Friday, December 15, 2006

Patrick Kavanagh, "Epic"

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting 'Damn your soul'
And old McCabe, stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
'Here is the march along these iron stones'.
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.


From Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (1960)

Once again, today's poem serves as a counterpoint to yesterday's. Here the catapulting, millenia-spanning title is half ironic, half self-justifying; another juxtaposition of Northern Ireland and the Trojan War, "Epic" also throws in World War II for good measure. Rather than deem the similarities implicit, however, the poem questions the significance of any of the events, as part of Kavanagh's examination of the local vs. the universal, his interest in the parish as a microcosm for the world. While the issue of subjectivity versus true import remains in the air, the place of art is asserted as authoritative - just like titling a mere fourteen-line sonnet "Epic".

(More about Patrick Kavanagh [1904-1967]:

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Michael Longley, "Ceasefire"

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the buidling.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'

[Hear Longley read this poem:]


From The Ghost Orchid (1995)

This poem illustrates another alternative for the relation between title and poem. Unlike the poems earlier in the week, this one has no riddling quality - as Longley (b. 1939) describes it, it is his rendering of certain lyrically intense moments plucked from the narrative of Homer's Iliad. Though the moments are spaced out and in a different order in the original, the reader is not confused as to the situation, provided a minimal familiarity with the events of the Trojan War (during which the Greek Achilles killed the Trojan Hector, beloved son of Priam, King of Troy).
The title, however, catapults these events - of parley, empathy, respect, admiration, and concession - into a contemporary context. Longley wrote the poem in 1994, during rumours of a possible ceasefire in Northern Ireland, and it was published in The Irish Times just days after such a ceasefire was announced. The poem seems to urge conciliation and empathy, the sense that one's enemies' past tragedies are the same as one's own. It tactfully condemns neither side - indeed, it shows reverence towards the figures, though perhaps also implicating the sense of glory and idealization of the warrior which feeds into violence. It even pays witness to a certain grudging attitude, though in so doing it valorizes Priam's courage to "do what must be done", an act of responsibility to one's kin, which is met with equal humanity; the final couplet is resolutely noble. The temporal jump between the poem's and title's two references - a span of millenia - suggests both the timeless and timely potential of poetry.

(More about Michael Longley, including audio:

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Medbh McGuckian, "On Her Second Birthday"

for Emer Mary Charlotte Rose

In the beginning I was no more
Than a rising and falling mist
You could see through without seeing.

A flame burnt up the paper
On which my gold was written,
The wind like a soul
Seeking to be born
Carried off half
Of what I was able to say.

It seems as though
To explain the shape of the world
We must fall apart,
Throw ourselves upon the world,
Slip away from ourselves
Through the world's inner road,
Whose atoms make us weary.

Suddenly ever more lost
Between the trees
I saw the edge of the forest
Which had no end,
Which I came dangerously close
To accepting for my life,

And followed with my eye a shadow
Floating from hotizon to horizon
Which I mistook for my own.
It grew greater while I grew less,
Gliding like a world, a tapestry
One looks at from the back.

The more it changed
The more it changed me into itself,
Till I regarded it as more real
Than all else, more ardent
Than love. Higher than the air
Of a dream,
A field in which I ripened
From an unmoving, continually nascent
Light into pure light.

My contours can still
Just be made out, in the areas of fragrance
Of its power over me.
A slight tremor betrays
The imperfection of the union
In its first surface.

But I flow outwards till I am something
Belonging to it and flower again
More perfectly everywhere present in it.
It believes in me,
It cannot do without me,
I know its name:
One day it will pass my mind into its body.


