In the mind: the tin plate, the loaf of bread on it,
The long-bladed knife, the little to drink and her

Misericordia, it follows that
Real and unreal are two in one: New Haven
Before and after one arrives or, say,

Bergamo on a postcard, Rome after dark,
Sweden described, Salzburg with shaded eyes
Or Paris in conversation at a café.

This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.


From The Auroras of Autumn (1950)

One could hardly talk about the theme of ars poetica without quoting Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Arguably, the entirety of Stevens' writing is about poetry itself - or, more widely, about the relationship between the imagination and reality. I could have picked any of a hundred poems from his collected works, as you can tell simply from the titles of some of the other major contenders: "The Idea of Order at Key West", "Poetry is a Destructive Force", "The Poems of Our Climate", "Of Modern Poetry", "Men Made Out of Words", "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction", "The Solitude of Cataracts", "The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract", "A Primitive like an Orb", "The Plain Sense of Things", "The Planet on the Table", "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself" etc. etc. etc. But I chose these sections because his later, meditative mode is often undervalued, and certainly less anthologized than his earlier works.
This later moder finds Stevens pursuing the style and form of, as he calls it in "Of Modern Poetry", "The poem of the act of the mind." Not only is the poem not paraphrasable, but it is also not seperable from the experiences of composition - this is a poetry of process, the very process of the mind encountering "reality," which is to say all that we can know: "Part of the res itself and not about it," "words of the world are the life of the world." Perception, rather than being unreal, is reality for Stevens: "reality exists / In the mind ... Real and unreal are two in one". Poetry, then, being perception/imagination/the mind in process, is not an imitation of reality, but is real experience itself: "the theory / Of poetry is the theory of life, // As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, / In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, / The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands"—not mere physical "reality," but life in its lived fullness.

(More about Wallace Stevens, including audio:

Monday, December 4, 2006

Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.


This poem takes its Latin title from a treatise by the poet Horace, and gives us our theme for the week: "The art of poetry." It seemed appropriate that, before we got going in earnest reading poems, we take a look at the whole business of what a poem is and what it's for.
MacLeish's poem, though purporting to state directly what a poem should be, in fact takes upon itself a demonstration of the indirect means that are central to the mode of poetry; as Robert Frost put it, "All the fun's in how you say a thing." The thesis here is given in the pithy, memorable final stanza: "A poem should not mean / But be." To be textbook about it, MacLeish (1892-1982) is asserting the proverbial inequality between a poem and a paraphrase of its content - beyond that, there's the connotation of a metaphysical distinction between language that is merely a tool for conveying some message or accomplishing some end, and a special arrangment of language that has some being and life of its own, as Heidegger might have it. One way of thinking about it might be as the difference between, say, the icon of an orange in a supermarket (a sign telling you "oranges here") and an impressive painting of an orange (which makes you really attend to the nature of an orange) - or even, perhaps, an orange itself. A poem is a thing rich in qualities deserving of attention and appreciation, not a mere expression of "meaning."
The first section cleverly uses paradox to get at this point, casting the poem as "mute", "dumb", and even "wordless" to mitigate the significance of statement. Instead, it suggests the significance of form, aligning the poem with "palpable" objects and also motion: "the flight of birds." The section section takes the emphasis on form to the next level, suspending the normal syntax of statement and using repetition to create stasis. The final section suggests the metaphorical way of meaning through imagery as well as form; the poem does not mean x by statement y, is not "equal to", but works by substitution of one thing for another thing; thus, I read those middle couplets as glosses of symbols, whose significance is expansive, multiple, and manifest, as opposed to the denotational signs of simple words.
These matters are at the heart of the challenges and joys of reading poetry. Much teaching of poetry, along with a good bit of human nature, makes us seek for a bottom line: 'what does it mean.' But the meaning, the content, is inseperable from the form, so we must attend to the way the thing is said. Which requires a great deal of attention, which is difficult. But this is also the reason why poetry is so powerful, why it can be so rewarding. A poem is not a puzzle whose only pleasure is the picture that appears when all the pieces fall in place; it is more like a garden, full of beauty and stimulation at all levels, from the dew on a petal to the graceful line of an entire vista - and it is right that one attend to the details around one before trying to take in the entire expanse. A poem should be appreciated not just for what it might mean, but for all it can be.

(More about Archibald MacLeish: