The truth is that only gold ore can be turned into gold; only poetry into poems.
– Robert Graves, The White Goddess
What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking
* * *
When I rov’d a young Highlander o’er the dark heath,
And climb’d thy steep summit, oh Morven of snow!
To gaze on the torrent that thunder’d beneath,
Or the mist of the tempest that gather’d below;
Untutor’d by science, a stranger to fear,
And rude as the rocks, where my infancy grew,
No feeling, save one, to my bosom was dear;
Need I say, my sweet Mary, ’twas centred in you?
Yet it could not be Love, for I knew not the name,–
What passion can dwell in the heart of a child?
But, still, I perceive an emotion the same
As I felt, when a boy, on the crag-cover’d wild:
One image, alone, on my bosom impress’d,
I lov’d my bleak regions, nor panted for new;
And few were my wants, for my wishes were bless’d,
And pure were my thoughts, for my soul was with you.
I arose with the dawn, with my dog as my guide,
From mountain to mountain I bounded along;
I breasted the billows of Dee’s rushing tide,
And heard at a distance the Highlander’s song:
At eve, on my heath-cover’d couch of repose.
No dreams, save of Mary, were spread to my view;
And warm to the skies my devotions arose,
For the first of my prayers was a blessing on you.
I left my bleak home, and my visions are gone;
The mountains are vanish’d, my youth is no more;
As the last of my race, I must wither alone,
And delight but in days, I have witness’d before:
Ah! splendour has rais’d, but embitter’d my lot;
More dear were the scenes which my infancy knew:
Though my hopes may have fail’d, yet they are not forgot,
Though cold is my heart, still it lingers with you.
When I see some dark hill point its crest to the sky,
I think of the rocks that o’ershadow Colbleen;
When I see the soft blue of a love-speaking eye,
I think of those eyes that endear’d the rude scene;
When, haply, some light-waving locks I behold,
That faintly resemble my Mary’s in hue,
I think on the long flowing ringlets of gold,
The locks that were sacred to beauty, and you.
Yet the day may arrive, when the mountains once more
Shall rise to my sight, in their mantles of snow;
But while these soar above me, unchang’d as before,
Will Mary be there to receive me?–ah, no!
Adieu, then, ye hills, where my childhood was bred!
Thou sweet flowing Dee, to thy waters adieu!
No home in the forest shall shelter my head,–
Ah! Mary, what home could be mine, but with you?
Just finished watching Dead Poets Society, a favorite of mine, only to look out the window at the ethereal blue snow and the moon, so large and almost full, up in the sky. It’s been awhile since there’s been a clear night. Checking the calendar, the full moon comes on New Year’s Eve – a blue moon, no less. That must mean something. It clamors for poetry. Poetry cries for more poetry. I thought instantly of this, one of my favorite poems, one so perfect for a cold, clear evening with lyrics on the brain.
* * *
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,
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 birthplace, 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 mock 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 playmate 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 crags
Of ancient mountain, and 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 the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, 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.
You have anti-freeze in the car, yes,
But the shivering stars wade deeper.
Your scarf’s tucked in under your buttons,
But a dry snow ticks through the stubble.
Your knee-boots gleam in the fashion,
But the moon must stay
And stamp and cry
As the holly the holly
Hots its reds.
Electric blanket to comfort your bedtime
The rover no longer feels its stones.
Your windows are steamed by dumpling laughter
The snowplough’s buried on the drifted moor.
Carols shake your television
And nothing moved on the road but the wind
Hither and thither
The wind and three
Redwings from Norway rattle at the clouds
But comfortless sneezers puddle in pubs.
The robin looks in at the kitchen window
But all care huddles to hearths and kettles.
The sun lobs one wet snowball feebly
Grim and blue
The dusk of the coombe
And the swamp woodland
Sinks with the wren.
See old lips go purple and old brows go paler.
The stiff crow drops in the midnight silence.
Sneezes grow coughs and coughs grow painful.
The vixen yells in the midnight garden.
You wake with the shakes and watch your breathing
Smoke in the moonlight – silent, silent.
And your anklebone
Lie big in the red.
* * *
I’ve been big on Hughes poems lately – I’ll stop posting them as soon as they stop being incredible, which will be never.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
* * *
I have a feeling we might all relate to this more than we’d like to think.
Poem heard on This American Life.
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up —
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,
The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
The weeping Pleiads wester,
And the moon is under seas;
From bourn to bourn of midnight
Far sighs the rainy breeze:
It sighs from a lost country
To a land I have not known;
The weeping Pleiads wester,
And I lie down alone.
The rainy Pleiads wester,
Orion plunges prone;
The stroke of midnight ceases,
And I lie down alone.
The rainy Pleiads wester
And seek beyond the sea
The head that I shall dream of,
And ’twill not dream of me.
* * *
Ah, Mr. Housman, so formal, so sorrowful, so beautiful. Iambic trimeter, with every other line starting with the first having an added half-beat at the end. Leaves you hanging on, leaves you unfulfilled and wanting resolution. This is how meter really works for you if you let it.
Who loves to peer up at the morning sun,
With half-shut eyes and comfortable cheek,
Let him, with this sweet tale, full often seek
For meadows where the little rivers run;
Who loves to linger with that brightest one
Of Heaven – Hesperus – let him lowly speak
These numbers to the night, and starlight meek,
Or moon, if that her hunting be begun.
He who knows these delights, and too is prone
To moralise upon a smile or tear,
Will find at once a region of his own,
A bower for his spirit, and will steer
To alleys, where the fir-tree drops its cone,
Where robins hop, and fallen leaves are sear.
* * *
The story of Francesca da Rimini. Poor gal.
In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
I learned today from The Writer’s Almanac that today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday. The above is a line from Mrs. Dalloway which, beyond being beautiful in and of itself, says much about Woolf’s take on life. Her take is a capital-M Modernist one, informed by ideas of kinetic and potential energy, which is that just about everything has potential to be important, important in a soulful, poetic, spirited way. More specifically each thing has the potential to become a piece of art, and each piece of art has the potential for epiphany trapped within it. The book Mrs. Dalloway is nothing but epiphany – that is, a series of epiphanies, or “moments” as Woolf liked to call them. The book is all insight – hardly anything happens in it that is not inside Mrs. Dalloway’s mind. Some readers find this frustrating, some find it a wonderful freedom from the confines of plot. I fall into the latter category. So I encourage people to read Mrs. Dalloway and all things Woolf and celebrate her life and her work.