21 June 2009

Yeats in Your Face: Take Two

Anyone who knows Yeats knows "The Second Coming." Well, I hope so, at least. Yes, line three is alluded to in the title of Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, proving that awesomeness knows no cultural boundaries; yes, there are falcons in it; and the phrase "mere anarchy" is enough to make the blood pulse through my veins with renewed vigor (thank you, litotes); but more than all of this, "The Second Coming" stands the test of time because it's an astute observation of chaos in any time when hope seems irrelevant. The well intentioned actions most desired - namely, revolution in any manifestation - will not be one we can predict or even necessarily enjoy should it come. But when Yeats writes, it all melts away into the impotent bleetings of so many sheep without leaving one feeling empty. "The Second Coming" is dark, disarming, and rather self-indulgent in terms of hopelessness. But if art reflects life, it should be done without flinching, wouldn't you agree?

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

26 February 2009

Appletinis, anyone?

Quite possibly the most underrated American poet, Robert Frost's accessibility and deceptively simple themes tend to be overlooked by fancy pants academics. Mention him at a cocktail party and you're likely to be laughed out of the room for being provincial. Okay, I've never actually been to a cocktail party, but I'm guessing that's how it would go down. Anyway, "After Apple Picking" rocks my face off because of its veiled allusions to death, the conceit of The Fall (Original Sin) intertwined with the imagery of the season of fall, and that random woodchuck business at the end. One of my professors pointed out that the word "woodchuck" is an Ojibway or Cree word meaning "fisher." So, there you have it.

Besides, it's cheaper (and more artistically dramatic) to drink at home.

Robert Frost

"After Apple Picking"

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

16 October 2008

Three names are better than one

It's not enough that he was a physician. Or that he was cool enough to spend most of his life championing
the cause of American poetry as a contemporary of fancy-pants writers like T.S. Eliot. William Carlos
Williams also happened to write some of the most inspiring, imaginative poetry...in his spare time. That's
right: in between seeing patients, he would write. He would go home and write at the end of the day.
And if that's not enough, after suffering several debilitating strokes which affected the hand he used to write with,
he taught himself to write with his other hand. The most impressive thing I've done all week is eat a bunch of
bananas before they went bad...looks like I've got some catching up to do!

Do yourself a favor and pick up Imaginations. It is beautiful, fun to read, and will make you fall in love with poetry.


William Carlos Williams

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
of artists—
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ's sake not black—
nor white either — and not polished!
Let it be whethered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople, what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

No wreathes please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople—
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven's sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that's no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I'd not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him!—
the undertaker's understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
Go now
I think you are ready.

31 August 2008

Yeats in your Face

Liking Yeats is comparable to liking oxygen. It's just sort of taken for granted that if you're into poetry, you like Yeats. He's one of the greats, and I'm not just saying that because it rhymes...or because of his overtly sexy ascot bow-tie in the photo over there. Yeats melts my face off because in this poem, he laments the desire to love in the way of the old poets while admitting that, frankly, love is hard work. So is writing poetry, for that matter. And being a foxy lady. Of course, he says it much more beautifully than I do, so without further ado, I give you the best poem I've read all week...

William Butler Yeats

Adam's Curse

We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, "A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world."
And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There's many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, "To be born woman is to know --
Although they do not talk of it at school --
That we must labour to be beautiful."
I said, "It's certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough."

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

06 August 2008

road construction

we've all been there: that cycle of repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting the results to be different. then, one day it clicks and you realize that the only constant in the equation is you. besides, you've gotta love something written by a woman who looks like she could have done a cameo on the golden girls - those glasses and the lady-fro just scream "wisdom," don'tcha think? here's to moving on and following your bliss with reckless abandon.

There's a Hole in my Sidewalk

Portia Nelson

from An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost…
I am helpless.
It is not my fault.
It takes forever to find my way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in…It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.

20 July 2008

the truth about love

john donne is pretty much the most rockin' of the metaphysical poets, and his awesomeness is completely astounding. case in point: "the broken heart," a poem in which he shows modern readers that heartache is both timeless and excruciating. the theme of glass woven beautifully through the last two stanzas is the kind of thing that gets me so excited about writing that i emitted a deep sigh of bittersweet joy the first time i read this. here's hoping he has the same effect on you.

by John Donne

He is stark mad, whoever says,
That he hath been in love an hour,
Yet not that love so soon decays,
But that it can ten in less space devour ;
Who will believe me, if I swear
That I have had the plague a year?
Who would not laugh at me, if I should say
I saw a flash of powder burn a day?

Ah, what a trifle is a heart,
If once into love's hands it come !
All other griefs allow a part
To other griefs, and ask themselves but some ;
They come to us, but us love draws ;
He swallows us and never chaws ;
By him, as by chain'd shot, whole ranks do die ;
He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.

If 'twere not so, what did become
Of my heart when I first saw thee?
I brought a heart into the room,
But from the room I carried none with me.
If it had gone to thee, I know
Mine would have taught thine heart to show
More pity unto me ; but Love, alas !
At one first blow did shiver it as glass.

Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite ;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love, can love no more.

17 July 2008

Rilke Rawks

here's the thing about rilke: he wrote so much good stuff that
it's impossible to play favorites or to choose just one poem that speaks for his entire body of work.
nevertheless, "the swan" is pretty much the perfect poem to me. it involves what i consider to be the greatest of all literary
symbols: the swan (see also the mythology behind leda and the swan and tennyson's "tithonus"); evolution; and finally, imagery of water
which adds a smooth feeling of descent after the awkward pace of the first two short stanzas. this poem is a veritable
trifecta of literary loveliness. translated into iambic pentameter - don't ask me how translators do that - rilke proves that
the standard metre of the english language is a mere trifle to his brilliant pate. it's poetry like this that makes me feel
like life is worth living on even the darkest of days when people like nora roberts seem to pervade bestseller lists.

Rainer Maria Rilke

"The Swan"

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the akward walking of the swan.

And dying-to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day-
is like anxious letting himself fall

into waters, which receive him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draw back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell