William Carlos Williams

poetry

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

– – –

Well five weeks into my new segment and I’m already messing up. I missed MONSTER Sunday. I’ve had a lot of poetry on the brain (I’ll fill you in later) but I’ll admit, the football playoffs didn’t help much either. Go Bears. So, it seemed fitting to pick a poem of embarrassment from Mr. Williams. On the outset it seems like a simple poem, which was indeed part of the point. The language is clear and concise, there is no meter, nor any rhyme, nor any simile, metaphor, alliteration, or any such poetic nonsense. Yet this poem, along with the early works of H.D., Ford Maddox Ford, D.H. Lawrence, and especially Ezra Pound, formed a serious sea change in the world of poetry: the Imagist movement, generally considred to be the founding movement of Modern poetry. Like so many things in the 20th Century, Imagism was reactionary: it was a reaction to the increasingly copious and melodramatic works of Victorian poetry, a prime example being Lord Tennyson, the Monster of Poetry from two weeks ago. The young Imagist writers found the poems of Tennyson etc. to be dinosaurs, lumbering around excessively, roaring from hillsides. So they decided to work on an extinction plan. Their idea was simple: treat the “thing” directly; use no word that does not contribute directly to the treatment; focus the poem’s tone on music rather than on arcane systems of rhyme and meter. Essentially, let a poem be an image, a single image or an immediate juxtaposition of images, and let it speak for itself with no guiding hand of the poet’s morality. It does sound refreshing, doesn’t it? The irony is that the purveyors of Imagism spent volumes articulating this theory in all of its political and social ramifications, which goes to show that all Art has baggage, and that the less art says, the more it carries. The Japanese write haiku for haiku’s sake; the Europeans do it and add all this extra shit to it.

Now that I’ve thoroughly ruined this glorious poem for you, let’s go back and take another look. Baggage aside, this is a fantastic study on the power of language. First thing is the word “plum,” which must be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. It’s such a round word, the “p” rising to the “l” and dipping down to the soft “u” and the fuzzy “m.” It’s a word that recalls perfectly the object it represents. This poem wouldn’t be the same if it were “guavas.” “Plum” also recalls a color, purple, and connects to “probably” in the next stanza. “Icebox” gives the poem a crisp feel. By the time you get to “so sweet/ and so cold,” by God, you can practically taste those plums in your mouth. I’ve probably read this poem hundreds of times, and it never loses its magic.

Extra MONSTERS OF POETRY Fun! Do your own This Is Just to Say mad-lib!!

Gerard Manley Hopkins

poetry

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

– – –

I want you to read this once more, this time aloud. I want you to sense how your tongue moves about and your lips shape the sounds. Ah! The feel of this poem is so unique. This poem is a physical act. This is language poetry at its finest, this makes other poets either feel inadequate or inspired. Gerard Manley Hopkins, or G-Man as I like to call him, was a strange man. He was a poet his whole life; in fact, he couldn’t help but write poetry. At Oxford he became a Jesuit; subsequently he burned every scrap of poetry he had written up until then, thinking it sinful. For much of the rest of his life he was torn between the joy poetry brought him and the guilt it later caused him. It was only toward the end of his short life that he reconciled the two and was able to write the glorious poems we have from him today. He died in his forties. This is the kind of thing that makes Brit Lit folks weep, thinking of all the what-ifs; what if he hadn’t burned his older works? what if he’d lived to be 90? Up until G-Man came around, most innovations in poetry took the form of subject changes; what was written about and how it was addressed. Gerard was the first to incorporate substantial wordplay into his poetry. And he went largely unnoticed; formal Victorian and Romantic poetry continued around him, leading into Modern poetry at the turn of the century (1900, that is). It’s not until the Beats and other Postmodern movements that we begin to see such a focus on language again. This poem features sprung rhythm, which the G-Man invented. The funny thing about sprung rhythm is that its intent is to mimic the natural speech patterns of the Irish and the English; thus, to read sprung rhythm correctly, you simply read it as normal. Because sprung rhythm is a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables, it reflects this poem’s subject, pied beauty; pied being synonymous with dappled, and both meaning a combination of dark and light colors. Kind of like Hopkins’ life! Oh, how it all comes together!

Issa and Lord Tennyson

poetry

hokku by Issa

New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa was a 16th century writer famous in Japan for his haikus, or hokkus, as they should technically be called. The hokku is a short poem, usually a single vertical line in the original Japanese. It’s only through Western translation that we get the familiar three lines. The traditional hokku does follow the 5/7/5 format we all know (and love!), but the units being counted were not syllables but morae, which are related to, but not entirely synonymous with syllables. A traditional hokku was not a stand-alone poem, but actually the opening verse of a longer poem called a renga–although later on, when poets wanted to write hokku and nothing more, they implied a theoretical renga to follow it. It was only in the 19th century that the hokku became haiku and was stripped of its connection to the renga.

Although this poem relates the Japanese New Year, which is in springtime, the sentiment seems just about the same.

And because it’s such a momentous day, here’s another MOSNTER OF POETRY! Alfred, Lord Tennyson–or Al, as I like to call him–is one of England’s most famous and revered poets. Today’s passage from Al comes from one of his most famous works, In Memoriam, written on the death of his closest friend. In Memoriam is a long poem, written in iambic tetrameter (-‘ -‘ -‘ -‘) with an enclosed rhyme (abba). The rhyme and meter are often noted when talking about this work, because there is a general sense that the strict rhythm contributes to the poem’s somber, mourning mood almost as much as the text itself.

However this passage is one of the poem’s most joyous and hopeful; it is from this passage that the phrase “ring out the old, ring in the new” originates. It’s a beautiful poem. Enjoy.

“Ring out, wild bells” from In Memoriam, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Stranger than Nonfiction

languageprose

“Chapter by chapter, we are reconstructing the history of the world,” Diotallevi said. “We are rewriting the Book. I like it, I really like it.” -Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The game of reconstructing a tattered history begins with a tatter itself: a sheet of papyrus from 1344 upon which is written a set of instructions by and for the medieval Knights Templar. (I know you’ve all read the Da Vinci Code.) A copy of this sheet finds its way to Garamond Press in Milan, where editor/scholars Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi have it forced upon them by a precocious manuscript writer who takes the papyrus at face value. The Templars, after being supposedly annihilated by the King of France, move their organization underground where they put together a centuries-long scheme to collect a treasure for the Templars and establish them as rulers of the world. The Plan, as the men of Garamond call this sheet, was supposed to come to fruition in 1944. It’s clear that this Plan has not come to pass, which means either the Plan was a fake, or something happened along the way to disrupt the Templar’s actions. In an exercise of intellectual might, they decide to play a game: what if the Plan is real? How was it to have been completed? And, in the end, why wasn’t it completed?

The game in Foucault’s Pendulum requires the three men to do nothing short of rewiring all of modern history. Indeed, all of ancient and Biblical history as well (Jesus is a Celtic allegory, the measurements of the Temple of Solomon contain God’s true name). Following their reciept of the Plan is an influx of conspiracy-theory manuscripts: Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi assume, for the game’s purposes, that they’re all true. The procession of history carries on as usual; lightswitches flipped on as you walk down a hallway. What has changed are the reasons for the history; the circuitry behind the switches that links each one to the ones preceedng and following. History becomes ruled by symbols and magic, secret orders and secret alphabets, immortal men, the technologies of Atlantis, magnetic currents, secret masters who live thousands of miles beneath the Tibetan Himalayas; an entire esoteric culture that overlaps with everything we already know. Like a scribbled drawing, upon which is laid a sheet of tracing paper containing the most immaculate, elaborate, precision inks ever concieved.

Instead of editing the manuscripts of nutjobs, they become creators. All of this is great fun, of course, until some people start believing what they created.

Don’t they love you in mysterious ways? You say “Yeah but this is now and that was then.” Put a dollar into the machine and you’ll remember when. -M Ward, “Post-War”

Eco’s novel resonates so strongly with the reader because it’s not a book about history at all: it’s a book about psychology. It’s about how we constantly seek to recreate our pasts to justify our presents and futures. In one telling passage Casaubon, the book’s narrator, says “I don’t know if what I remember…is what happened or is only what I wished had happened, but it was definitely on that evening that the Plan first stirred in out mind, stirred as a desire…to transform into fantasized reality that fantasy that others wanted to be real.” Can a version of history become true if it’s believed enough? Memory is all too tenuous sometimes. I’m certain that in all of our minds there are memories that are completely synthetic; things we always wished had happened. We wished enough and they became true. And there is a far greater number of memories that have been modified in the years since the actual event. Just put some quarters in the jukebox, take a sip of beer, and think back…

History, although documented unlike many of our memories, is still subject to revision. Compare your middle-school Social Studies book to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. There’s a lot we were never told and never would have been told (and would have gone through life content in never having heard it) if it weren’t for a few persistent individuals. Of course Zinn’s book has the potential for error as well; the reality lies somewhere in the continuum between Zinn and Social Studies.

We know he’s been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. -Vice President Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003

I don’t know anybody in any government or any intelligence agency who suggested that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons. That’s fact number one. -Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, June 24, 2003

Perhaps what’s most astounding about the Plan is that when you read it–when I read it, at least–there exists the remote possibility that it could be true. I look at it and say “Sure, why not?” We think we understand the world, but we keep finding things that show us that we never really did, and maybe we never will. Humans crave faith, and they’ll give it not just to God but to anyone who presents them with a halfway believeable story. It’s frightening what we’ll accept as truth if it helps us sleep better at night.

Robert Frost

poetry

This week’s entry comes from playing a little word association with last week’s poem; “Frost at Midnight” to Robert Frost. I must admit, I never studied Frost much, and I know little about his work. He’s quite famous, of course; one of only a few Modern poets to achieve real fame in his lifetime. Poets used to be famous. These days they’re hard to come by. Most folks would be hard-pressed to name a major poet working today.

This post comes to you on another late snowy night, just a couple nights after the Winter Solstice, which recieves an oblique reference in tonight’s poem. While Coleridge’s poem is a tremendous exercise in complimentary imagery, stacking sights and sounds and ideas right on top of one another, Frost’s poem and his poetry in general tackle the problem of lyrical simplicity: how to pack volumes of information and sentiment into four little stanzas. But this is where Frost excelled. Many would argue that a good lyric is harder to write than a good epic. Even the rhyme scheme of tonight’s poem is deceptively simple, yet quite complex: aaba bbcb ccdc dddd. This is called a Rubaiyat. The lyric asks much of the reader, and yet asks nothing: one could read a simple Frost lyric and see nothing more than beautiful imagery and fine wordplay. But the same reader is greatly rewarded if they decide to delve deeper into the world implied in the poem. This is a beautiful poem, one made for the quiet winter night. Enjoy.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

poetry

During my travels I started thinking about doing a weekly post chronicling some of the bigwigs of poetry. You know, those jokers your lit teacher wanted you to read but you never did. I never read them, not until college anyway. So I thought about it…and now here it is. Every Sunday—the day of rest, naturally—I’ll post a poem and whatever biographical info I can rustle up in my brain. Simple enough. No parsing or close reading. Just poems. I’d like to hear what people think, too. Don’t be afraid, it’s only poetry. It doesn’t bite.

Well first up is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge, or “STC” as I like to call him came up in conversation last night (and really, why wouldn’t he?), with both my mom and aunt reciting the first lines from one of his most famous works, Kubla Khan. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…” I don’t recall ever memorizing lines in grade school. STC was a contemporary and friend of Wordworth and Byron, and with those two helped create a new kind of poetry: English Romantic. I hold STC in particularly high regard because his poem Frost at Midnight, which I now present to you, was one of the poems I read in college that kindled my love of poetry in the first place. I hope you enjoy it.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mick study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity, doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.