Marianne Moore’s A Grave

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Marianne Moore’s poem, “A Grave,” is a virtuosic display of restless and discursive analysis, making the activity and soul of the sea a metaphor for death; so appropriate for her description of a vast, complex force consuming all things, itself a non-entity, taking all other things as naive objects themselves, never known, never remembered.

Yale professor Langdon Hammer mentions the opening of this poem as a possible reference to the Friedrich painting below, Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog.  He spoke of an incident in Moore’s life when her mother and she stood at the shore, and Marianne’s mother quelled the girl’s irritation by responding with a line Moore uses here, “it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing.”  (Note: Hammer has a course on Modernist poetry that I enjoyed to no end and should not be missed.  You can see it free here.)

Friedrich Wanderer Sea

Hammer points out that A Graveyard is made up of two stanzas, with no line break, of 11 lines each.  Each of these two stanzas begin with a 7 syllable line.  Some may suggest that this is an anti-Christian poem, protesting against the dominance of Christian theology, and the person of Christ, as being at the center of the universe.  Is Christ lifted on the cross merely the habit of man to put himself at the center of all things, staring into the Sublime?  Perhaps that is an undercurrent of the poem.  Perhaps these stanzas employ Biblical numerology (11 disciples, 7 for the day of eternal life) to pose an emotional counter-argument suggesting that all are subsumed by a death which erases even their bones into a void.

Lucille Clifton’s Cutting Greens

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Cutting Greens
by Lucille Clifton

curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
my hand,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.

James Joyce’s Chamber Music

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These are sections 3-30 of James Joyce’s long poem, Chamber Music, which comprised his first book. Published in 1907, Joyce of course became famous for his novels and short stories and his poetry has unfortunately been largely forgotten.

The Poetry Foundation has written that Chamber Music was noticed by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, “and included in Pound’s influential Imagist Anthology of 1914. Pound wrote of Chamber Music: “the quality and distinction of the poems in the first half…is due in part to their author’s strict musical training…the wording is Elizabethan, the metres at times suggesting Herrick.’ Known as a lyric poet, Joyce based some of his poems on songs. His poems have been set to music by composers including Geoffrey Moyneux Palmer, Ross Lee Finney, Samuel Barber, and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, as well as the group Sonic Youth.”


Chamber Music
Sections 3-30 of 36 total

III

At that hour when all things have repose,

O lonely watcher of the skies,

IV

When the shy star goes forth in heaven

All maidenly, disconsolate,

V

Lean out of the window,

Goldenhair,

VI

I would in that sweet bosom be

(O sweet it is and fair it is!)

VII

My love is in a light attire

Among the apple-trees,

VIII

Who goes amid the green wood

With springtide all adorning her?

IX

Winds of May, that dance on the sea,

Dancing a ring-around in glee

X

Bright cap and streamers,

He sings in the hollow:

XI

Bid adieu, adieu, adieu,

Bid adieu to girlish days,

XII

What counsel has the hooded moon

Put in thy heart, my shyly sweet,

XIII

Go seek her out all courteously,

And say I come,

XIV

My dove, my beautiful one,

Arise, arise!

XV

From dewy dreams, my soul, arise,

From love’s deep slumber and from death,

XVI

O cool is the valley now

And there, love, will we go

XVII

Because your voice was at my side

I gave him pain,

XVIII

O Sweetheart, hear you

Your lover’s tale;

XIX

Be not sad because all men

Prefer a lying clamour before you:

XX

In the dark pine-wood

I would we lay,

XXI

He who hath glory lost, nor hath

Found any soul to fellow his,

XXII

Of that so sweet imprisonment

My soul, dearest, is fain–

XXIII

This heart that flutters near my heart

My hope and all my riches is,

XXIV

Silently she’s combing,

Combing her long hair

XXV

Lightly come or lightly go:

Though thy heart presage thee woe,

XXVI

Thou leanest to the shell of night,

Dear lady, a divining ear.

XXVII

Though I thy Mithridates were,

Framed to defy the poison-dart,

XXVIII

Gentle lady, do not sing

Sad songs about the end of love;

XXIX

Dear heart, why will you use me so?

Dear eyes that gently me upbraid,

XXX

Love came to us in time gone by

When one at twilight shyly played

Edward Thomas’ Song 3

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This is a better representation of Edward Thomas’ war poetry than his delightful “Household Poems”.  It was written in the summer of 1916, less than a year before the death he hastened to bravely. 

Song 3

Early one morning in May I set out,
And nobody I knew was about.
I’m bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.

There was no wind to trouble the weathercocks.
I had burnt my letters and darned my socks.

No one knew I was going away,
I thought myself I should come back some day.
*
I heard the brook through the town gardens run.
O sweet was the mud turned to dust by the sun.

A gate banged in a fence and banged in my head.
‘A fine morning, sir,’ a shepherd said.

I could not return from my liberty,
To my youth and my love and my misery.

The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,
The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.
I’m bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.

Edward Thomas’ Household Poems

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The Welsh born poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) made his living writing prose but mid-career, through his friendship with Robert Frost, he decided to give himself to his privately nourished passion, poetry. His verse was pastoral and his voice was authentic and sonorous. Serving at his own volition in WWI, he died in combat in 1917. Considered one of the great English War poets despite the fact that combat rarely invaded his verse, Thomas was very prolific in his 2 year career.

The poems below are the first 3 of his 4 “Household Poems”. In them Thomas fantasizes about providing for his family by blessing them. In doing so he alludes to inheritance in the Bible, to Isaac blessing his children, and to the inheritance of Caleb’s daughter. Furthermore, in the first poem, to Thomas’ eldest daughter a symbolic payment is imposed upon her, as though she were the beloved in the Song of Songs or a farmer who had first fruits. The 4th of these poems, not included, is addressed to his wife.

graveyard welsh heritage

Household Poems

[1 Bronwen]

If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year’s first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises –
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all forever be hers,
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater, –
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.

[2 Merfyn]

If I were to own this countryside
As far as a man could ride,
And the Tyes were mine for giving or letting, –
Wingle Tye and Margaretting
Tye, – and Skreens, Gooshays, and Cockerells,
Shellow, Rochetts, Bandish, and Pickerells,
Martins, Lambkins, and Lillyputs,
Their copses, ponds, roads, and ruts,
Fields where plough-horses steam and plovers
Fling and whimper, hedges that lovers
Love, and orchards, shrubberies, walls
Where the sun untroubled by north wind falls,
And single trees where the thrush sings well
His proverbs untranslatable,
I would give them all to my son
If he would let me any one
For a song, a blackbird’s song, at dawn.
He should have no more, till on my lawn
Never a one was left, because I
Had shot them to put them into a pie, –
His Essex blackbirds, and every one,
And I was left old and alone.

Then unless I could pay, for rent, a song
As sweet as a blackbird’s, and as long –
No more – he should have the house, not I:
Margaretting or Wingle Tye,
Or it might be Skreens, Gooshays, or Cockerells,
Shellow, Rochetts, Bandish, or Pickerells,
Martins, Lambkins, or Lillyputs,
Should be his till the cart tracks had no ruts.

[3 Myfanwy]

What shall I give my daughter the younger
More than will keep her from cold and hunger?
I shall not give her anything.
If she shared South Weald and Havering,
Their acres, the two brooks running between,
Paine’s Brook and Weald Brook,
With pewit, woodpecker, swan, and rook,
She would be no richer than the queen
Who once on a time sat in Havering Bower
Alone, with the shadows, pleasure and power.
She could do no more with Samarcand,
Or the mountains of a mountain land
And its far white house above cottages
Like Venus above the Pleiades.
Her small hands I would not cumber
with so many acres and their lumber,
But leave her Steep and her own world
And her spectacled self with hair uncurled,
Wanting a thousand little things
That time without contentment brings.

Donald Justice’s Excerpt From Five Portraits

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Portrait With Flashlight

from Five Portraits
by Donald Justice

What lonely aisles you prowled
In search of the forbidden,
Blinking your usher’s torch,
Firefly of the balconies!

And when you found it – love! –
It was to pure French horns
Soaring above the plains
Of Saturday’s Westerns.

The defiant eyes laughing
Into the sudden beam,
The soft Mexican curses.
The stains, the crushed corsages…

Off, off with those bright buttons,
Poor spy. Your heart’s as dark
As theirs was and it speaks
With the same broken accent.

Girls read it in your eyes now
And ask for your autograph.
They torture you for secrets.
And you give them poems,

Poems with hair slicked back,
Smelling of bay rum, sweat,
And hot buttered popcorn.
Furtive illuminations…

projection room

Daniel Hoffman’s As I Was Going To St. Ives

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As I Was Going To St. Ives
by Daniel Hoffman

As I was going to Saint Ives
In stormy, windy, sunny weather,
I met a man with seven wives
(The herons stand on the swift water).

One drinks her beer out of his can
In stormy, windy, and bright weather,
And who laughs more, she or her man?
(The herons stand still on the water.)

One knows the room his candle lit,
In stormy, lightning, cloudburst weather,
That glows again at the thought of it
(Two herons still the swift water.)

His jealous, wild-tongued, Wednesday’s wife —
In dreepy, wintry, wind-lashed weather
What’s better than that ranting strife?
(Two herons still the roaring water.)

There’s one whose mind’s so like his mind
In streaming wind or balmy weather,
All joy, all wisdom seem one kind.
(The herons stand in the swift water.)

And one whose secret mazes he
In moon-swept, in torrential weather
Ransacks, and cannot find the key
(Two herons stand in the white water.)

And when to Saint Ives then I came
In fairest, rainiest, windiest weather,
They called his shadow by my name,
(The herons stand in the quick water.)

And the one whose love moves all he’s done,
In windy, warm, and wintry weather,
What can he leave but speaks thereon?
(Two herons still the swift water.)

Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman pictured above with a creative peer, Annie Kunjappy, is now 89. He was made Poet Laureate Consultant in 1973.

Lewis Turco gives a useful but technical analysis of this poem at his neat site.  This poem retells an old riddle which asks the question, how many were going to St. Ives?  We have eight stanzas, the first being introductory.  And then can we count seven wives in the other stanzas?

The third wife is the man’s “wednesday’s wife.” Then we can count the wives by days, the first being monday’s.  There is no overt mention of a wife on the Saturday stanza.  That is, unless the man’s ‘shadow called by the speaker’s name,’ has been called by his name because of marriage.  It seems the speaker has merged with not only the shadow, but the man with seven wives.

The final stanza returns us to the riddle, which asks “how many are going to St. Ives, among a man who had seven wives, each with seven sacks, each with seven cats, each with seven kittens?” The answer is one, for all else turn back. Now, Hoffman says this Sunday wife is “the one” (“whose love moves all he’s done.”)  She is, as Lewis Turco says, the single wife representing all women to her husband.  So if we ask what is turned back from the man going to St. Ives, (and how many travel on,) the man answers, “what can he leave but speaks thereon?”  In other words he can leave nothing of this mystery, it always travels with him, and moves everything he does.  And with that, he bids us goodbye, we who speak too much.

One last thought: All this smorgasbord, this mad loving, may be indebted to the influence of the Little Richard song, as quoted here, Tutti Frutti.