Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Maple trees-- with their early sprays of brilliant yellow-green blossoms-- may have been the picture Frost had in mind when he wrote these four couplets. The theme is a classic one:  the blending of grief and joy we feel when delightful things pass away all too quickly.  It appears in some of the best poems we have.  A few that spring to mind are George Herbert's "Virtue", John Keats's "To Autumn", and Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall"

A good poem doesn't always give us a new thought, but it does always find its own way of embodying a thought-- of placing us right there, in a particular feeling, so the the feeling lives, really happens, within the words as we read them.  (I think this is what Marianne Moore meant by her "real toads".)

The way this poem does this-- gives actuality and life to a feeling-- has to do with the couplets.  Look at how they work:  they start off neatly, with lines paired in both rhyme and meaning.  So we have a rhyming pair on the topic of the green which is really gold.  Then a new rhyming pair on the topic of a leaf which is really a flower.  But in the next couplet things start changing.  The first line-- "Then leaf subsides to leaf"-- is linked to the preceding line:  it builds on the meaning of "But only so an hour."  The second line-- "So Eden sank to grief"-- is not linked to its rhyming counterpart.  Instead it introduces something new: an analogy to an ancient story; it is linked in meaning to the line that follows, a parallel "so" analogy.  And the last line is left standing alone; there is nothing left for it to do but carry us back to the title with its inevitable truth. 

Just in reading these lines we've experienced a loss, a sense of something slipping away from us.  At first the rhyming lines are coupled squarely-- we have a grasp on them-- but then they begin to escape our hold and go their own way.  As they do, though, they take on a different beauty, something less static, more vital. What we feel in the motion of the lines-- the blending of enjoyment and loss--  is just what the words are telling us about. 

My description of this process, of course, is plodding and dry, while the process itself is quick, flowing, subtle. One of John Keats's "axioms" for poetry was that "if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all."  "Nothing Gold Can Stay" passes the test.

There is a lot more to be said about this poem.  Here's a sampling.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Jim Northrup, "wahbegan"

Didja ever hear a sound
smell something
taste something
that brought you back
to Vietnam, instantly?
Didja ever wonder
when it would end?
It ended for my brother.
He died in the war
but didn't fall down
for fifteen tortured years.
His flashbacks are over,
another casualty whose name
will never be on the Wall.
Some can find peace
only in death.
The sound of his
family crying hurt.
The smell of the flowers
didn't comfort us.
The bitter taste
in my mouth
still sours me.
How about a memorial
for those who made it
through the war
but still died
before their time?

This painful poem gets some of its power from the way it renders the idea of "flashback" in a subtle parallel structure.  The speaker's brother experienced a lingering repetition of his time in Vietnam through triggers of sound, smell, and taste.  In the same way, the speaker now lives with the constant recollection of his brother's death:  the sense experiences associated with the event continue to mark his life, so that through grief, he himself has taken on a sour taste.

What makes this loss harder to bear is that it is not publicly memorialized.  This lack is noted at the poem's halfway point and then repeated at the end, without any mitigation or resolution for its feeling of injustice.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Richard Wilbur, "April 5, 1974"

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

With quietness and precision, Wilbur gives us a narrative of a incident in early spring.  It happens as the poet is "strolling" in a "dull pasture," words which could suggest a life of unthinking habit.  He has gotten into something of a rut, maybe.  As he stares at the ground, what appears to be a radical change in the universe's physical constitution turns out to be the optical effect of a "subtle flood of steam" which has risen and drifted as the earth begins to thaw.

What seemed to be an unprecedented rebellion of "matter" itself against "natural law" was not really anything outrageous or new, but only part of the natural course of things. Still, there is sense that for the poet something new has happened--  "There was a subtle flood of steam/ moving upon the face of things."  For him, "the face of things," his perceptual experience of the world, has been changed in a way that though "subtle" is deeply important.  This movement of the steam has been a "flood"-- and even more Biblically, it has "moved upon the face of things," just as "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" in the act that began creation. 

The "rippling of the land," though an illusion, is a real indication of a new, unexpected vitality, for "It came of winter's giving ground."  As though making a crucial concession in an argument, the earth begins to lose its rigidity-- like "a set mind" realizing that its way of imagining the world, while not wholly false, has been too limited.  Winter is not the whole story.  To a mind thus restricted, the disturbing experience of "doubt" turns out to be a blessing, since it opens the way not to chaos and meaninglessness, but to "mother-wit," a perceptiveness that is older, more expansive, shrewder, more weathered, more generous. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

W.H. Auden, "The Fall of Rome"-- CORRECTED

(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

There's so much to be said about this one, some of which I hope you will supply.  This is Auden at his sardonic best, wouldn't you say?  One part of his greatness was that he provided for us the human spirit's necessary response to much of the twentieth century's evil:  the alienation, the banal violence.  Elsewhere his voice, though still ironic, comes out in a cry of outrage; here the tone is more detached.      

The Wondering Minstrels (well worth browsing) give an excellent analysis, including observations about the effects of the rhyme scheme, and of the line-breaks in mid sentence.  (For more about line breaks, and how to read poetry out loud, here's a real live poet.)

Instead of meditating on a single scene, this poem constantly switches scenes, with juxtaposed images that build up a sense of absurdity and corruption.  There is a pattern to the scene changes, though:  we begin on the city's outskirts, zoom in towards the bowels, then pan out again; finally we are taken "altogether elsewhere."  What is the relationship of this completely-other place to the city?  That seems crucial to the poem's meaning.

One of the themes here is the fragmentation of the city's life.  Each segment of society is isolated, oblivious to the others.  The "temple prostitutes" and the "literati" each seek their own mode of distraction.  Religion, sex,  poetry-- they have all been debased.  The city's military protectors,  forgotten by a decadent society, have no use for classical traditions of virtue.  The ruler's bed is warm-- probably not so much from sensual passion as from mere sloth; while he sleeps late, the office worker labors on, trapped in an impotence only bureaucracy can inflict.

But what about those reindeer?  Are they, like the scarlet-legged birds, a threat to the city?  Or are they in some way the city's hope?  They have an elemental power and beauty.

NOTE:  I apologize to Auden and to all of you.  In the sixth stanza, "flu-infested" has been corrected to read "flu-infected."


Friday, March 25, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring"

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
    When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
    Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
     The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
     The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
     A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.--Have, get, before it cloy,

     Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and mayday in girl and boy,
     Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

The first statement here, just as in "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," is a sweeping superlative-- there is nothing more beautiful than what I see in front of me at this moment, the speaker declares.  This is how it is when we see beauty-- we feel a sudden urge to give it top prize.

The two quatrains reveal what the particular beauty of sping is---  a kind of free, loose, unrestrained life.  This life flings itself out without care:  the lush weeds grow so fast they form wheels-- they can't support themselves upright but keep growing nonetheless.  The beauty here is of a dizzying, dazzling kind-- dynamic, potent, concentrated, "all in a rush/ with richness."  The thrush's song saturates the ear and then wrings it out, with an energy so overpowering it's like lightning.

As in "The Starlight Night," earth and sky are mingled in the speaker's perception-- "Thrush's eggs look little low heavens"; the peartree seems actually to touch the sky; the sky, in turn-- or its blue, its light--  seems to rush down to be brushed by the tree.  

When the speaker steps back from this experience-- "all this juice and all this joy"--  to ask what it is, the answer is ready.  It's a remnant of the earth's unfallen state, before sin came to "cloy," "cloud," and "sour" it.      The lines that follow connect this innocence with that of virginity; the sweetness of Eden still exists in the "innocent mind" of children and is the preference of Christ-- which is natural to him, since he himself  is a "maid's child."  So what we've been given is an image of virginity not as something prim and proper, but as something  lush and wild.  I think that's just wonderful.  This, we are told, is what God loves best in us.

What I don't fully understand is the speaker's urgent advice-- "Have, get, before it cloy"-- which is similar to the plea of "Buy then! Bid then!"  in "The Starlight Night," but the meaning is less clear here.  What would it mean to "have" and "get" this juice and joy?  How can spring, something inherently transitory, be preserved and possessed?  Would it mean to live in a kind of purity or wild generosity?  What would that mean?  Can anyone shed some light on this?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ezra Pound, "The Garden"

En robe de parade

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens.
And she is dying piecemeal
              of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble 
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
              will commit that indiscretion.  

Although I haven't researched it, I feel sure that Pound based this poem on a real  woman he must have seen in London, surrounded by poor children-- the scene just rings true.  As he does for those famous "faces in the crowd," he finds the perfect image for the way she looks:  "like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall."  She is delicate, out of her element, and the more beautiful for that vulnerable state.  Alongside this admiration, though, he expresses contempt when he diagnoses her condition:  "a sort of emotional anemia."

He feels ambivalent, too, about the children playing around her.  Their sturdiness commands respect, but when he quotes scripture and prophesies that "they shall inherit the earth," we are not sure he finds the prospect a happy one.  They are not beautiful, but "filthy."  This "rabble" represents the future.

"In her is the end of breeding"-- there's a nice double meaning here.  "The end of breeding" because she lacks the vitality to produce another generation, and so her class of people will die out--  but also because she shows the result of over-refinement.  Good breeding, fine manners, the very best in education, have gone too far in her.  Finishing school, shall we say, has finished her.  She is a virginal figure, shrinking from a possible encounter with a man-- but she remains virginal through "boredom," not devotion.

It's hard not to see the implicit observation, and maybe even warning, about the possibilities for civilization here-- but what's especially beautiful about this poem is the way it keeps that warning implicit.  It does not allow commentary to take over, but stays faithful to its image.  In the last lines Pound is still wrapped up in his gaze at this woman.  For all the decadence she represents, he still finds her powerfully attractive.


Friday, February 18, 2011

William Wordsworth, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still.

This poem  makes a nice counterpart to another famous sonnet by Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much With Us," in which the speaker grieves bitterly to find himself unmoved by nature, alienated from the earth.  In contrast, the speaker here is deeply moved by the scene in front of him, a scene not of nature but of the city.  With surprise, he discovers that London has its own beauty, unexcelled by nature:  "Earth has not anything to show more fair."

It is so early in the morning that the factories have not yet begun pouring out smoke, and the streets are silent.  For this brief moment, London, a center of industrial, political, and financial power, strangely evokes a feeling of tenderness. It is not that the city is not majestic, but now it is "touching in its majesty."  The speaker's tenderness grows as he personifies London in terms that might describe a beloved woman:  "This city now doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning."  The words "silent" and "bare" and the phrase "lie/ open" suggest a peaceful vulnerability.  Instead of opposing the influences of nature, the city is receptive to them-- "Open unto the fields and to the sky."  Man-made structures, just for this moment, receive the sun's light as gently and naturally as the countryside would do.

As he suddenly perceives this tranquility and harmony, the speaker feels the "calm" carried instantly into his own psyche:  "Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!"  The two verbs in the sentence are joined together in their action; seeing and feeling have flowed together into a single motion.  After observing his own feelings, the speaker turns outward again to gaze at the peaceful movement of the river, the sleeping houses, the entire 'heart" of the city, and its strange, beautiful stillness.  Aren't we lucky that Wordsworth could describe this moment?