From Marconi's Cottage (1991)

In contrast to yesterday, today's poem's title announces the solution to its riddle - without it, one might suspect this was a pregnancy poem, but it would be hard to be certain, given McGuckian's fiercely challenging metaphors. That accessibility makes this among the better introductions to McGuckian (b. 1950), whose strange syntax and imagery demands and seduces an agility and plasticity of readerly response that goes far beyond more mainstream lyric practice. Whereas Plath's metaphors were striking for their application - easily intelligible, though they challenged conventional positive views of motherhood - the entire universe of McGuckian's poetry seems, in one way, alien to the prose of everyday life. But though it is strange, it is also an evocatively convincing articulation of the metaphysical experience of pregnancy and motherhood. The first several stanzas suggest an obscure, as-yet-unrealized potential being formed, the imagery echoing gestation, the womb, the accreting fetus, the interdependent connection building towards schism. The poem also expresses the mother's sense of how her life has changed, her sense of investment in and dedication to the life of her daughter, the shift of the center to that other life. This goes beyond just sentiment to a metaphysical sense of identification with that other life, a sense of living through it, in a dual selfhood, the dependency of the child being at the same time a dependency of the mother, which will culminate in transfer: "One day it will pass my mind into its body."

(More about Medbh McGuckian:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sylvia Plath, "Metaphors"

I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.


From The Colossus (1960)

This poem moves us into the riddle territory of this week's theme; in fact, its title does not provide a clue so much point to the fact that its various images take the place of something else. The solution to the riddle is 'a pregnant woman' - the metaphors being a mix of inventive images and figures 'pregnant' with meaning. In case you hadn't noticed, the first line refers to the number of syllables (9) in each of the poem's nine lines, reflecting the nine months of pregnancy. Not also other subtle (or not so subtle) hints - a house is something that a person lives in (like a womb); the red fruit is also like the womb; the fifth line's coy allusion to having 'a bun in the oven'. While some of this cleverness is slightly cloying, that effect reinforces the muted grotesquerie of many of the images, as the pregnancy is almost something monstrous, as it is also mixed with the potential for sickness and rotting ("a bag of green apples") and an undercurrent of doom ("the train there's no getting off").
At the same time, the title suggests another level, playing off the traditional trope of comparing writing and giving birth. Metaphors are indeed a way of giving birth to new meaning; and if it's not going to far, I'd like to point out the conceptual similarity, the root "meta" meaning "beyond", and that a metaphor involves two parts, the imaginative potential of one being dependent on the concreteness of the other.
Plath's poems often draw upon the dark, traumatic, violent, even sado-masochistic - so it seems appropriate that her metaphoric pregnancy of creation would be conceived as something gortesque, sinister, perhaps uncontrollable.

(More about Sylvia Plath [1932-1963], including a few additional poems:

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ted Hughes, "The Thought-Fox"

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.


From The Hawk in the Rain (1957)

This week's theme: titles. That is, poems whose titles play a particularly prominent role, where the lack of the title would leave the reader comparatively adrift. Some may be riddle poems, where the title is necessary for understanding. In others, such as "The Thought-Fox", it may be that the poem is easy enough to follow, but where the title lends an achieved clarity to the whole meaning - sums it up. Or it may be that a title, by implication, catapults a poem from one context to another.
"The Thought-Fox" carries us forward from last week's theme, the ars poetica, as in the conclusion it is made clear that the poem narrates the imaginative experience of its own composition. As such, it might also bear comparison with the Frank O'Hara poem of the first week, both being poems of the present tense, though in highly contrasting voices.
Hughes' poem is remarkable for the union of the ideal (imagination, "Thought", poetry) and the real in the figure of "The Thought-Fox" - the title's very hyphenation a sign of its hybridity. The description of the appearance of the thought/fox, from something dark and obscure to something vivid, immediate, confrontational, is deftly controlled, Hughes pacing the revelation ("that now / And again now, and now, and now") and at the same time keeping the reader's attention rapt with sensory details ("a lame / Shadow lags by stump"). The final stanza is a superb climax and denoument: the vivid sense-words of the first line are reinforced by the clustering of stresses and consonants: "sudden sharp hot stink of fox" - the fox's sudden, physical appearance - which is immediately inscribed in a mental, but no less striking, realm - "the dark hole of the head." The final two lines then take a step back, revealing the narrative to have been a vision, during which time nothing in the "real" world happened, except for the writing of the poem.
The term "cinematic" is sometimes used to describe such effects. Indeed, Hughes controls our vision the same way a director/cinematographer controls our gaze through careful selection of shots. But we should be wary of implying that poetry is imitating film, when tropes similar to a pan or zoom or close-up or establishing shot have been part of poetic form for millenia.

(More about Ted Hughes [1930-1998]: