All Things are Full of God: Robinson Jeffers, Environment Poet

I’ve long revered Robinson Jeffers’ poetry, ahead of its time in addressing humanity’s pillaging of nature and its consequence.

Formerly one of our most esteemed poets, even making the cover of Time Magazine (1932), Jeffers fell out of favor with the entrance of America into WW Il. Another outplay of human interests gone amuck, he wanted no part in it. It violated his concept of “inhumanism,” the subordinating of anthropocentric interests to nature’s primacy. By 1965, much of his work was out of print.

That is no shame. Other American poets, like Dickinson and Whitman, out of joint with their times, have suffered banishment to benign forgetfulness.

As he later explained in his 1948 preface to the Double-Axe and Other Poems, “Inhumanism is the devaluation of human-centered illusions, the turning outward from man to what is boundlessly greater. The attitude is neither misanthropic nor pessimistic, nor irreligious.”

I’m not unaware that his poetry has aroused controversy with its misanthropic tenor, long narrative poems replete with violence and latent pessimism about humanity’s future.

With the 2022 UN supported IPCC study just out, conducted by more than 500 scientists from 40 countries, and running 8,000 pages, documenting climate change acceleration and biodiversity loss, Jeffers deserves the reappraisal of his poetry now underway.

Jeffers’ antipathy towards humanity is expressed in his poem, “Original Sin”:

As for me, I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are; and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not to be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death: it is the only way to be cleansed

Much of his verse is rooted in Darwinian cataclysm. No Wordsworth, Jeffers wasn’t myopic about nature. He accepted its relentless tooth and claw interchange. Man, however, is the ultimate predator, which explains his hostility: “I’d sooner, except for the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” (“Hurt Hawks”).

Jeffers will not lament mankind’s ultimate passing:

I’m never sorry to think that here’s a planet
Will go on like this glen, perfectly whole and content, after mankind is
Scummed from the kettle.

Nature deserves reverence. In his poem, “Nova,” he writes,

…we know that the enormous invulnerable beauty of things
Is the face of God, to live gladly in its presence, and die without
grief or fear knowing it survives us”

In “The Answer,” he pens that

Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of
the universe. Love that, not man

Man has violated that wholeness. In “Animals,” one of my favorites, Jeffers movingly nuances man’s estrangement from his fellow creatures:

At dawn a knot of sea-lions lies off the shore In the slow swell between the rock and the cliff,
Sharp flippers lifted, or great-eyed heads, as they roll
in the sea, Bigger than draft-horses, and barking like dogs Their all-night song. It makes me wonder a little
That life near kin to human, intelligent, hot blooded, idle
and singing, can float at ease
In the ice-cold midwinter water.

Jeffers’ poetry isn’t always easy to understand. Immensely learned, he can be deeply philosophic, much of his verse influenced by his wide reading in Lucretius, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Spengler, Vico, myth and anthropology.

Gifted, Jeffers read classical Greek and Latin at age 5, and as a teen, was fluent in French, German and Italian. Along with his brother, he had been educated in private schools in Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, and Leipzig,

Recognized for his intellectual brilliance, he was admitted to Occidental College with junior standing, though only sixteen, graduating two years later. He went on to medical and forestry schools,dropping out to pursue his love for literature.

He settled with his beloved wife, Una, in Big Sur’s rugged landscape where the Santa Lucia mountains in Monterey County rise suddenly, adjacent to the Pacific ocean and not far from Carmel, a lush landscape of small farms and virgin redwood forest. I think of it as one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Jeffers described it as “the noblest thing I have ever seen.”

Big Sur

Relishing its beauty and isolation, he built his own house, now open to visitors, out of stone wrestled up with his own hands from the beach below, and called it Tor House. It includes Hawk Tower, where he wrote his poems each morning by a window offering mountain vistas. From it, absent of mist, visitors can glimpse many of the 2,000 cypress and eucalyptus trees he planted and hand-watered. The grounds include a well-maintained cottage garden.

Tor House merits visiting. The docent quality may vary, but here Jeffers is rekindled, few places so associated with a writer as Tor House. George Gershwin, Martha Graham, and Langston Hughes would be among those paying homage. It’s in the dining room, laid out like an English pub, that he slipped into eternity.

Jeffers settled in Big Sur in 1914. Nearby Carmel had only 350 inhabitants.

In his forward to Selected Poetry, he relished the afforded isolation, “purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will do for thousands of years to come.”

Jeffers inspired novelist Henry Miller to settle nearby, where he would remain until Jeffers’ death in 1962. Others, like Ken Kesey and Hunter Thompson, would follow. Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums has its partial setting in Big Sur.

Jeffers wasn’t a rabid romantic. He knew intrusion would prove inevitable, expressing his resentment in his acclaimed pastoral lyric, “Carmel Point.”

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Poet Robert Hass deems Jeffers “the first American poet to grasp the devastating extent of the changes human technologies and populations were wreaking on the rest of the earth’s biological life” (“Introduction,” Rock and HawkA Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers).

Renowned physicist Freeman Dyson exclaims in The New York Review of Books that “Robinson Jeffers was no scientist, but he expressed better than any other poet the scientist’s vision. Ironic, detached, contemptuous like Einstein of national pride and cultural taboos, he stood in awe of nature alone. He stood alone in uncompromising opposition to the follies of the Second World War. His poems during those years of patriotic frenzy were unpublishable….I discovered Jeffers thirty years later, when the sadness and the passion of the war had become a distant memory. Fortunately, his works are now in print and you can read them for yourselves” (May 25, 1995).

Can I ever forget his magisterial “De Rerum Virtute,” alluding to Lucretius “De rerum natura”?

All things are full of God
Winter and summer, day and
night, war and peace are God …

One light is left us, the beauty of things
The immense beauty of the world, not the human world

Jeffers’ reputation may have suffered time’s undulations—a change in taste, or political rebuttal, or rebellion against his insistent passion and human dislike, but for environmentalists, he remains its patron saint, and I know that I, for one, adore him.

rj

The Piece of God in All of Us: Mary Oliver and Franz Marc

Franz Marc: Blue Horses

I’ve always had this curiosity about art, but feel I’m an outsider. I simply lack the wherewithal needed to unlock its portals. On the several occasions I’ve visited art galleys, whether in LA, Santa Fe, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Madrid, I tried vainly to stare paintings down, hoping a mindfulness approach might unleash an avalanche of revelation. A good many of the contemporary paintings could be hung upside down and I wouldn’t know the difference.

Scroll back to summer, 1978, and a graduate course in Southern California. A classmate invites me to go with him to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a treasure trove of art, in fact, the largest in the U.S. west of the Mississippi.

An hour in, I grow bored, regretting my hasty acceptance, hoping my friend will share my mood.

Another hour idles by when he tells me he’s exhausted. He’s looked at three paintings. Really, just three! “There’s just too much to take-in,” he says. What does he see that I can’t? Fetch me my sunglasses and tin cup!

Over the years, I’ve tried to close the gap, taking students to Aix-en Provence and its Cézanne vestiges, picnicking on a sun drenched afternoon with Mont Sainte Victoire, beloved haunt of many of his paintings, looming in the background.

We visited Arles, where moody van Gogh and tempestuous Gauguin put up with each other in the Yellow House in 1888, now gone, and take-in the local museum housing many of van Gogh’s renowned paintings.

As a literature student in grad school, I was familiar with the art poems of Keats, Browning, Rossetti and Ruskin’s aesthetics. Among modernists poets, Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Art, for all its brevity, haunts me almost daily in its depiction from Breugal’s “The Fall of Icarus” (1560) of human indifference in a context of suffering.

In the early 1980s, I invested in a Time Magazine multi-volume edition of art books, each volume with its illustrated slip case cover. Replete with photos, biography, and salient details of art masterpieces, it was the closest you come to the paint by numbers art kits I delighted in as a child.

When we moved to New Mexico in 2018, I grieved to have to donate these exquisite volumes to the performing arts school library where my wife previously taught. The moving cost was already mind-boggling and we had to jettison items replete with memory, especially my many books.

Why am I telling you this? Simply because art still engages me. Today, I came upon a poem by beloved poet Mary Oliver, commemorating German artist Franz Marc’s “Blue Horses” (1911) painting. I had never heard of him.

Franz Marc was a dedicated painter who pursued his craft assiduously, living several years in Paris and studying the great masters. Post impressionist Vincent van Gogh influenced him greatly in his broad brush strokes and vivid colors. Marc’s paintings often feature animals, especially horses, in combination with landscape to achieve an organic whole.

He shunned their objectification, contending for their mystical import: “I never, for instance, have the urge to paint animals ‘the way I see them,’ but rather the way they are. The way they themselves look at the world and feel their being.”

Marc was a color symbolist, colors having individual nuance: “Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”

This helps elucidate his latent purpose in “Blue Horses” (1911). He told his wife it dealt with his foreboding of an imminent war, though this was three years before Sarajevo, leading to the Great War that would result in a combined twenty million military and civilian dead.

In the painting, horses symbolize freedom and vitality: blue is the color of calm and peace and the male principle at the spiritual level; yellow, the female principle, gentle and sensuous; red, the inharmonious and conflictive.

Marc adored animals, seeing them as harmonious with nature and representing the good in the world.

In contrast, mankind has adulterated that natural tranquility through deceit and corruption. Only by reconciling with nature and art can Man find restoration to his better self.

Marc was right in his premonition of war and was called up. He would die of a shrapnel head wound at Verdun in 1916. He was 36.

Oliver’s poetry, like Marc’s art, is nearly always centered in nature, so scarce wonder Marc’s painting would lead to her moving poem tribute:                                        

“FRANZ MARC’S BLUE HORSES”

I step into the painting of the four blue horses. I am not even surprised that I can do this. One of the horses walks toward me. His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm over his blue mane, not holding on, just commingling.
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.   I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses
what war is. They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.  Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.  Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.          
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me as if they have secrets to tell. I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what  could they possibly say?                                        

I may sometimes feel locked out when it comes to art, but as Oliver says so well, “Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” It explains why art engages me still.

–rj

 

Continue reading “The Piece of God in All of Us: Mary Oliver and Franz Marc”

Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”: A Reading

Dickinson House (Courtesy: Dickinson Museum)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

This poem, widely read, typically exhibits Dickinson’s syntactical subtleties, meriting close, repeated readings.

At its primary level, it counsels the circuitous in communicating with others in difficult circumstances: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” “Slant” connotes the angular, or indirect, anticipating the sun and lightning analogies in the lines that follow.

Just as we cannot view the sun directly, so it is with harsh realities that need filtering, given the “infirmity,” or sensitivity, of humans unable to absorb truth undiluted: “Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight.” Although the sun isn’t specifically mentioned, “bright” confirms its presence..

Likewise, to disclose the truth directly is analogous to the lightning’s surprise flash, frightening children, whose anxiety is only eased with softened explanation: “The Truth’s superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind.”

The poem’s final lines reiterate the poem’s opening counsel, while warning of the consequence of not doing so: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/
Or every man be blind.” That is, we may otherwise do greater harm.

Ethicists may argue with the seeming absolutism in the all of “Tell all the truth.” Surely we can think of circumstances that demand otherwise. A lot depends on the motives we bring to troublesome situations, whether centered in ourselves or on others. Dickinson unequivocally chooses the latter, with kindness the arbitrator.

Dickinson was hardly naive. As poet Camille Dungy observes, “We can’t truly know comfort unless we know its opposite. Writers who think carefully about how to render the world in a truthful and realistic way have to handle, bare-handed and, thus, ever so carefully, the double-edged sword of comfort versus discomfort” (poetryfoundation.org).

We would be wise to adopt a cultural approach as well. We’re not sure of when Dickinson wrote this poem, but most scholarship suggests between 1858 and 1865. In short, it may have been written in the context of America’s Civil War. The conflict was cataclysmic, with an ultimate casualty toll of 600,000. The majority of leading scholars think she internalized the struggle to reflect her psychological wrestlings.

This isn’t to say she wasn’t mindful of the war’s gruesome realities. We have, for example, her “It Feels Ashamed to be Alive” poem, which opens: “It feels a shame to be Alive—When Men so brave—are dead.” We also have her letters and journal. It’s conceivable Dickinson had in mind families and friends receiving grim news of their loved one’s demise. Amherst was a small, close-knit community.

But the poem can also be read in quite another way as Dickinson’s aesthetic of concealment, or how poetry should be written. Good poetry should show, not tell; hint, but not reveal, a credo consistently realized in her poetry. Sound poetry engages readers in discovery, fashioning a poem’s constituents into pattern, yielding coherence, or like pieces of a puzzle, fitting into place.

Through such methodology, poetry acquires universality, the reader becoming the text. This doesn’t mean readers can impose any meaning. On the contrary, astute readers map a poem’s clues and observe its boundaries. Like a good mystery, the clues are planted, awaiting their discovery.

With this in mind, it’s conceivable we can pursue the poem at a metaphysical level as well. What is this “truth” to be shared cautiously? Has it to do with the mystery of Deity’s doings; His ways beyond our “infirm Delight,” or capability to comprehend, necessitating Divine truth be a fragmentary unfolding?

In both Judaism and Christianity, the Shekinah, or divine immanence, is traditionally associated with light. Light dominates this brief poem: “too bright”; “lightning”; “dazzle.” Did Dickinson have in mind Exodus 33:20?: “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (KJV).

A devotee of the metaphysical poets, Dickinson may have read Henry Vaughan’s “There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness” (“The Night”). Did she have this in mind in her summation, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind”?

We know that Dickinson wrestled with traditional Christianity and a Deity allowing suffering and death. She did not attend church. In an earlier poem, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” she writes of a light “That oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes/Heavenly Hurt, it gives us.”

Less than a dozen poems of 1779 total were published in Dickinson’s lifetime. This poem was published in 1890, four years after her death. It remains one of her most popular poems.

–rj

A Reading of Jennifer Rahim’s Poem, “Wherever I go…”

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote “You can’t go home again.” On the flip side, we never leave. The latter defines the theme of Trinidad poet Jennifer Rahim’s “Wherever I go….”

I have a liking for poetry of surface simplicity, yet iceberg subtlety offering multiple nuance.

A good poem is when everything functions: structure, rhythm, diction, imagery, etc. In this sense, all worthy poetry is ecological, each element an integral contributor to the welfare of the whole.

Good poems suggest, lending them universality.

When done well, their texts rewrite themselves, speaking to us continually in varied ways beyond spatial and temporal boundaries.

In all these aspects, Rahim’s poem does not disappoint.

Wherever I go…

there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

We are to the very end
a naming not our own,
though we leave to find

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know,

like a small beach
has the ear of the great sea

and a trillion ebbs
are never without returns.

This flow is the staying,
though we depart.

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle

like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

I like the unusual way Rahim integrates the title, an adverbial clause, flowing like the poem’s ocean ambience, into the lines that follow, setting up the poem’s structural elements.

That this clause ends in ellipsis, is significant, suggesting still more to be said. Reflection lies at its core.

While not specified, this is a poem about leaving home and its consequences.
That Rahim is from Trinidad may lead readers to impose boundaries on its meaning, i.e., the diaspora. Yes, emigration has been a norm for Trinidadians, 400,000 of them living in the USA; another 80,000 in Canada and 23,000 in the UK. Trinidad’s most renowned writer, the late V.S. Naipaul, resided in the UK.

Two notable novels of our time depicting the immigrant mood superbly are Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and India’s Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad.

But the poem transcends restriction to migrants in its nuance.  A well made poem coalesces its formal elements into meaning.  It is its own text.

Read this way,  “Wherever I go…”  becomes universal, topophilia, or love of place, its theme.  As Alastair Bonnett comments in his Unruly Places, “Place is a protean and fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. We are a place-making and place-loving species.”

The poem’s structural elements are binary in their conception,
three introductory tercets, followed by couplets offering amplification through simile and metaphor. In both sections, sea referents prevail, unifying the poem.

Irony pervades the structural prelude: “we leave to find”

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know.

“Ring” in l. 3 suggests encirclement or entrapment. We cannot elude our origins that birthed our identity.

The amplifying examples defining this sense of dislocation are embedded in specific sea imagery in the subsequent couplets, suggesting the tidal flow of remembrance: “This flow is the staying,/though we depart.”

The small beach and echoing of sea landscape hint at constancy and safety.

Then comes the poem’s magnificent concluding oyster analogy defining the enduring strength of remembrance:

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle
like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

Intriguingly, ellipsis concludes the poem, mirroring the ellipsis of the opening and its thematic, “Wherever I go…”

A unified poem in all its informants, we now understand more fully the persona’s opening musing:

Wherever I go…
there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

Archetype abounds.  Islands often represent sanctuary; the sea, the timeless and maternal. Rahim’s poem is from her new poetry collection, Sanctuaries of Invention.

The oyster has a maternal aspect, pregnant as it were with a grain (seed) becoming a pearl.

The pearl referent, however, is double-edged. In mythology, looking back imperils. Memory can embellish, recalling Proust’s sober observation, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

And yet as Homer underscores in his epic saga of the archetypal migrant, each of us requires his Ithaca.

–rj

Of Paradise Lost: W. S. Merwin’s “After the Dragonflies”


“After the Dragonflies” by W. S. Merwin

Dragonflies were as common as sunlight
hovering in their own days
backward forward and sideways
as though they were memory
now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing
the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way
when we appeared in their eyes
we were strangers
they took their light with them when they went
there will be no one to remember us

When I lived in Kentucky and kept up a flower garden, I’d hear every now and then a whizzing sound above my head, look up, and see a dragonfly moving swiftly to snag its mid-air prey between its long legs. I never thought much about them as such. They were simply there.

I regret that now and am unlearning my indifference. Dragonflies, like many other insects, are disappearing, a reality Merwin hints at in this melancholic poem, treating mutability and, with it, loss; a nature tapestry vanishing before our very eyes.

The journal Biological Conservation informs us that 40% of insect species, and that’s in the millions, are in serious decline. “If we don’t stop it, entire ecosystems will collapse due to starvation,” says University of Sydney researcher Francisco Sánchez-Bayo.  Our fate will be to perish with them.

Lamentably, dragonflies, these bejeweled aerial acrobats, are among those insects suffering decline. Fundamental inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems, their loss would have immeasurable consequence.  Along with climate change, habitat encroachment and degradation have contributed to their falling numbers.

Folklore has it that dragonflies are emissaries of good fortune. And so it seemed for some 300 million years. Members of the phylum Arthropoda, they comprise some 5,000 species in varied sizes and hues.

Merwin’s poem, abjuring punctuation to simulate conversational flow, employs a temporal schema of past, present, and future to depict the incipient fate of dragonflies and, by implication, of other fated creatures, once of prodigious number, now facing not only decline, but future extinction. Contrast looms large in the poem’s time’s sequences.

The poem opens with the persona’s conjecturing past aeons before Man, when dragonflies “were as common as sunlight,”the double use of “were” in the opening lines contrasting their present decline. The simile associating their once prodigious numbers to the sun’s plentitude dazzles in its originality.

Employing kinetic imagery, the persona visualizes a former halcyon indulgence of lingering dragonflies amid time’s seeming suspension: “hovering in their own days/backward forward and sideways.”

Or like the varied probings of memory: “as though they were memory.” And, I might add, like the poem in its past, present and future interweave.

The jarring “now” in its emphatic positioning at the beginning of the fourth line transitions readers fully into the present with its glaring contrast.

Despite the miraculous artistry wrought by evolutionary mechanisms over vast stretches of time, there exist “grown-ups” who, suffering a disconnect with nature and “hurrying” to other pursuits, have never seen a dragonfly

That “they do not know what they/ are not seeing,” harbors the poem’s concluding warning. Not only does the present suffer a nature deficit, but future generations may never know dragonflies existed.

Exiled in the present, humans lack cognizance of that primordial garden, if not Edenic paradise, of teeming dragonflies, diaphanous creatures born of water, instinctual, spontaneous, integral eco entities not knowing Man:

the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way

The alienation motif follows with Man’s trespass. In time’s vast unfolding, the dragonflies had not known us: “when we appeared in their eyes/we were strangers.”

Unable to live in a human world, it’s as though they took flight, with consequential, if not incalculable loss for mankind. This is our future and the penultimate line stuns: “they took their light with them when they went.”

Creatures of a once thriving abundance, the dragonflies are extinct! We have come full circle, the sun’s plentitude of the opening line gone dark.

On a scientific note, dragonflies are often depicted as translucent creatures associated with the sun. Merwin, a mindful observer of nature and diligent keeper of a garden, was aware of this: “the veins in a dragonfly’s wings/were made of light.”

Biologically, we know they possess a variety of opsin genes that encode light sensors  (science.com

The poem’s last line serves as warning: “there will be no one to remember us,” signifying our own ultimate demise, both as individuals and as species, as our survival cannot be severed from nature’s fate. 

It also returns us to the “After” of the title, perhaps initially problematic. Now we know its why. In the immediate of a world devoid of dragonflies, we will have suffered a grievous loss beyond boundary. Merwin’s gift lies in making us feel that loss.

If nature’s eclipse emerges as seemingly ineluctable in this eco-poem, its melancholy consequence lies with Man as its implied source.

Merwin wrote this poem in 2016 when in his late eighties, going  blind, and just three years before his death.  If you look at the poem’s dictional element closely, you’ll notice its many verbal seeing and light allusions, beginning with the sun simile of the poem’s opening. The poem’s imagery is consistently visual.

Dragonflies are often described in biology depictions as translucent, their heads virtually a gigantic eye.  

–rj

Morning Respite: W. S. Merlin’s “To Paula in Late Spring”



I’m tired of politics and, as I often do, when requiring exit, resort to poetry, finding sanctuary beneath its canopy.

This morning, I came upon this love poem by poet W. S. Merlin to his wife, Paula, and imbibed its garden calm.

Merlin, whose poetry is invested in nature, bought 19 acres of deforested land on Maui and with Paula restored its Hawaiian habitat.  He had described its ruined state as the work of “industrial imperialism.”  Lovingly preserved by the Merlin Conservancy, the home and garden are open to visitors.

Merlin was a prolific poet and translator, writing thirty-six volumes of verse as well as essays. Winner of two Pulitzers, the National Book Award, and poetry’s esteemed Bollingen, Merlin ranks among America’s most accomplished modern poets.

Merlin was a poet continually innovating.  Like Yeats, his technique varies, depending on when he wrote. This late poem  exemplifies his abandonment of punctuation, which he thought belonged to prose.  He wanted his poems to exhibit a conversational flow.

I admire the gentle ambience here, the unity of a quiet love honed by togetherness across the years and of shared values, a communion transcending time and mortality:

To Paula in Late Spring”

Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defenses against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment

Emily Brontë’s Faith Poem: “No Coward Soul is Mine”

I’ve always admired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a supreme literary achievement. In teaching it over the years, its structural complexity, thematic depth, and passionate intensity never failed to astound me. Putting it another way, Wuthering Heights has haunted me, much like Catherine’s ghost at Heathcliff’s window.

Years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the parsonage where she lived out her brief life in Hayworth, Yorkshire. (Her father was a clergyman with Methodist leanings.) A cramped, but lovingly preserved house, eerily next door to the church cemetery, you could easily surmise the Brontë children were temporarily out and be back shortly and we could settle down to robust conversation over a pot of tea.

While we remember Brontë for her novel, she also wrote poetry, 200 poems in fact. Sadly, her sister Charlotte, renowned for Jane Eyre, subsequently revised many of them, adding whole lines, rewording others, attempting to widen their public appeal. Scholars, trying to recover Emily’s probable texts, have found her cramped script difficult to decipher.

Of her poems, “No Coward Soul Is Mine” is well-known and my favorite. Brontë wrote it in the context of her fateful illness from tuberculosis. I’m so fond of this poem that I’ve been tempted to memorize it. I could almost think I was reading Emily Dickinson with its dismissal of religious orthodoxy and affinity for nature. That same fierce voice element of Wuthering Heights, perhaps a Wesleyan revivalism influence, you’ll find here, carried out by its heavy trochees as in the poem’s initial two lines or lines one and three of stanza five with their opening trochee feet.

You can be a non-believer and still appreciate the poem, for good poetry offers reading variance, or to borrow from medicine, “referral” nuance through well-crafted interweave of image, structure and diction. Our mortality spells change, not ending; a return to Nature’s genesis, or to what was, and is, and will always be.

No Coward Soul of Mine

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

The poem’s imagery, drawn from nature, supports the poem’s theme of Deity’s abiding presence. Composed of seven quatrains, reminiscent of Methodist hymnody, in alternating tetrameter/pentameter meter, rime occurs consistently throughout, lines one with three, and two with four, including the fourth stanza with its near rime, suggesting a purposive, or teleological, cosmos.

Brontë effectively softens “the world’s wind-troubled sphere” in line two of the initial stanza with alliteration, suggesting tranquility in context of storm.

Each sentence is declarative, resonating conviction. Unlike Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” there is absence of tension, no struggle with doubt in the persona’s resolute faith, “So surely anchored on/The steadfast rock of immortality” ( Stz. 4).

Emily’s God isn’t Dickinson’s transcendent, mysterious, removed deity or Blake’s “No bods’ daddy.” Refulgent in his creation, He lives in our hearts, canceling any fear we might otherwise have, given the “world’s storm-troubled sphere” (Stz. 2). A poem of faith, it finds its affirmation not through anthropomorphic rendering, but in a pantheistic vision of Deity’s universal immanence.

Stanzas 3 and 4 logically follow in their rejection of creedal orthodoxies that are but worthless speculations, promoting anxiety, not peace. The repeated use of “vain” proves double entendre, human speculations fruitless and conceited, or of no more significance than the “idlest foam” of an infinite ocean:

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

The stanzas that conclude the poem reiterate the persona’s vibrant faith in a deity who transcends the temporal, “Thy spirit animates eternal years,” and for all the volatile elements of impermanence, remains its arbiter, Who maternally “sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.”

Were the very cosmos to disappear, He would remain, for He is creation’s essence. The plural “universes” of the penultimate stanza intrigues. Did Emily believe in the modern concept of multiple universes? Whatever, God is infinite, boundless, present always:

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee.

How then can there be any cowering at death’s door? A deity synonymous with Nature, He is what has been, is now, and will be, the effulgence of it all:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Brontë dated her poems and wrote “No Coward Soul of Mine” on January 2, 1846. It would be her last poem (she passed two years later at age 30). At the time of the poem’s composition, she’d been completing Wuthering Heights. Emily Dickinson came upon this poem and loved it. She asked it be read at her funeral, her wish fulfilled by her friend and later editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, at the funeral’s conclusion.

As for Brontë, following several labored days, she slipped into eternity on December 19, 1848, unafraid, and deeply mourned by her sisters, Anne and Charlotte, and canine friend, Keeper. As with Keats, a young talent struck down early by the same illness, her posthumous fame has restored her to us, though not without conjecture of future talent lost.

As I said at the outset, the poem endures as a favorite of mine, one I’d take gladly to a desert isle, or read repeatedly when my last day summons. It accompanies me, too, when I engage Nature in the present, the sense of a hovering spirituality, that everything is linked, and means, and infinitely bigger and grander than ourselves.

–rj

Rupi Kaur: Pop Poetry Phenom

Just read New Republic’s glowing assessment of Canadian Instapoet Rupi Kaur, reflected in its swollen title, “Rupi Kaur is the Writer of the Decade.” (New Republic) Not even thirty, she’s published two poetry volumes, Milk and Honey (2015) and The Sun and Her Flowers (2017). Poet luminary of Instagram, she’s gathered 3.8 million followers. Milk and Honey, translated into 25 languages, has sold 1.4 million copies and made the NYT best seller list for 77 weeks. Her public readings are sold out. Exotic in appearance, along with a mesmerizing delivery, she just maybe has rescued poetry from slipping into oblivion in our STEM era.

But is it really poetry?

I think not.

That said, I always suspicion poetry, or a great many other things for that matter, that suddenly takes off. Popularity isn’t a criterion of excellence, given the brevity of social clamor.

I suspect three elements behind her popularity:

Accessibility:

Her “verse,” a term I prefer to use in gauging her work, is easy to understand, unlike so much of modern poetry that leaves readers stranded in a context void.

Brevity:

Social Media, that Internet darling, thrives on brevity. Say it quickly and get out. More than five lines, look out! Add a photo or two, you’re in. It’s Life magazine gone digital.

Relevance:

Give her credit. Her plaintive verse centers, like country music, in everyday happening—life’s tears, jerks and twists. It fingers loneliness, embraces assertion for the many lacking self-esteem, reaches past gender, creed and race. As a Punjabi Sikh immigrant, she speaks poignantly to the vulnerable and marginalized and that includes women. What’s more compelling than

if you were born with the weakness to fall you were born with the strength to rise (Milk and Honey).

or

how you love yourself is
how you teach others
to love you (Milk and Honey)

You’ve got sentiment, but it doesn’t make for poetry. It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Poetry centers in artifice—form, metaphor and even in a time of free verse, a latent rhythm. It probes deeply. Sensory, it shows, not tells, or like a good recipe, is the sum of all its ingredients that artists call “unity.”

Poetry exhibits pattern.

It has a grammar.

To paraphrase Frost, Kaur’s miniscule verse is like playing tennis with the nets down.

She’s been accused of plagiarism by Nayyirah Waheed, another popular Instapoet, who pointed out similarities in Kaur’s verse, only to have Kaur ignore her messages.

Whatever the story here, there’s a plethora of poets who write like Kaur in what’s taken-on a fast food likeness for success. Take Warsan Shire, for example, another exemplar of the new idiom and quite possibly the better artist in her sophistication.

Kaur’s supporters are quick to invoke the identity politics fallback in countering critics. She’s a feminist of color who dares to speak out in an artisan world dominated by white men. She’s also hugely popular, makes a lot of money, and circuits the world. Artist rivalry kindled by jealousy is legendary.

But that’s not where the argument lies. We must judge Kaur by her work, not our politics. I find it cliche, platitude riddled, and banal:

i do not like the kind of love
that is draining
i want someone who energizes me.

Putting it out front, her verse resembles scribblings in book margins, succinct, but little more. The labored craft which Dylan Thomas rendered so movingly in “In My Craft Or Sullen Art” is sorely lacking,

Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms.

The New Republic suggesting her verse heralds an artistic revival akin to the New Harlem Renaissance or Bloomsbury Group that includes Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster requires a considerable stretch.

Kaur writes verse fitted to the Instagram. It fits well on your cell phone. But it’s prose, cleverly packaged for commercial success in line breaks to suggest profundity, often accompanied by line-drawings to augment the effect. (Sorry, she’s no e. e. cummings.)

At best, it’s aphorism. At worst, it’s exploitive prose.

It’s not poetry.

–rj

William Carlos Williams’ “Willow Poem”: Defying Temporality

“Willow Poem”

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.

ANALYSIS

Here is a poem for our fall season by one of my favorite poets. For me, it speaks ultimately of that tenacious defiance in the context of mortality, “oblivious to winter, “ which should define the way we live our lives up to the very end.

Less robust in tone than Dylan Thomas’ more famous “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” it nonetheless succeeds in its implied imperative and proves no less skilled in its artifice. Intriguingly, the persona exhibits empathy for the willow—and why not?—for the tree is like ourselves, fated for that long sleep (note repeated “grow paler”), yet resilient.

Williams had a penchant for writing poems in vernacular language, unlike his fellow modernists such as Eliot and Stevens, rendering his poetry highly accessible by the public. A physician tending to progressive, if not socialist, beliefs, this simple language represented a linguistic practicum of his credo.

Having said this, I would contend Williams remains a sophisticated poet in his subtlety of technique, careful observation of the natural world, and ability to extract human relevance—all of this true of “The Willow Poem.”

Take, for example, its fourteen line construction, usually suggesting the traditional sonnet mode, except it doesn’t conform to the iambic pentameter meter, closed couplet, or sestet formulae. I take this as deliberately mirroring the poem’s theme of resistance, if not rebellion, a tree transcending autumnal demise, or at least holding out amid nature’s seasonal rhythms.

In abandoning typical sonnet protocol, Williams nevertheless manages to maintain unity, implementing language and even occasional meter in an otherwise free verse poem.

Notice the many dictional occurrences of of words ending in er: “over,” “river,” “paler” and “winter. “

Note the heavy spondee element in the poem’s frequent preference for monosyllabic diction: “The leaves cling and grow paler,/swing and grow paler” (ll. 6-7). Not least, there is the word repetition throughout.

Absent of human intrusion, the poem’s sole subject is the tree. And yet human application is suggested in its personification. An imagist poet proclaiming ‘no ideas but in things,” Williams is faithful to his creed. The tree remains a tree, yet emerging from the persona’s non-intrusive observations are potential analogies to the human quest to indulge and survive amid Nature’s ceaseless flow and inevitable sovereignty.

The willow’s river location hints at passage. A “swirling” river, it suggests Nature’s dynamism. The summer has gone. Fall, season of decline, suggests ending. Yet the tree appears impervious to Nature’s laws. Its leaves, “nor/bitten by the sun/turned orange and crimson, “ appear transcendent over temporality.

Continuing personification amplifies an ambience of resistance, its leaves “as loath to let go,” even as incipient change, and the mortality it confers, coalesce here in the increasing pallor of the leaves.

Archetypal elements, e.g., “summer,” “river,” winter,” nuancing generation, decline and death, further foreground the poem’s resonating Nature’s cyclic rhythms, without nullifying what Schopenhauer termed Wille zum Leben, or what I prefer to call “life force, “ or self-preservation instinct present in all Nature.

Simple, yet sublime, the poem validates William’s artistic acumen and esteemed standing among modern American poets.

— rjoly

An Upstart Poet I Like a Lot

I’ve had this love affair with poetry since my earliest days, relishing metaphors that translate life from prose to camera, the sheer musicality of it, the crossword deliberation it compels, the tension of its paradoxes capturing life’s myriad, inherent subtleties; above all, its ability to mine deep, probing shafts of sub-subterranean memory and feeling I had thought beyond retrieve.

It follows then that I’m always on the lookout for good poets to swell the hosts of poets like Larkin, Wilbur, Pinsky, Levine and others that provide me good company in the winters as well as summers of life.

Just the other day I made a new acquaintance in pursuing my just in-the-mailbox New Yorker and immediately I knew I’d found a friend I wanted to keep.

Maybe you know him already, Gary J. Whitehead, though for me he’s a new artist in town and one I predict will swim into renown among aficionados of good poetry.

Whitehead, a Princeton grad and Teacher of the Year recipient, teaches English and Creative Writing at Tenafly high School in New Jersey and has received numerous awards for his verse.

How lucky can high students get to share class-time with the likes of a gifted artist like Whitehead! He’s published three collections of his poetry thus far with a fourth, Strange What Rises, about to be published.

You’ll find his poetry absent of the metaphysical, yet never banal in its quotidian pursuits captured in poems such as “Making Love In the Kitchen” and “Lot’s Wife,” which are uncanny for infusing metaphor into the prosaic small deeds and events of ordinary life, granting new ways of viewing their ritual component in our lives. In this, he reminds me a lot of the late Richard Wilbur.

I especially like his passion, which is nice to come upon in an often circumscribed aesthetic aloofness among poets. I think passion frequently makes for good teaching as well. Perhaps it’s this passion that churns my emotions into butter whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, just maybe my favorite old-time poet who passed so terribly young and unrecognized.

Let me try this early Whitehead poem (2002) on you and see if it fits. I think you’ll see what I‘ve been saying:

First Year Teacher to His Students

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,

to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver

dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else's house
in a land you've never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret

things await. Be glad, or be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.

Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you'll never now forget of someone's lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,

where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas...and all your life it'll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.
"First Year Teacher to His Students" by Gary J. Whitehead, from Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps. © David Robert Brooks, 2008.

–rj

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