Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, November 30, 2007

This One's For Chuck

I don't know much about Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican from Nebraska, although I've always assumed that everyone who lives in Nebraska has to be resilient, no exceptions. Today Senator Hagel said the George W. Bush White House was one of the most arrogant and incompetent presidential administrations in American history. This statement was newsworthy, I suppose, because a senator from the same party as the president rarely criticizes the president so starkly. As as way of saying thanks to and agreeing with Senator Hagel, I thought I'd post the following poem from my notebook-scribblings.

Yes and No

by Hans Ostrom

Yes, it's true. The president of this nation
in 2007 is immature, dishonest, inarticulate,
reckless, short-sighted, venal, destructive,
corrupt, smug, spoiled, lazy, improvident,
deluded, distracted, misguided, shameless,
uninformed, impulsive, unimaginative,
cynical, hypocritical, irresponsible, unprepared,
unaccountable, lawless, and obstinate. Yes, I have
exhibited such characteristics, too--who among
us hasn't?--but not on such an operatic scale,
and not all at once; and incidentally, I'm not president.

No, I don't know what to do about the president
of this nation in 2007 except worry, wait, wince,
wonder, mourn, pray, fear, and hope, also love
the ones I love. No, it's not a nightmare. We're
awake. Yes, he's a kind of dictator. No, we're
not a democracy, nor even a republic. A friend
of mine who's a non-partisan political scientist
used the word "fascism," a word political scientists
don't toss around like a frisbee. Yes, I'm worried,
but people in much worse situations than ours
maintained hope and kept working, so, no, we

mustn't give up. No, it won't be easy to repair
all the damage this man and his men and women
have done. No, we cannot bring back the dead
who shouldn't have died. Yes, we'll have to try
to crawl out of our caves of futility and do
something, even if it's just crawling out of our caves
to blink at the light and take in fresh air.

Meynell's Short Lyric On War

I finally tracked down a used copy of The Poems of Alice Meynell, published in a nice clothbound edition in 1955. For a bibliophile, the arrival of a new used-book by post brightens the day. To re-introduce gloom, I'll reprint a short lyric about war from the volume. Meynell decided to use a quotation from Richard Hooker as the title--and to give the attribution in the title, so the poem is indeed called "'Lord, I owe Thee a Death': Richard Hooker," and it includes the epigraph, "In Time of War." The war in question is the Great War, which we know as World War I, the horror of which Europe had not seen before, even though it had seen plenty of wars.



"'Lord, I owe Thee a Death': Richard Hooker"



In Time of War


Man pays that debt with new munificence,

Not piecemeal now, not slowly, by the old:

Not grudgingly, by the effaced thin pence,

But greatly and in gold.


--Alice Meynell



The extreme understatement of this poem works effectively, at least for me. Instead of expressing horror at the scale of life lost in the Great War, Meynell frames the loss of life in terms of a monetary debt, and in so doing she mimicks the heartless, matter-of-fact way in which nations sent soldiers to slaughter in the trenches. Meynell punctures that cold, deliberate, ironic trivializaton of death in the last line, however, because "greatly and in gold" reminds us that, whatever terms by which one chooses to frame the loss of life, one cannot successfully minimize how dear the cost has been. The short lyric seems to imply that even if one chooses to rationalize the loss of life as inevitable (everyone has to die sometime), the rationalization will dissolve because inevitable though the debt may be, God is not the one who decided it should be paid, in effect, all at once--"greatly"--and in gold: a massive percentage of young men from a certain generation in Europe and elsewhere. A similar debt is now being paid by Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans--greatly, and in gold.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fiction In A Poem

I observed a colleague's class yesterday. She was teaching a session of introductory short-fiction, and it was a splendid session. The class was discussing ways in which to end short stories, and apparently the textbook had suggested that one way to end was to evoke a sense of "infinity" quietly; the textbook used the example of a lone clarinet ending a symphony. Rather than accepting that analogy uncritically, my colleague went through her collection of symphonies by some of the Greats--and couldn't find an example of the lone clarinet! She played a few symphony-endings for the class, and this generated a great discussion of analogies between musical and fictional "endings," and about the implications of a happy ending, a tragic ending, a vague ending, a surprise ending (the "twist"), and so on. She was able to find a movement in a Berlioz symphony (Fantastique, I think) that ended with the sound of a lone horn.

Poets struggle with how to end poems, of course, but how to end stories may involve even more pressure. Poets are also often able to avoid the struggles of working with characters, who can become quite real (even thought they're just made of words), insistent, and stubborn, telling the author what to do (at least it feels this way sometimes), when the author thought he or she was in charge of writing the story. Sometimes, in my capacity as a fiction-writer, I have the urge to hit an unmanageable character over the head with a clarinet. I think I'd been working on a novel--many years ago--when I wrote the following poem, which concerns unruly fictional characters:

An Author Falls in Love With a Minor Character

I first noticed her in early scenes with
the hero. She was unremarkable,
there to get him
believably from point A to point B.
It was supposed to be geometry.

Now the hero’s been in a bar
in the fourth chapter for a year.
I might as well write the scene in which
an ambulance wails down a wet street,
pulls up to the bar. He’ll die there.

A telephone rings in the novel.
She walks across a room
to answer it. It’s me. I tell her
I’ve thrown it all over, all those
other lives, given up all plots for her.

I ignore how foolish I sound asking
“Where would you like your life
to take you? What kind of smile
shall I invent for you?” She says,
“Oh, you shouldn’t do all that for me.”

There’s something in her voice
I haven’t heard before. A certain
calculation. I consider the prospect

of following her
through my mind’s streets. I’m alarmed.

She says goodbye, replaces the receiver,
gently, crushes out a cigarette. I write,
“. . .crushes out a cigarette . . .” on the screen,
hate it. I’m unable to stop. I write only
to find out more about her.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Genitive Wednesday

Today I'm giving a poetry reading in a colleague's class and then fielding questions. Often students ask about where I or poets in general (like these students) "get ideas" for poems. Another way of asking this questions is "What is it that drives poets" (when it's not a taxi-cab driver, har har)?

My friend Kevin Clark tells great stories about having taken a workshop from the famous Southern bad-boy poet and novelist (Deliverance) James Dickey, known for archery, boozing, and fighting--a schtick associated with Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and countless others, of course, even if the particulars differ. Apparently Dickey roared into the classroom wearing a hat that Burt Reynolds had given him during the filming of Deliverance. The roar of the poet, the smell of machismo!

To open up the workshop, Dickey asked the graduate students what, fundamentally, poets like to do in their art. Of course, trying to get on the good side of the Great Poet, the students were tempted to say that poets like to depict real gritty life, or to be the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world, or to "express the inexpressible," or to get carried away by inspiration, or to devote their lives to art. (As Seinfeld might say: Yadda, yadda.)

Kevin smelled a rat, however, and remembered that W.H. Auden's famous anticlimactic answer to the question was simply this: "Poets like to play with words." Of course, Auden was being a bit coy, and Auden did much more than play with words. But that was, in fact, the answer Dickey was looking for, and Kevin gave it to him, and we'll simply slide past the several ironies of Dickey's and Auden's having agreed with one another.

What Auden meant, I think, is that words constitute the medium of poetry, not ideas, inspiration, life, or love. Words are to poetry what paint is to--well, painting. By saying "Poets like to play with words," Auden was implying, perhaps, that poets shouldn't lose sight of the medium itself even when they're trying to write "about" something. Often the so-called "idea" for a poem comes simply from playing around with (or working with, if that phrase seems more respectable) language, even if the poem, when finished, seems to be "about" something else, such as a red wheel barrow or having your heart broken.

It's true that readers usually want more from a poem than simply the poet's having played around with language, and who can blame them?! To some degree, I ignored that consideration in the following poem, which plays around with a) words I enjoy, as words, b) rhythms of phrases and c) the grammatical/linguistic notion of "the genitive case," which in Latin refers to words whose endings change so as to signal that they are being used to suggest ownership (the bird's beak, or the beak "of" the bird), description (the field-lilies or the lilies "of" the field), or location (the farm tools, or tools associated with or tools "of" the farm). I think you get the idea that the genitive case in English is often signaled not by a changed word-ending (English is mostly different from Latin in that respect) but by bringing in the word "of" for assistance. I think Gore Vidal said one of the thorns in a novelist's side (he probably didn't use this analogy) was trying to avoid the double genitive: "Speaking of the King of Sweden, the Norwegian laughed." The repetition of "of" can seem awkward/awkward.

In any event, playing with words, rhythms, and the genitive case, and unafraid to repeat "of," I decided--many years ago--to write a poem that played with words, more or less for the fun of playing with words. Whether readers consider it fun is highly debatable, one reason I kept the poem relatively short. I won't read this poem today to the students, but I will encourage them not to forget to play with words, seriously--to work with words, that is. The poem:

Genitive Case

Of eucalyptus, of acacia,
of rhododendron, tubers,
and pubescence, essence and
viola. Of pulse, of frond,
of pool and cool, of breeze,
arrest, and musculature. Of
hush and curvature. Of rush.
of whisper, moan, variety,
shoulders, piety, also variegation.
Of ripe, of lip, of full. Gladiola,
of. Form, firm, fern, tongue, smell:
of these of course. Of you. Of to doze and of
to languish. Of liquids, tubas, lobes,
and drums. Of cheek, chin, choice.
Of moist. Of measure for measure,
for olives of all, of grape and fig,
laze and sprawl, days and quirks.
Of sycamore and buttocks, of
cedar, water, smoke. Of willing
and of waiting, salt and wit.
Of grin. Of sum.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Yeats Tosses One Back

In one class this term, I asked students to choose an extra volume of poetry (by one author--not an anthology, that is) to read and to discuss with me. One of the students chose an edition of William Butler Yeats's Selected Poems and Plays. He'd studied Yeats's poetry in another class, and he was familiar with the well known poems like "The Second Coming" and "Easter 1916." He said he enjoyed reading this volume because he was able to discover much less well known poems that were enjoyable in their own right. We did end up discussing the well known "A Prayer for My Daughter," which includes the intriguing reference to Apollo and Daphne; the speaker of the poem wants his daughter to be like the shrub, Daphne, and remain rooted in one place--Ireland, presumably. But we also discussed a slighter poem that is nonetheless enjoyable. Here it is:

Drinking Song

By W. B. Yeats

WINE comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the ear.
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

The half-rhyme mouth/truth is vintage (so to speak) Yeats.

I wonder if someone has, in fact, set this lyric to music; probably so. However, the poem might work better as a simple toast than a song. If a person were to sing it, he or she would have to select the appropriate saloon, pub, or cocktail lounge; it may not work in every venue. In any event, I agreed with my student's idea that one advantage of reading a poet's selected or collected works is that you get to discover the poems that are not anthologized often or at all but that are nonetheless memorable. You get to take your own angle on the poet's opus. I'm in favor of rummaging through such books, as opposed to hitting the familiar high spots or reading systematically.

I also like to think of Yeats's "Drinking Song" in connection with Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," partly because the pronunciations of Yeats and Keats constitute something of a running joke, but also because the poems disagree on what we know "in the final analysis." Keats says we know that beauty is truth and truth, beauty. Yeats says we know only that wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the ear. Maybe the claims aren't as far apart as they seem to be at first glance.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Tough Poem From Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon was among the so-called "trench poets" of World War I, and he not only survived the war but lived until 1967, having been born in 1886. One wonders what he thought of the Viet Nam war.

One of his toughest war-poems, in my opinion, is the one below. It isn't remotely as famous as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," and it isn't tough in the same way; the poem by Owen, in addition to skewering easy notions of patriotism and of dying for one's country, presents a graphic "battle" scene--which is mainly a scene of soldiers being hit by poison gas. Sassoon's poem is tough because it is directed at--and gives hard advice--to one who grieves. It is one of the most emotionally unflinching poems I know. If one didn't have the sense that Sassoon had earned the right to compose such a poem and the sense that what he writes is true, one might be tempted to think of the poem as cruel. It is a hard poem, a tough poem, certainly a sobering poem about war--but not a cruel one. It is from his book Picture Show (1920).

Reconciliation

By Siegfried Sassoon

WHEN you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.


Gazelle Ghazal Gets Monday Going

As Ron Padgett notes in his splendid book, The Handbook of Poetic Forms (Teachers & Writers Press, New York), the ghazal is a venerable form of Persian poetry with which the poets Hafiz and Rumi are associated, among others. I'm always reticent to use forms that have such a long history in other cultures because I assume that when the form is transferred to English, it will lose much if not most of what makes it distinctive in its own setting. The ghazal, for example, had its own patterns of rhythm and rhyme in Persian, whereas in English those features tended to fall away. In fact, Padgett's view (p. 88 of his book) is that the contemporary ghazal in English really need only be in the form of (unrhymed) couplets and approach its subject-matter with something of a mystical or philosophical perspective. Adhering to one custom of the Persian ghazal, the ghazal in English may also end with the poet's name. I've brought exactly one ghazal in for what I consider to be a successful landing. It first appeared in Wendy Bishop's textbook, 13 Ways of Looking for a Poem (Longman). Unfortunately, the narrow margins of the blog make what should be long couplet-lines run over, so one will have to make allowances for that.

This Is The Gazelle Ghazal

This is the piano which holds its white hat in its black hands. This is the shovel
that says Excuse me and enters an important person’s office and will not leave.

This is the pebble that politely intrudes and, like a hard seed, sprouts
discomfort. This is the important person, leveled by regret, desperate for hope.

This is the outside, which is rain, and this is the inside, which is dry.
This is the student, who wants to be older. This is the teacher, who wants to be younger.

This is the love affair, so raging it convinced itself it would last forever but ended.
This is the friendship, which began before it knew it began and will not end.

This is the gazelle that springs onto suede savannas of mind as you read.
This is the name that writes the last of the gazelle ghazal: Hans Ostrom.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Walt Whitman Sees


Known for his volubility, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) can be a pithy poet, too, as in the poem below. Written in an age of supreme anxiety about what Darwin's ideas meant for those with mystical or religious beliefs, the poem seems to sidestep a "science" vs. "religion" duality and simply regards evolution as one more element to admire, mystically, about the universe. Not surprisingly (in the case of Whitman), the poem ends with a surprise, as the "real" subject of the piece is the unseen "soul"--human consciousness, another mystery of evolution. Thus the poem finally settles into an old philosophical question about whether reality exists independently of perception, whether perception is reality, and whether these are the correct philosophical questions to ask. Happily, for him and for us, Whitman chose his genre wisely--lyric poem, not treatise; so he's not obligated to sort out the philosophical question fully. Instead he ends with an exclamation, an homage to the soul his intuition grasps but does not see. It's a grand little poem, the way I see it.

Grand is the Seen

Walt Whitman

GRAND is the seen, the light, to me—grand are the sky and stars.
Grand is the earth, and grand are lasting time and space,
And grand their laws, so multiform, puzzling, evolutionary;
But grander far the unseen soul of me, comprehending, endowing all those,
Lighting the light, the sky and stars, delving the earth, sailing the sea,
(What were all those, indeed, without thee, unseen soul? of what amount without thee?)
More evolutionary, vast, puzzling, O my soul!
More multiform far—more lasting thou than they.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Fly Is Welcome to Share

I enjoy this poem from William Oldys, whose life and writing-career took place chiefly in the 18th century, although he was born in 1687.

On a Fly Drinking Out of His Cup

By William Oldys (1687-1761)


BUSY, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:

Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away.
Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:

Thine 's a summer, mine 's no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they're gone,
Will appear as short as one!

I find much to like in just three stanzas, including the assonance in line one (curious/thirsty); the phrase "sip and sip it up"; and the assertion that once a segment of time is gone, it looks about the same as any other segment of time. It's a poem with modern sensibilities; or rather, our sensibilities do not seem to have changed all that radically compared to those of Oldys's era.

Apparently, however, the conventional wisdom back then was that flies lived a whole summer, whereas, if I'm not mistaken, their life-span is a matter of hours. (This just in from one of my colleagues in science who studies fruit flies: the life-span of most flies is more properly measured in weeks, not hours; my apologies to flies, those who study them, and those who drink with them.) Also, we associate flies with the spread of bacteria and other sources of disease, whereas Oldys seems fine with having the fly drink from his cup. Maybe the sensibility here is not so much modern as it is Zen-like, to the extent that Zen Buddhism takes a radically democratic view of all creatures.


Finally, I take pleasure in comparing this poem to Karl Shapiro's poem, "The Fly," which begins, "O hideous little bat, the size of snot," and proceeds to get more miffed with the fly from there. In class once, Shapiro claimed that he wrote the poem while serving in the military in the South Pacific during World War. He said he had a lot of pent-up rage toward the military, and he channeled it all into an irrational rage against a fly. What a great strategy for writing a poem: take the emotion one feels for one situation and rewire it to a completely different subject. Shapiro was an iconoclast by nature and by nature not a joiner of any kind, so the conformity of military life must indeed have induced some rage.

Was the beverage in Oldys's cup alcoholic, and if so, what does alcohol do to a fly? I guess it turns the creature (the insect, I mean) into a barfly.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Roy Helton Passes By

Here's a well wrought poem by Roy Helton (born 1886), published in the early decades of the 20th century:

In Passing

by Roy Helton

THROUGH the dim window, I could see
The little room—a sordid square
Of helter-skelter penury:
Piano, whatnot, splintered chair.

It is so small a room that I
Seemed almost at the woman's side:
Galled jade—too fat for vanity,
And far too frankly old for pride.

Her greasy apron 'round her waist;
The dish cloth by her on the chair;
As if in some wild headlong haste,
She has come in and settled there.

Grimly she bends her back and tries
To stab the keys, with heavy hand;
A child's first finger exercise
Before her on the music stand.

"In Passing" reminds me of William Carlos Williams' poem about his driving through a suburban neighborhood and noticing a "housewife." I like Helton's poem even better because it transfers the point of view from viewer to viewed. At the end of the poem, we concentrate completely on the woman; the scene's poignant but not sentimental. Amid all the work and in the midst of a hard life, the woman pauses to take a try at playing the piano. Helton's poem amounts to a highly compressed short story.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Max Eastman on Diogenes

In an on-line version of Louis Untermeyer's anthology, Modern Poetry (1919), I found the following small poem by Max Eastman, known more as an editor than a poet. Eastman knew several Harlem Renaissance writers well, including George Schuyler; his politics in the 1920s were leftward leaning. In this poem, he praises the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes, a contemporary of Aristotle's. Diogenes preferred to live like a beggar, although I believe that he worked for a long time as a tutor to a rich person's children. "Worked" makes it sound as if he was employed, but I think he was actually a slave at that point. He disparaged customs, including comfort, money, and funeral rites. For himself, he allegedly wished no funeral rites or even burial but requested that his body simply be flung outside the city's gates, to be devoured by dogs. Instead, somebody built a monument to him--with the figure of a dog on top; at least that's the lore.

Here's Eastman's crisp little homage to Diogenes:

Diogenes

by Max Eastman

A HUT, and a tree,
And a hill for me,
And a piece of weedy meadow.
I’ll ask no thing,
Of God or king,
But to clear away his shadow.

I do appreciate that half-rhyme, meadow and shadow--almost as if, on behalf of Diogenes, Eastman were purposely "bending" the custom of rhyming. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will remember that Holmes's brother, Mycroft, belonged (or I should say belongs) to the Diogenes Club in London.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Searchlights Find Poem

I ran across an on-line version of Louis Untermeyer's anthology, Modern Poetry (1919). (Untermeyer and Oscar Williams were equally prolific anthologists of poetry in the 20th century.) I enjoy perusing old anthologies to see which poems from them have persisted in subsequent anthologies and which haven't, and to re-discover poems that have gone out of sight. This time I found a poem by Alter Brody, who was born in 1895:

Searchlights

by Alter Brody

TINGLING shafts of light,
Like gigantic staffs
Brandished by blind, invisible hands,
Cross and recross each other in the sky,
Frantically—
Groping among the stars—stubbing themselves against the bloated clouds—
Tapping desperately for a sure foothold
In the fluctuating mists.

Calm-eyed and inaccessible
The stars peer through the blue fissures of the sky,
Unperturbed among the panic of scurrying beams;
Twinkling with a cold, acrid merriment.

The basic contrast--searchlights v. stars--is appealing. The image of "gigantic shafts" is just right. I associate these with film-clips of Hollywood's opening of movies in the hold days and with car-dealerships, which occasionally used to deploy searchlights during special night-sales, at least in California. The image of their "stubbing themselves against . . . clouds" seems correct, too. The word "frantically" doesn't seem quite right, partly because searchlights are so hard to maneuver that the shafts of light never seem rushed. The personification of the stars may be excessive in the second stanza. I'd be inclined to trust the image of the stars to convey the meaning that most of the adjectives no convey, and "acrid merriment" seems over-the-top. Nonetheless, what a great idea for a poem: searchlights and stars in a "stare-down" that is a mismatch.

I've seen a searchlight up close because my father had somehow acquired what he called "an old Navy light." It was an upright searchlight that swiveled ponderously. I have no idea what the wattage was aside from "more than a lot."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Poets Today

Although I read and teach a lot of Old School poetry, I also try to continue to read contemporary poets, although it's hard to keep up with the all the poetry that's out there. That's not cause for despair; it's actually cause for celebration. Professor and writer Judith Johnson, I believe, applied the term "a false economy of scarcity" to the impulse some people have to create narrow canons of literature--an impulse that may be guided in part by a fear of abundance. An abundance of literature may make some people feel as if literature is "out of control." It may be out of their control, but it's not out of control. Some people may feel as if, with new literature pouring out all the time, "the standards" may disappear. Canons shift all the time; just look at any poetry anthology from the 19th or early 20th centuries. Standards vary according to criteria, in spite of a yearning to establish the indisputable list of great works.

Among the contemporary poets I've enjoyed reading are, in no particular order, Natasha Trethewey, Marilyn Chin, Mark Halliday, Jim Daniels, Virgil Suarez, Rita Dove, and Kevin Clark--to name only a handful. I like some of Sherman Alexie's poetry, and I've enjoyed poems by Gary Soto, too. I'm partial to my late friend Wendy Bishop's posthumous collection, My Last Door, but I think even if I hadn't known Wendy, I'd be impressed with it.

I also just like reading poetry in the magazines in which I publish, or in magazines I just pick up. Often I don't remember the name of the poet whose work I like. But there's good poetry appearing all the time. In recent years, I've placed a few poems in British magazines, and it's nice to see what sorts or things are going on poetically over there. I've read a smattering of contemporary Swedish poetry in Swedish, and I even translated one. It's by Marie Silkeberg, from her collection, Black Mercury. It appears in a book I wrote with Wendy Bishop and Kate Haake, Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively. Here's the untitled poem (in English):

Mother! my son called in the night.
Mother! I can't see you.

You can, my precious.
You can see my voice.

Listen to the sky now, so wildly blue,
And to black birds when they fly.


Thanks again to Marie Silkeberg.

Copryight Marie Silkeberg; translation copyright Hans Ostrom 2007.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Anne Finch Likes Herself

You get the feeling from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself that Walt loved himself. Good for him; and he got some fine poetry out of that self-regard.

A more difficult, or at least an as difficult, kind of poem to write is one in which the poet describes satisfaction with herself, or at least self-acceptance.

Anne Finch (1661-1720) seems to have written such a poem, logically titled "On Myself."

On Myself

by Anne Finch

Good Heav'n, I thank thee, since it was designed
I should be framed, but of the weaker kind,
That yet, my Soul, is rescued from the love
Of all those trifles which their passions move.
Pleasure and praise and plenty have with me
But their just value. If allowed they be,
Freely, and thankfully as much I taste,
As will not reason or religion waste.
If they're denied, I on my self can live,
And slight those aids unequal chance does give.
When in the sun, my wings can be displayed.
And, in retirement, I can bless the shade.

This is an intricately original poem. As can often be the case with sonnets from the period, the syntax isn't always easy. To what, for example, does "their" refer to in line four? My guess is that it refers to "other people," not to trifles, for it wouldn't make sense for the trifles to move their own passions.

To some degree, the poem seems to concern a self-restraint that comes easily to the person. She doesn't deny herself things by means of excruciating self-discipline, but if she doesn't experience certain pleasant things, she is content nonetheless. Both reason and religion seem to serve as guides, but she seems to work easily within the guidelines, which do not seem oppressive. She describes herself as "weaker"--meaning what? That she is "of the 'weaker' sex"--a woman? Or that she doesn't have appetites as powerful as those of other people?

The concluding couplet sets itself apart from the rest of the poem; the couplet seems to leap to the image of a winged creature--butterfly? bird?--in sun and shade. But the leap seems to work, reinforcing the sense in which the person is both balanced and content with the balance.

Appreciating Cedar Trees

According to my blog-hit-counter, "I" just passed the 1500-hit-mark, although when I log on to my own blog, I think I'm counted as a hit, so we must take that dizzying number with a grain of smelling salts. I realize some blogs get that many hits in less than a minute. Even so, I'm mightily impressed with my 1500. If someone had spoken the phrase "blog-hit-counter" to me in 1971, or even in 1999, I may not have guessed they were speaking English.

Today's poem concerns cedar trees, which many people appreciate. They are aromatic. They are gracefully attired. Their bark is intricate. Their wood is easy to work with and, because of the resin, stands up to rot better than pine. Then there are the famous cedar-chests and those Cedars of Lebanon.

Where I grew up in the Sierra Nevada, cedars composed a good percentage of the forest's population, but they were not in the same abundance as pine trees or fir trees. Some of the old-growth cedars were massive, their bark as thick as a fist.

Here, then, is a kind of homage to cedar trees:

Cedars in Space

If there is what
we call life
elsewhere in the All,
I hope it includes
cedar trees, which are
excellent forms of what
we call life, really aromatic,
interesting nodes of
the All. I look outward
to a time when
an intergalactic
Cedar-Appreciation Festival
is held on what we call
an annual basis.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Alfred Austin Can't Sleep

Below is a poem about insomnia I hadn't read until today; it's by Alfred Austin, who was Poet Laureate of England in the Victorian period.

A Sleepless Night

by Alfred Austin

Within the hollow silence of the night
I lay awake and listened. I could hear
Planet with punctual planet chiming clear,
And unto star star cadencing aright.
Nor these alone: cloistered from deafening sight,
All things that are made music to my ear:
Hushed woods, dumb caves, and many a soundless mere,
With Arctic mains in rigid sleep locked tight.
But ever with this chant from shore and sea,
From singing constellation, humming thought,
And Life through Time's stops blowing variously,
A melancholy undertone was wrought;
And from its boundless prison-house I caught
The awful wail of lone Eternity.

The beginning of the poem may be a bit confusing unless we recall that Aristotle believed that the sun, the moon, and the stars were all attached to spheres, and that these spheres operated in harmony. So although almost no one believed that theory in Austin's time, Austin is probably using Aristotle's idea figuratively, so that the planets chime like a clock. I don't think we're supposed to believe that the planets are literally audible.

The synesthesia--or deliberate mixing of senses--of "cloistered from deafening sight" works well. (Apparently, synesthesia may also refer to an actual condition, in which, for example, a person might associate numbers with colors.) It works well, I think, because "cloistered" from sight, lying in bed, we do tend to turn things over to the ears, whereas when we're up and about, our focus on things we see may make us less aware of what we hear.

The person in Austin's poem seems to welcome this "cloistered" situation and enjoys listening to what he might not have heard were he awake and looking out a window, but probably most insomniacs get annoyed by hearing every little noise. Almost everything seems too loud when you can't sleep. "Life through Time's stops" refers, I believe, to an organ, which has stops that an organist manipulates. The sonnet ends more gloomily than we might have expected: ya think?! It takes a morose Victorian turn, just when we thought the guy was fairly sanguine about being awake at night.

One More By Alice Meynell

Here is another poem by Alice Meynell (1847-1922), whom I mentioned in the previous post:

The Poet and his Book

by Alice Meynell

Here are my thoughts, alive within this fold,
My simple sheep. Their shepherd, I grow wise
As dearly, gravely, deeply I behold
Their different eyes.

O distant pastures in their blood! O streams
From watersheds that fed them for this prison!
Lights from aloft, midsummer suns in dreams,
Set and arisen.

They wander out, but all return anew,
The small ones, to this heart to which they clung;
“And those that are with young,” the fruitful few
That are with young.

When I began to read the poem for the first time, I almost cringed because I didn't think the extended comparison between sheep and poems was going to work, partly because of the age-old Judeo-Christian comparison between humans/souls and sheep. Ah, but Meynell uses the comparison surprisingly and smartly, in my view anyway. The sheep (poems) were fed by a variety of streams, watersheds, and pastures--ideas for poems, in other words. The implication that the poet likes "the small ones" best rings true; for quirky, private reasons, poets will often like the poems others don't necessarily like. And the final extension of the comparison is to suggest, or at least to hope, that some of the poems will inspire others' poems, will bear literary "young." Through the post-feminist critical lens, we marvel that Meynell felt obligated to write about the poet and "his" book, when rather obviously she was meditating on her own work and her attitude toward it later in life. Surely, the sheep/poem comparison will still seem too cloying to some, but what Meynell actually does with the comparison is pleasant and instructive to observe. I enjoyed watching her work in this poem, a small one.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Poem By Alice Meynell

Below appears a poem by Alice Meynell, who is known as a Victorian poet but lived well into the 20th century. She was born in 1847 and died in the year my mother was born, 1922.

November Blue

by Alice Meynell

The golden tint of the electric lights seems to give a complementary
colour to the air in the early evening.
—Essay on London

O heavenly colour, London town
Has blurred it from her skies;
And, hooded in an earthly brown,
Unheaven’d the city lies.
No longer, standard-like, this hue
Above the broad road flies;
Nor does the narrow street the blue
Wear, slender pennon-wise.

But when the gold and silver lamps
Colour the London dew,
And, misted by the winter damps,
The shops shine bright anew—
Blue comes to earth, it walks the street,
It dyes the wide air through;
A mimic sky about their feet,
The throng go crowned with blue.

Lights Out at the Mall

We went to the mall tonight, and only one store was open. The rest of mall was shut down because of a power-outage. Apparently, a fuse had exploded in the Food Court and fouled up the wiring throughout the mall. The one open store had its own back-up generator, we were told.

The whole situation seemed to have symbolic meaning, but I couldn't quite grasp the meaning. I imagine the retailers were furious; this is the time of the year when they make their profits, or so I'm told. The King and Queen of the Food Court must have been furious. In the one store that was open, the drinking-fountain didn't work, and someone had put a sign up that said "Broken"--twice. I found that to be slightly mysterious. Below "Broken" appeared "Broken." I like it when businesses put up signs like that--hence this poem, written a while ago:

Excuse Our Mess

We’re slightly understaffed
today, so we ask that you
serve yourself some basic
humanity. We’ve had to
downsize our commitment,
so we no longer process mercy
at this branch. If you like,
we can take down your
information and enter it into
our database, where it will
remain forever young.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thomas Hood on Autumn

I recently returned to a poem about autumn by Thomas Hood, a lesser known British writer of the Romantic period; he was born at the same time as the French Revolution and died in 1845. The poem is a bit too long, and it's uneven, but there is still much to like about and to learn from it.
Autumn

by Thomas Hood

I Saw old Autumn in the misty morn
Stand shadowless like Silence, listening
To silence, for no lonely bird would sing
Into his hollow ear from woods forlorn,
Nor lowly hedge nor solitary thorn;—
Shaking his languid locks all dewy bright
With tangled gossamer that fell by night,
Pearling his coronet of golden corn.

Where are the songs of Summer?—With the sun,
Oping the dusky eyelids of the south,
Till shade and silence waken up as one,
And Morning sings with a warm odorous mouth.
Where are the merry birds?—Away, away,
On panting wings through the inclement skies,
Lest owls should prey
Undazzled at noonday,
And tear with horny beak their lustrous eyes.

Where are the blooms of Summer?—In the west,
Blushing their last to the last sunny hours,
When the mild Eve by sudden Night is prest
Like tearful Proserpine, snatch'd from her flow'rs
To a most gloomy breast.
Where is the pride of Summer,—the green prime,—
The many, many leaves all twinkling?—Three
On the moss'd elm; three on the naked lime
Trembling,—and one upon the old oak-tree!
Where is the Dryad's immortality?—
Gone into mournful cypress and dark yew,
Or wearing the long gloomy Winter through
In the smooth holly's green eternity.

The squirrel gloats on his accomplish'd hoard,
The ants have brimm'd their garners with ripe grain,
And honey bees have stored
The sweets of Summer in their luscious cells;
The swallows all have wing'd across the main;
But here the Autumn melancholy dwells,
And sighs her tearful spells
Amongst the sunless shadows of the plain.
Alone, alone,
Upon a mossy stone,
She sits and reckons up the dead and gone
With the last leaves for a love-rosary,
Whilst all the wither'd world looks drearily,
Like a dim picture of the drownèd past
In the hush'd mind's mysterious far away,
Doubtful what ghostly thing will steal the last
Into that distance, gray upon the gray.

O go and sit with her, and be o'ershaded
Under the languid downfall of her hair:
She wears a coronal of flowers faded
Upon her forehead, and a face of care;—
There is enough of wither'd everywhere
To make her bower,—and enough of gloom;
There is enough of sadness to invite,
If only for the rose that died, whose doom
Is Beauty's,—she that with the living bloom
Of conscious cheeks most beautifies the light:
There is enough of sorrowing, and quite
Enough of bitter fruits the earth doth bear,—
Enough of chilly droppings for her bowl;
Enough of fear and shadowy despair,
To frame her cloudy prison for the soul!


No later than the early 20th century, personifying a season or other elements of nature was considered a worn-out poetic technique, even a kind of fallacy, although personification, per se, is not off limits. Much depends on how it's deployed. In Hood's poem, it's deployed too predictably, although he surprises us by apparently changing the gender of autumn from male to female as the poem proceeds. I do find many of the observations and much of the concrete imagery appealing here. The poem is aware of its surroundings, and we get a glimpse of moss, squirrels, swallows, bees, and even ants. I do appreciate the "fact" that, in stanza one, the dew pearls the "coronet" of corn. That's not bad at all. And the simple question, "Where are the songs of Summer?" remains poignant. The late American poet Richard Hugo, in his book on writing, The Triggering Town, advises poets not to answer questions they ask (in poems), and with regard to Hood's question, I think I agree. The question is effective as is.

Often, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where summer can be nasty, brutish, and short, you hear people say, after October has once again appeared seemingly out of nowhere like an unpleasant relative, "Where did our summer go? We didn't really have a summer . . . ."

Salamander and Cellini

More on salamanders, on which the previous post touched: Here is an excerpt from the Victorian Thomas Bullfinch's study of mythology and lore; the excerpt concerns Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance artist and writer, born in 1500:

THE SALAMANDER

The following is from the “Life of Benvenuto Cellini,” an Italian artist of the sixteenth century, written by himself: “When I was about five years of age, my father, happening to be in a little room in which they had been washing, and where there was a good fire of oak burning, looked into the flames and saw a little animal resembling a lizard, which could live in the hottest part of that element. Instantly perceiving what it was, he called for my sister and me, and after he had shown us the creature, he gave me a box on the ear. I fell a–crying, while he, soothing me with caresses, spoke these words: ‘My dear child, I do not give you that blow for any fault you have committed, but that you may recollect that the little creature you see in the fire is a salamander; such a one as never was beheld before to my knowledge.’ So saying he embraced me, and gave me some money.”

It seems unreasonable to doubt a story of which Signor Cellini was both an eye and ear witness. Add to which the authority of numerous sage philosophers, at the head of whom are Aristotle and Pliny, affirms this power of the salamander. According to them, the animal not only resists fire, but extinguishes it, and when he sees the flame charges it as an enemy which he well knows how to vanquish.

What an extraordinary story! The father uses boxing the ears as a mnemonic device! Used enough times, the device would render the child incapable of remembering anything. Was the blow worth the money and the embrace? I think not. I'd not heard of the lore about salamanders' apocryphal ability to withstand fire. Somehow, somewhere, their amphibious love of the damp got expanded into asbestos-like qualities, which of course makes me think of Senator Clinton's prepared quip in last night's debate; she referred to wearing an "asbestos pants-suit."


Salamander

I must be in a mood to count my blessings today because I seem to be focusing on how lucky I was to grow up where I did--in the Sierra Nevada and in a meadow between mountain-peaks, with a creek running through my parents' acre of land. Growing up, I explored the creek tirelessly; to biologists, children, and perhaps geologists, creeks are endlessly fascinating. On one particular fortuitous day, I found a salamander. What a tiny, intricate creature a salamander is. This poem harkens back to those creek-days:

Salamander Confession

It’s been so long since
I’ve seen a salamander.
I’m wistful for those suction
feet, explorations of a dark-moss
creek. Back then we needed
our skinks and lizards,
our snakes and ant-lions.

Something was always eating
something and we got there in time
to watch. I can’t get over
how dull careers are, how
there’s nothing but
humans in the buildings
of our time. No wonder.

Ant-lions are splendid, too. They create a tiny crater in the dust. An ant walks into the crater and can't climb out because it keeps sliding back down the steep slope of the crater. The ant-lion lurks beneath the dirt at the bottom of the tiny crater, which is less than an inch wide at the top. When the ant is tired and slips down for the umpteenth time, the ant lion grabs it and eats it. My cohorts and I sometimes put ants in the craters. That seems terribly cruel now, but I think we regarded the activity as an experiment.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Poems We Carry With Us

I've lived in well over a dozen different abodes in my life, not counting the temporary housing of the outdoors, friends' and family's homes, hotels, motels, and train-stations. Two of these abodes have been overseas (which sounds like an old-fashioned term, probably because it is): an apartment in Mainz, Germany, and one in Uppsala, Sweden.

I was trying to think if there was some item that had been with me through all those moves to different locations. I do remember a pair of wool socks I must have hung on to for over 20 years, but finally they disintegrated. There's a pickled octopus and there are some baseball-cards; they've come with me on most, but not all, of the stops. The octopus has never been to Europe, nor have the cards.

Several poems, in one form or another, have accompanied me. I think I wrote the poem below over 25 years ago. I don't remember having published it, but I might have: one loses track. I've revised it numerous times. In any event, in handwritten, typed, "word-processed," or electronic form, it's traveled with me and in a sense lived with me. How odd. Or maybe not odd at all: Of course poets carry poems with them, and some of these poems are old inanimate friends, rather like a pair of socks. The poem:

January Twenty Eighth

by Hans Ostrom

Tonight I witnessed eight geese as they glided
over a city. They muttered like sleepers.
City lights faintly articulated
wide wings, gray undersides.

The true, ghost-like pattern of birds
seemed not to move in but with
darkness, traveling with the shadow of Earth,
towing daylight behind like gold fabric
toward a point of wintering.

Was the emblem of an unfrozen estuary
fixed in each bird’s mind,
a gem of foreknowledge burning like an ember?

Later, in the last hours before
somebody’s birthday,
I felt inhumanly old and longed
to comb sorrow from the air.

I thought of an old woman
holding up a hand mirror,
brushing shadows from her hair
out into rooms
of an enormous house at evening.


Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Poem By Kevin Clark

Poet, professor, and scholar Kevin Clark has just published The Mind's Eye, a splendid guide to writing poetry. It was just brought out by Pearson-Longman in paperback.

Kevin and I go way back. He was the first-baseman and I an outfielder on an intramural softball team at U.C. Davis. Somehow our team won a championship. Kevin was known for great defense and consistent hitting, while I was known for somewhat reckless play in the outfield and the occasional head-first slide.

Kevin's also the author of In the Evening of No Warning, a superb collection of poems.

Here's a poem from Kevin; it's a smart contemporary sonnet, in which the imagery, phrasing, sound, and sense mesh perfectly:

MATERIALIST NOIR

By Kevin Clark

Love must ride a weak carrier wave here
In the land of just the facts, ma’am. Let me
Promise
The post-coital scent of your hair,
Your dreams in code, your eyes steeped clear as tea,

The white heroin of your inner thigh…
I’ve hidden each essential gift in rooms
Far from those detectives who have to try
All evidence for unimpeachable proof

Of absolute zero. And I should know,
I’m one of them questioning two selves: Dead
Sure and Maybe Not. When you radio
Me from behind your book, from deep in bed,

From the patio dahlias, there’s no place
the cops find us. We’re gone without a trace.


Copyright Kevin Clark 2007; first published in Askew.

The Orthodoxy of Imagery

Once the Imagist movement, free verse, and Modernism hit Poetry a hundred years ago (or so), the image became the defining element of poetry. If you're writing a poem, the one thing you have to have in there is imagery--words that create images in the readers' minds; that's the conventional wisdom. It's also pretty good wisdom--"No ideas but in things," as W.C. Williams put it. Or, when in doubt, write something that will make a picture.

At the same time, poets should resist orthodoxy, even if the orthodoxy is good advice 90% of the time. There's no need to fear abstract language as if it were a disease, for example; and sometimes poetry is made good and even great by language that doesn't convey imagery. So, yes, the Imagists, et al., were on the right track, but there's never only one track in poetry.

Here are some favorite image-free lines from poems that have endured:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" --from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, the opening line. What a great way to open a poem! Yo, Shake, well done! The line is "spoken" to someone, a "thee," but it also sets a task for the poet. Now, we readers might associate "summer's day" with imagery of our own, but the line itself contains no imagery. But what a great line of poetry. It is image-free but rhetorically interesting.

"The world is too much with us/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." --Wordsworth's famous poem, of which the first line is the title. No image here, but splendid lines of poetry.

More lines from Wordsworth, these from "Resolution and Independence," stanza 6:

My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
As if life's business were a summer mood;
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good;
But how can He expect that others should
Build for him, so for him, and at his call
Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all?

Nice stanza! The speaker is confessing to having been something of a privileged, passive optimist, and he follows the confession with a great rhetorical question.

And the famous lines from Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty./ That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know." A droll reader might respond that he or she also needs to know how to use public transit, a toothbrush, and--these days--an ATM, but that droll reader would also be a smart-aleck. Anyway, Keats's lines will last longer than that urn did!

from Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," stanza 3:

My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

"Smothering weight" is close to being an image, but it isn't an image. It's general--but it nonetheless conveys a feeling we often have when we are dejected. And there's something fine about the direct observation, "My genial spirits fail." I prefer that to an image Coleridge might have reached for. And I sure like his use of iambic meter here.

from Thomas Hardy, "Hap," the first stanza:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing.
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"

Hardy's writing a theological poem of sorts, and this stanza expresses a preference for a vengeful god over no god at all. The sense, the rhythm, the phrasing, and the rhyme carry the lines--without imagery. But what a great presence of "voice" these lines have, and the lines set up Hardy's theological "problem" well.

Here are some lines of despair from a poet who most certainly did believe in God, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

The idea, the voice, and Hopkins's great sense of sound carry these lines. The lines do not, strictly speaking, convey images, but they're nonetheless specific--and riveting.

Some famous image-less lines from Yeats's "The Second Coming":

The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

To be fair to Yeats and the orthodoxy of imagery, the poem does famously end with a sphinx-like beast that "Slouches toward Bethlehem to be be born[.]" Now that is quite an image.

And a poem from Langston Hughes, called "Motto":

I play it cool and dig all jive.
That's the reason I stay alive.
My motto, as I live and learn,
Is Dig, and be Dug, in return.

These lines are funny, warm, and generous; a voice you want to hear speaks through them; and they're rhythmic. --No imagery, per se, but what a terrific poem.

So the question for poets and readers of poets is not "Imagery or abstraction?" Poets may use both, and a more pressing question is this: "Is the language--whether it conveys an image or not--interesting--does it engage the reader?" Poets would do well to lean on imagery early and often, but they would also do well to follow their instincts, even if their instincts tell them just to "say something." The something may not have an image, but it may still work, for a variety of reasons. If it doesn't work, 0ne can always rewrite it (even after it's published, as W.H. Auden famously did, much to the objection of scholars and critics), and maybe an image in its place will indeed be better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Few Favorite Poems; A Few Over-rated Ones

There are a few poems I never tire of reading or teaching. It almost goes without saying that I simply regard them as very fine poems (for a variety of reasons), but in some cases they are also associated with particular eras of my education. It's probably easier for an outside observer than it is for me to identify the links between the poems. In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites:

"The Windhover" and "God's Grandeur," Gerard Manley Hopkins
"I'm Nobody" and "I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed," by Emily Dickinson
"Harlem" and "Theme for English B," by Langston Hughes
"Death of the Ball Turrett Gunner," by Randall Jarrell
"My Last Duchess," by Robert Browning
"Yet Do I Marvel" and "Incident," by Countee Cullen
"Snake," by D.H. Lawrence
"in just spring," by e.e. cummings
"Poem About My Rights," by June Jordan
"Dulce Et Decorum Est," by Wilfred Owen
"My Last Door," by Wendy Bishop
"Auto Wreck," "The Fly," and "Drugstore," by Karl Shapiro
"The Waking," by Theodore Roethke
"The World Is Too Much With Us," by William Wordsworth
"Kubla Khan," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
selected haiku by Basho
"Abou ben Adhem" and "Jenny Kissed Me," by Leigh Hunt
"La Vie C'est La Vie," by Jessie Redmon Fauset
"This Is Just To Say," by William Carlos Williams
"Silence in the Snowy Fields," by Robert Bly
"Ode to Watermelon," by Pablo Neruda
"Musee des Beaux Arts" and "The Unknown Citizen," and "The Ballad of Miss Gee" by W.H. Auden
"Four Poems for Robin," by Gary Snyder
"The Yellow House on the Corner" and "Parsley" by Rita Dove
"Hill People," by Bill Hotchkiss
"The Second Coming," by W.B. Yeats
"Stopping by Woods," by Robert Frost
"For the Union Dead," by Robert Lowell
"The Vanity of Human Wishes," by Samuel Johnson
"Ode to Melancholy," by John Keats
"Purse Seine," by Robinson Jeffers
"Canticle of the Birds," by William Everson
you pick one, by A.E. Housman

Some poems I think are over-rated (but whose stature will remain unaffected--imagine that!--by my opinion):

"Leda and the Swan," by W.B. Yeats; this is a silly poem, in my opinion; she would simply have strangled the ridiculous bird; and in the end, it's just about rape and doesn't exactly seem opposed to it.
"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," by Dylan Thomas; technically, a great villanelle, but the sentiment is impertinent; people can choose how they go into that good night, thank you very much.
"The Road Not Taken," almost always misinterpreted--that's not really Frost's fault.
"Mending Wall," by Frost; I don't know why, but this poem bugs me.
"Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," by Ezra Pound; nicely put together, but . . .?
Howl, by Allen Ginsberg; parts of it are great, but sometimes it's Whine.
"Sunday Morning," by Wallace Stevens; a great achievement in verse, no doubt about that, but in the end, it's about a wealthy woman having a good morning.
"Lycidas," by John Milton; I agree with Sam Johnson on this one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ibn Arabi's Garden Among the Flames

Emily Dickinson's poem, appearing on the previous post, is a study in understatement. For a change of pace, here is a more ecstatic, but still grounded, poem from Ibn Arabi, a 12th century poet from what we now call the Middle East.

Wonder

by Ibn Arabi

Wonder,
A garden among the flames!

My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.

My creed is Love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.

Two images appeal enormously to me in this one. The opening image is explosive and entirely unexpected, and what a fresh definition (by analogy) of wonder--a garden among the flames. For some reason, I thought of those houses left standing, randomly, in the San Diego fires, their grounds and gardens intact while all around them everything had been burned. The image of that must of engendered some wonder, some incredulity, in people.

Also, I easily warm (speaking of flames) to the idea of Love's having a caravan, a loosely organized, wandering train of people and wagons and beasts of burden. Ibn Arabi's belief and faith simply follow that caravan, wherever it turns. The poet gives us an image of love, or of Love (that is, not just romantic love, but spiritual generosity), that is literally and figuratively grounded. In between these two great images, the rest of the poem isn't bad, either. The poem is on the Poet Seers website. How great to make contact with a poet from 800 years ago.

So Little Time; Therefore, So Little Hate

I just ran across a poem by Emily Dickinson I had not read before. It features her wry, sly humor as well as that seemingly instinctual generosity of hers.

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love; but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

Dickinson, ever the "crafty" poet in a couple senses of the word, does not write directly against hatred; she does not appear to hate hatred. Instead, she deftly makes the issue one of practicality and limited time. "Life's too short to take on the enmity-project!" Life also seems too short to engage in love, but since one has to keep busy ("Some industry must be'), one might as well take up the "toil" of love, the poem argues. Dickinson's telling the truth again, but, in her fashion, she's "telling it slant."

Monday, November 12, 2007

My Father Quoted Longfellow

My father's reading-tastes were eclectic. He read two daily newspapers and a weekly one; the Reader's Digest; a magazine from the American Legion; a magazine for (ra)ccoon-hunting-hound enthusiasts called Full Cry; westerns (Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey); books about the Gold Rush; lots of state-government documents; and technical literature on how to put things together.

Every once in a while, however, when we were building a house or a stone-wall, he'd quote Longfellow, usually the opening lines of "The Village Blacksmith," but sometimes one line from the following poem:

A PSALM OF LIFE

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

WHAT THE HEART OF THE YOUNG MAN
SAID TO THE PSALMIST

TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream ! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real ! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal ;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way ;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle !
Be a hero in the strife !

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant !
Let the dead Past bury its dead !
Act,— act in the living Present !
Heart within, and God o'erhead !

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time ;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate ;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

The line my father quoted was the first one of stanza #2, except he reversed the order of the sentences. He'd say, referring to nothing in particular but perhaps to work-itself, "Life is earnest. Life is real!" It was understood that one was just supposed to listen to the quotation and not ask questions about it, and usually, right after quoting the line, he'd give an order having to do with work. The rest of the poem does not seem to reflect my father and his attitudes much--except for the last stanza, which is not a bad summation of my father's view of life: Get up early, do your job, be physically fit, don't whine, and wait. Wait for what? Oh, the arrival of Full Cry, or of summer, or the weekend (when you might go looking for gold), or hunting-season, or the next day of work, or one of his eccentric friends, who might show up with anything (like a bear-cub on a leash, a barber's chair, or a bag of paperback westerns). "Be not like dumb, driven cattle!" That, too, reflects his view of humanity. He thought anyone who lived in the suburbs or in cities was the equivalent of a dumb cow. Masses of people were, to him, by definition merely herds of conformists. But he really wasn't a recluse. In his small town and small circle of friends, he was quite convivial. He liked to go to Reno and gamble--twice a year. The rest of American suburbia and cities might as well have not existed.

"Life is earnest, life is real!" I can hear him saying this, as much to himself as anyone else--followed by "Mix me a batch of mortar, and not too wet this time, goddamnit." Life is real. Life is earnest: rather like Samuel Johnson's attempt to refute Berkeley's idealist philosophy--by kicking a stone and saying to Boswell, "Thus I refute Berkeley."

Water-Boarding Is Torture; "Unidentified" Means "Unidentified"

Poets are known for using figurative language and for taking words out of customary contexts, so to some degree they, like politicians and pundits, are known for playing "fast and loose" (whatever that means) with the language--if for purposes different from those of the pols and the pundits. However, poets tend to work within such tight limits--often in less than one page--that they tend to examine every word. Therefore, poets can sometimes be mystified by how politicians and pundits seem not to understand a given single word.

For example, the new attorney general of the United States couldn't say whether water-boarding is torture. He said he would need to see whether it was listed in some policy that dubbed it "illegal" before he could give a straight answer (I am paraphrasing, of course).

Thanks to a former soldier who had water-boarding demonstrated on him and on video, everyone knows exactly what water-boarding is. It's bringing a victim close to drowning, repeatedly. What creditable definition of torture would not include such a practice? Answer: none. The new attorney general was hiding behind a prospective legal definition when the question wasn't legal in nature. The question was this: Do you think water-boarding is torture? The only correct and proper answer is this: "Of course I do," followed, if he were feeling especially frisky, by, "What, do I look like a moron?" But that question may not have been regarded as rhetorical by those interviewing him.

For another example, Dennis Kucinich admitted to having seen an unidentified object in the sky. After he admitted that, Chris Matthews, who tends to combine a smug insider's attitude with an astounding incapacity to listen (even to himself), mocked Kucinich for admitting to having seen "UFOs." A UFO is an unidentified flying object, and "flying" is in this case understood to suggest "something in the sky," so whatever object the thing is or is not, it may seem to be floating, gliding, or hovering, not literally, narrowly "flying."

"Unidentified" means "not [yet] identified." It does not mean "identified" [as an alien craft]; otherwise, the "un" wouldn't be there. "Unidentified" clearly suggests that the person simply can't identify the object--yet. During the debate, Tim Russert allowed as how only 14% of the American people "believe in UFOs." Probably what the poll and Russert mean is that 14% of the American people believe in the existence of alien space-crafts. Of those American people who understand what "unidentified" means, 100% must necessarily believe in unidentified "flying" objects--meaning they believe it's possible, even probable, that a human being might see something in the sky and not know how to identify it without more observation and/or information.

That the new attorney general couldn't say bluntly that water-boarding is torture is further evidence that our government supports practices we identify as evil when others engage in them. That alleged reporters like Matthews and Russert don't know what "unidentified" means may be evidence that aliens have taken over our mass media--aliens who left their dictionaries home.

Poets aren't perfect, but we know torture when we see it demonstrated on video, and we know what "unidentified" means.

First Clear Memory?

In a poetry-class today, the students reported on "statements of poetics" written by Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Frank O'hara, and Denise Levertov. Then we had about 15 minutes left in which to write, and I gave the students 17 prompts, all having to do with childhood. In response to one or more of the prompts, they could generate material in any way they wanted: free-writing, listing, starting a poem, etc.

I chose the prompt concerning one's first clear memory of childhood. Of course, the idea of having a first clear memory is debatable, made more debatable by the discipline of psychology. How do we know it's the first clear memory? Maybe earlier in our lives we had a clear memory that was of an even earlier time, but now we've replaced it. Or maybe the memory is as much a fiction as it is a faithful mental photograph of a very early "real" event in childhood. Or maybe we've repressed the first clear memory. What is a clear memory? Memory is such a complicated concept these days.

In any event, I came up with the following first draft of a poem about what I imagine to be my first clear memory from childhood. I'd always wanted to write about this memory, but I didn't get around to it until today.

First Memory: Snowbound

I am, and I am in snow. That is my first
clear memory. I’m on my back, and snow
surrounds me. I know I’m small. I feel
excessively bundled, although “excessively
bundled” is language that will come later.
It's been injected into the memory to help
account for a feeling. I feel excessively
bundled in black clothes, my face encircled
by a hood. Cold snow has risen up around me.
It is a problem. Immobile, I look up into
what I’ll describe now as the blank non-sky
of a snowy day. Adult faces appear above me.
They appear to laugh. I do not hear. They speak.
I hear words as sounds not words. The faces and voices
do not appear to take my being stuck—and now
anxious— seriously; the memory includes this
judgment. The memory ends there with me stuck,
over-bundled, cold, anxious, walled in by snow
I fell into backwards. History records that I
was extracted from the snow. My first clear
memory does not jibe with history. It leaves
me held in snow, looking up, restrained, alone.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Reacting To Rain

I took one of my classes to the cafe this morning to buy the students a hot beverage and have them work in groups on a project. Each semester I try to take each class to the cafe once; doing so is one of the benefits of teaching at a small college, for at a larger university, I'd probably have a lot more students in one or more of my classes, and the nearest cafe might not be within a short stroll's distance.

However, Murphy's Law dictated that today the fiercest rain-and-wind-storm would arrive, making our 100-yard trek less than ideal but, on the other hand, making the hot beverages even more welcome once we arrived.

Even in this era of severe droughts, people who aren't farmers or fire-fighters tend to react negatively to rain, especially if it's wind-driven. "It's horrible out there," people say. On student in another class said, "On days like this, we should all just agree that we're going to stay home." Of course, people who live in truly difficult wintry climates, including Alaska, would mock our Pacific Northwest discomfort with storms; we are used to rain but, oddly enough, still unamused by genuine storms. We like our rain to be docile. In any event, most of us on campus are not farmers, who look at weather a little differently. Here's a short poem about that topic. I think I wrote it about five years ago.

Not Farmers

When cold rain
comes after long
drought, we are
supposed to be
delighted. We are
grim. We lower
our heads and
herd ourselves toward
workplaces. Spectacles
get wet. Thoroughfares
clog. The TV-figure
talking of weather
becomes manic,
gestures like a drunken
mime. Dead
vegetation stays that
way, only it’s
soggy. “We needed
this rain,” we
say to each
other, not quite as if
we mean it. We
stand in our soggy shoes.
We look longingly
across vast asphalted
distances at vehicles
that will carry and
cover us. Our discomfort
descends on us like a low-
pressure front. We
do not think of thirsty
roots feeding food
appearing on our tables
months from now.

Copryight 2007 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fingernails

In adolescence, I bit my fingernails. Later I stopped. A carpenter's assistant for many summers, I performed the ritual of hitting my left thumb with a hammer, losing the nail--that black cloud of blood lying under there like a thunder-cloud. If memory serves, I didn't get my first professional manicure until after I was forty. I think I've probably gotten three more since then. In my figurative neck of the literal woods, a manicure for men was of course unheard of, and if it had been heard of, it would certainly have disrupted certain constructions of "manhood." Now, I gather, manicures for all manner of men are routine, and apparently wide-receivers in the National Football League are known to get manicures and pedicures--protecting the feet so the feet can get the body to where the pass needs to be caught by the hands, which make the money. When an old coach on television learned of this, he shook his head gravely. Another clear boundary of manhood erased! Football players going to a salon! Mercy!

Now I have a split thumbnail, and I gather it will be split for the duration. I have not heard of a way of inducing the split to heal itself. I blame the breakdown on too much yard-work.

In any event, I've clawed my way through several drafts of a fingernail poem, and here 'tis:

Fingernails

by Hans Ostrom

Neither bone nor skin nor food,
fingernails are tools we mouth,

deploy, and decorate. None
of us is ever so civilized—

whatever civilized means--
that we won’t, when

need be, start to claw,
scrape, dig—evolutionary

eons collapsing, leaving
residue of whole lost worlds

in our instinctual hands. Just
to scratch the scalp is such

a human gesture—and not; such
a basic lice-finding task—and not.

