Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Thursday, January 20, 2011

William Blake, "A Divine Image"

Cruelty has a Human heart
And Jealousy a Human Face,
Terror, the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy, the Human Dress.

The Human Dress is a forg├Ęd Iron,
The Human Form, a fiery Forge,
The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd,
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

Blake has a way of making his statements seem inarguable. The repetition here has an incantatory power that almost compels us to agree, at least for the time we are inside the little world made by this poem.  It speaks of an evil so deeply entrenched in our nature that it is inescapable. Freedom from this evil is impossible for us, since it is created by our very nature-- the "Forge" is our "Form."  This image of a fiery forge, a kind of eternal, infernal smithy, appears in other poems from Blake's Songs of Experience:  the furnace and anvil of "The Tyger," the "mind-forg'd manacles" of "London."   Blake seems haunted by the clanging of this timeless industry, which he finds behind not only man-made constructions, but the natural world as well.

The circular structure of the poem creates its feeling of inevitability.  The first stanza presents these four aspects of human nature, its heart, face, form, and dress; then the second stanza reverses and mirrors the order-- landing us back where we started, at "The Human Heart," which is now revealed to be a "hungry Gorge."  The rhyme of "Forge" and "Gorge" is so perfect, it seems fated.  The heart is forever hungry, insatiable.  The circle can never end.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Langston Hughes, "Harlem Sweeties"

Have you dug the spill
Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims
On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie,
Caramel treat,
Honey-gold baby
Sweet enough to eat.
Peach-skinned girlie,
Coffee and cream,
Chocolate darling
Out of a dream.
Walnut tinted
Or cocoa brown,
Pride of the town.
Rich cream-colored
To plum-tinted black,
Feminine sweetness
In Harlem's no lack.
Glow of the quince
To blush of the rose.
Persimmon bronze
To  cinnamon toes.
Blackberry cordial,
Virginia Dare wine--
All those sweet colors
Flavor Harlem of mine!
Walnut or cocoa,
Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar,
A chocolate treat.
Molasses taffy,
Coffee and cream,
Licorice, clove cinnamon
To a honey-brown dream.
Ginger, wine-gold,
Persimmon, blackberry,
All through the spectrum
Harlem girls vary--
So if you want to know beauty's
Rainbow-sweet thrill,
Stroll down luscious,
Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.

Isn't praise one of the important traditional tasks taken up by poets?  Poets praise the natural world, the deeds of heroes, and the beauty of women.  Praising-- using words to delineate, celebrate, and enjoy whatever is good-- makes us more human; it shows that we are not defined by the struggles of life-- the struggle to survive, the struggle to get ahead.  We can recognize what is praiseworthy, and can stop now and then to contemplate it.

I would say that with this poem Hughes is taking a strain of the Western poetic tradition and claiming it for his own.  The glories of whiteness have often been a theme in praise of women, and here we have the glories of brownness, in all their delicious variety.  The pace is leisurely, and consciously so.  I like the way the speaker circles back to the same comparisons-- "Let me repeat:/ Caramel, brown sugar,/ A chocolate treat."  He won't be hurried or constrained in his praise; there's a sense of joyous, unstinting celebration here, continuing through the last line, with its extra stress added in for good measure.  We can hear the speaker's warm affection for the subject of his praise, which is not only the girls of Sugar Hill, but the neighborhood, the community, itself:  "All these sweet colors/ Flavor Harlem of mine!"

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Starlight Night"

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves!  The elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! Airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!--
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!--What?--Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks.  This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Well, the first thing that strikes me is that the speaker here doesn't feel the way we do about the sky.  Instead of an infinite expanse of space, it's more like the upper storey of the world.  The stars, "the fire-folk," are not separated from us by an abyss-- they're almost our upstairs neighbors.  We're in an older cosmos, where nature is peopled through and through.

In harmony with this homier feeling about the universe are the earthy images used for the stars.  I can't decide whether lines 4 and 5 are describing starlight shining on the ground-- making woods and lawns look like diamond and gold mines-- or whether the sky itself looks like glimmering woods and lawns.  But either way, there's  a mingling of earth, air, and sky.  And then in line 7, the metaphor is even more earthy:  the shimmering of starlight is the motion of doves startled out of a farmyard.  The repeated "f" sounds even give us the fluttering sound they make.

The next line is a puzzling summary, one that seems obvious to the speaker but maybe not to us-- all this wealth of delight is a "purchase" and a "prize."  He doesn't stop to explain, but goes on to the next logical step:  who wouldn't give anything to possess this prize?  A life of austerity would not be too high a price. The argument has become more complex, but the imagery continues the same mingling of earth and sky:  now the stars look like cherry branches covered with blossoms-- "a May-mess," the meal produced by May.  For the next line I needed the dictionary; I think "mealed-with-yellow sallows" means willow trees whose bark is speckled as if sprinkled with yellow grain or flour.  Both lines suggest food-- connecting us back to the farmyard of the earlier line, and leading to the next strange image:  "These are indeed the barn; withindoors house/ the shocks."  With the dictionary's help I translated this as "Inside are housed the bundles of grain."

As the images become earthier, the meaning they carry becomes higher:  the barn is heaven where Christ dwells eternally.  When we see the beauty of the stars (which seems to contain all the earth's beauty as well) we are only seeing the outside of this barn.  On the other side of this "piece-bright paling"-- this shining fence or wall-- is the real wealth.  And of course to get to the other side would be to die, or die to self with "prayer, patience, alms, vows."  Hopkins seems to have parables of the kingdom in mind-- the pearl of great price, the wheat separated from weeds and gathered into the barn.  To lose everything is finally to gain eveything; if we are cut down and bundled up like wheat, we will also be gaining the harvest, which is Christ himself-- Christ joined together with all the saints.  Together with Christ we will both be the harvest and gain the harvest. 

It's quite a leap, isn't it?  From star-gazing to the entire Christian vision.  But all held together by this moment of insight, this sudden burst of metaphor.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why bother reading poems?

I like Coleridge's definition of a poem--  "that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth."  Is truth of secondary importance?  Not at all.  But there's a kind of pleasure that's a door into truth-- the pleasure that takes us off guard, that we weren't planning on, and that we don't fully understand.  When we feel this pleasure, something in us is recognizing a good independent of our own aims, our own agenda (no matter how noble that agenda might be.)  Without this pleasure, we are in danger of never meeting any truth bigger than ourselves. 

So poems don't give us News We Can Use.  But don't we get enough of that already?  Aren't we surrounded with instructions for manipulating our world?  When I email my husband, a Google ad pops up:  "How to keep a man in love."   An ad for etiquette lessons in our suburban parents' magazine says:  "Give your child an advantage over their peers."  I'd rather raise children who love what's good with a generous, disinterested spirit.  And I'd rather raise myself that way too.  The nice thing is, learning to love the good isn't always arduous.  Sometimes it can be downright pleasurable.  As in the case of reading poems.  

I'll be looking at one poem in each post, pointing out things about it that I enjoyed, and hoping that you'll enjoy them too.  Maybe you'll point out things I missed-- or disagree with me.  It will be fun to talk about.   I'll start with some of my favorites and later move on to some that are new to me.  I'd welcome suggestions of poems or poets to look at.  Tomorrow we'll get started with some Hopkins.