If your fingernails are soiled, they
file a report on your social status.

If they are manicured, they may
purr concerning leisure’s delicacy. If

bitten, they murmur of gnawing self-
doubt. If artificial—how fascinating.

I have heard that employees of alleged
civilized societies pull out fingernails

with pliers. This is torture: remember?
It is blood underneath human fingernails.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tiny Doctors

My wife came up with the term "tiny doctors," but I can't remember how or when. She may have been thinking of Elton John's song, "Tiny Dancer," and misspoke, but in any event, the term has been a source of humor in our family for quite a while. I took its silliness and ran with it into a poem, which turned out to be something of a Twilight Zone episode in short-poem form:

Tiny Doctors

Tiny doctors come down the street.
Their tiny white coats flare in sunshine.

Our neighborhood’s an ailment
they’ve come to diagnose.

Run away, we say to the tiny doctors,
this place cannot be cured.

They do not listen. They are tiny
determined doctors. They’ve brought

their training with them. They
surround our symptoms. We

lock them up in basements,
one by one. Tiny doctors, so

surprised, very captive. We treat
them well but keep them, poor

tiny doctors, poor miniature,
misplaced physicians.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Colloquy With a Cat


Here is a less the buoyant but nonetheless amusing poem by Weldon Kees (1914-1955), musician and poet. It features a kind of conversation with a cat, a colloquy that allows the speaker to talk over some issues with himself, perhaps. (The poem appears elsewhere online, at poemhunter.com and bryantmcgill.com.)

Colloquy

by Weldon Kees

In the broken light, in owl weather,
Webs on the lawn where the leaves end,
I took the thin moon and the sky for cover
To pick the cat's brains and descend
A weedy hill. I found him groveling
Inside the summerhouse, a shadowed bulge,
Furred and somnolent.-"I bring,"
I said, "besides this dish of liver, and an edge
Of cheese, the customary torments,
And the usual wonder why we live
At all, and why the world thins out and perishes
As it has done for me, sieved
As I am toward silences. Where
Are we now? Do we know anything?"
-Now, on another night, his look endures.
"Give me the dish," he said.
I had his answer, wise as yours.



Friday, November 9, 2007

More Poetic Math

Here's another poem on math, from a poet's perspective:

Doing Another Kind of Math

by Hans Ostrom

Bach over Blues
times Rock over
Mozart equals

music cubed.

Fox plus bear

divided by snow
equals dream.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Math and I

Mathematics and I were good friends up through geometry in high school. I'm not bad at arithmetic, I loved geometry (I think because I could visualize it), and I did fairly well at basic algebra. When I ran into trigonometry in high school, I had a bad teacher, but in truth, a good teacher would not have helped me much. It all seemed like gibberish to me, and I had this sneaking suspicion that "they" were simply making things up. None of the silly marks on the pages seemed to correspond to any world I knew. Of course, I was wrong. I was probably walking across bridges and riding in cars, the design of which had been affected by trigonometry.

Here is what one poet (me) does with math (the last line refers, rather too obviously, to one of my favorite poems, W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," and there needs to be an accent over Musee, but I don't know how to make the blog-program cooperate):

Equation

by Hans Ostrom

Let mathematics represent mathematicians.
If algebra stands for their desire to operate
on the world from a goodly distance,
then geometry enacts a will to map turf,
stylize hearth, fortify cave, codify material
units. Arithmetic equals
greed, larceny, accumulation, gambling, and boredom
divided by

revenge, obligation, display, and patience.
Trigonometry cosignifies rational madness,
which can be expressed as
Icarus
leaving body, soil, pragmatism, and parentage
behind for rare atmosphere and rush
of Platonic calculation—his mind finally
off and liberated from short distances
between mediocre points within the Labyrinth,
itching for a hit of Apollonian insight, yearning
to glimpse God’s system of accounting tersely for
everything.

And let Daedalus occupy a point
on plain and solid ground, having already
calculated the rate of his son’s descent,
impact imposed by physical laws,
interval required to reach the body,
which will have, he reckons,
washed ashore right about . . . there.
About suffering, some Old Masters did the
math.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Road Not Taken--Misintepreted Instead

As my friend Bill, a scholar in political science but a fan of selected poetry, likes to note, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" may well be the most widely misinterpreted and therefore misused poem in American literature. When people refer to the poem, they usually mean their reference to suggest that taking the road less traveled is a brave choice but a choice that is often rewarded. Taking that road is an admirable, independent thing to do, people imply, when they allude to Frost's poem.

The problem is that the poem doesn't, in fact, imply that sentiment. In fact, after the person "speaking" the poem has a look at the two roads, this is what he does and why he does it:

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.



Actually, then, both roads received about the same amount of traffic. One "wanted wear" just a bit more than the other, but "the passing there/Had worn them really about the same." Moreover, on that particular morning, "both . . . equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black." So this "road less traveled" business is largely an illusion and vastly overemphasized in the "common wisdom" about the poem. One road was about as busy as the other, and let's face it: both were country roads, so we're not talking about an interstate highway vs. a country road.

More trouble for the common (mis)-interpretation occurs in the last stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Notice that the speaker is projecting himself into old age, and he has decided ahead of time what his story will be when he gets that old. No matter what really happens between now (when he takes one road) and then (when he's old), he's going to claim that a) he took the one less traveled by, even though that will be an exaggeration and b) his taking this road "has made all the difference," even though he cannot yet know what effect taking that road will have on his life. Basically, the last stanza makes this a poem about how we fabricate our autobiographies. It's not really a poem about the virtues of taking the road less traveled. So all the high-school yearbooks that quote from the poem are quoting from it for the wrong reasons. But it doesn't matter because the accepted popular interpretation is "already on the books," and there's no way to correct it, except in this or that English class, which will have no effect on Received Opinion. Nonetheless: a tip of the cap to my friend Bill, who fights the good fight, not only with regard to this poem but in other matters connected to Received Opinion.

Oddly enough, I grew up "in a wood," near a place where two country roads diverged, so my reading of the poem was always colored by that fact. A provincial lad, I read the poem provincially (I think that's a tautology). I wrote a poem about that--my reading of the poem, not the tautology:

Two Roads Redux

Two roads diverged
in a wood. One had been named
Wild Plum Road and appeared
on U.S. Forest Service maps.
The other one was once called
the Old County Road, now just
the road, and did not appear on maps.

The unmapped road led to land
our father had built a house on when
to him the town of 200 seemed too
crowded—his words. We took the road
less traveled most of the time because
it led to and from our house.
We took Wild Plum Road
when we went fishing, or let hounds
go for a run, or cut firewood. We never

took it to go pick wild plums, which we

picked elsewhere: go figure. Who knows
what difference any of this has made?
I will say this: it was just like our father
to live on an unnamed, unimproved road.

When I first read Frost’s poem,
I figured the guy talking was local and took
both roads from time to time, and I wanted
to be told precisely where the roads led—
I mean, everybody in that town had to know.
That would have made all the difference
to me and ruined the poem for everyone else.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Poem: Psychic School

Here is another poem by Michelle Jones, a writer living in the Pacific Northwest:

Psychic School

by Michelle Jones

My mother is a psychic, or she wanted to be,
or maybe she just had this strange dream once.
In the barn, she burned her Ouiji board,
after she saw the ghost by the river.

My mother went to Colorado, and Virginia,
and after Nantucket, when she came back,
she raised a porcupine from the woods.
She predicted that porcupines have more lives than cats.

My mother also talks to her plants,
and her orchids are prettier than mine.
Love is memorizable, she says.

Once I saw my mother smashing dishes
in the garage. I thought it was a game
so I carried the broom like a champion,
and she laughed.

My mother tells me I’m going to marry a man
like my father.

She told me, he was better off dead once.

Later, she told me about the dogs in the kitchen,
with blood on the floor, quills on their tongues,
and my mother cried until the morning.

Copyright 2007 Michelle Jones

Among the many elements to like in this poem is the vivid ending. I have a similar memory from childhood, for my father always had three or four hunting-dogs, and they were almost never allowed in the house. But I do remember one hound having gotten into a scrape with a porcupine, and the dog had several quills in its mouth, so he was allowed inside for treatment. The quills are devilishly designed, amost like a fish-hook. We lived very far from the nearest veterinarian, so my father had to take the quills out himself. The best, perhaps only, way of getting some out was to pull them all the way through the skin, so of course there was a lot of blood, as in the ending of the poem. I also remember being astonished an how stoic the dog was.