Amy Lowell’s “A Fixed Idea”: An Exploration in Paradox

A Fixed Idea

What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant; and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.

Amy Lowell

I read the above poem by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) and wanted to share my thinking about it with you.

Lowell wrote some 650 poems, though uneven in quality. She is largely known to us as an early modernist and for “imagism” in particular, inspired by Hilda Doolittle (HD) and Ezra Pound. “A Fixed Idea” appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1910.

I like the poem and think you will too. We’ve all been there. We’ve had a crush on someone in earlier days or found a rare happiness in the coalescence of experience that we look back upon with nostalgia.

This poem, however, centers in paradox. When we can’t let go, reminiscence can give way to pain and even remorse as equally traumatic as remembered suffering.

All of this is very Keatsian, Keats along with Wordsworth an exponent of nostalgic remembrance. No surprise then that in her final years she wrote a definitive biography of Keats.

Many readers infer that “A Fixed Idea” deals with a past romantic love, though the poem can imply more than that as “you” grammatically applies to its antecedent, the fixed idea of the poem (l.1, single thought”), and title. In turn, this lends the poem a universality that augments its appeal.

What isn’t ambiguous is the poem’s pervasive theme of obsessiveness that embellishes the past with a burdensome present. To have known past joy no longer palpable is time’s inexorable consequence. We transcend by letting go:

The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined.

Nostalgia is always a constant of the human psyche, abounding in the archetypal admonition to avoid the fate of those who perished in their folly of a backward glance.

Fundamental to human identity is our ability to reckon our losses, extricate ourselves from the past, and live in the present, asserting ourselves in the cauldron of life’s new challenges that serve to enlarge rather than diminish ourselves. Identity finds itself in “quest” (l. 13), not stasis.

Our poem, written in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, exhibiting two rhetorical sections, octave and sestet, one general, the other amplifying, is an Italian sonnet. In the former, we have recall of past happiness “once kind” (l. 1) and “welcome still” (l. 2).

The sestet, however, transitions into antithesis with its extended metaphor, or image, of the persona’s fixation as a nesting bird that weighs upon her heart, impeding her life:

…you cannot know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.

Like all good poetry, “A Fixed Idea” is more than what it seems. In short, it’s precisely our clinging that lies at the crux of human unhappiness, our attempting to possess what, given life’s Protean flux, was never ours to own.

–rj

Love for All Seasons

 

I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crime.” Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017)

China isn’t usually a quotidian staple of the Westerner’s mindset. Let’s face it: our culture operates in Eurocentric mode, which may ultimately hint of a latent bias unrecognized in ourselves, a sense of smugness that they’ve little to offer us, save maybe for bargain-priced goods at your local box store.

Sadly, the death of leading dissident, Liu Xiaobo, on July 13 of this year from liver cancer was inevitably passed over by most Westerners and the media, which is a pity, for he graced our earth with a loving compassion, championing basic values promoting human dignity and the sanctity of individual lives.

A writer, poet and literary critic, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010. Unfortunately, his chair at the reward ceremony in Oslo would be empty. A year before, he had just begun serving an 11-year sentence for sedition against the People’s Republic of China. An outspoken critic of the Communist government, he campaigned for freedom of speech, free elections, and basic human rights.

If you google his name, you’ll find numerous links to salient quotations that speak to the decency of this man, who lived life courageously, and at ultimate cost, for his outspoken criticism of Beijing’s ubiquitous hegemony.

Among his quotations, I like this one best for its vibrant reiteration of one of humanity’s most requisite needs and fundamental rights:

Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.

We live in a time of understandable exasperation with a new Washington regime, with many calling for shutting down views they find untenable, if not despicable. We find truth, promote dignity, and enhance human freedom, however, when we allow discussion in the market place of free exchange.

I don’t want to be under the aegis of thought police, whether Right or Left, and I don’t think you do either. I’m suspicious of all peripheries.

Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, is also a remarkable denizen in the portals of courage. Gifted poet and photographer, she married Liu in 1996 at the time of his incarceration in a reeducation labor camp for having urged peaceful diplomacy toward Taiwan.

Inveterate in her love and loyalty for her husband, she paid him a prison visit shortly after the Nobel Prize. Subsequently placed under house arrest, the government denied her access to cell phone and Internet use, while permitting only a handful of approved visitors.

Presently, we don’t know her whereabouts, although the government says that she’s free.

Two poems presented here pulsate with the salient love they shared as husband and wife and are especially moving in that they were written in contexts of extreme duress.

The first is “Morning,” which Liu penned before 2000 and dedicated to his wife; the second, “Road to Darkness,” Lia wrote shortly before her husband’s death. Both poems have been translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and appear in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (September 28, 2017).

The poignant irony is that these two stalwarts of freedom are unknown in China, all mention of them having been scrubbed from social media.

                 Morning
–For Zia

Between the gray walls
and a burst of chopping sounds,
morning comes, bundled and sliced,
and vanishes with the paralyzed souls
of the chopped vegetables.

Light and darkness pass through my pupils.
How do I know the difference? 
Sitting in the rust, I can’t tell 
if it’s the shine on the shackles in the jail
or the natural light of Nature
from outside the walls.
Daylight betrays everything, the splendid sun
stunned.

Morning stretches and stretches in vain.
You are far away__
But not to far to collect the love
of my night.

            Road to Darkness
For Xiaobo

Sooner or later you will leave me, one day
and take the road to darkness
alone.

I pray for the moment to reappear
so I can see it better,
as if from memory.
I wish that I, astonished, could glow, my body
in full bloom of light for you.

But I can’t make it except
clenching my fists, not letting
the strength,
not even a little bit of it, slip
through my fingers.

Reflections on the 2017 Philip Larkin Exhibition at Hull

The Guardian (July 4, 2017) features a review of a favorite poet of mine, Philip Larkin, in connection with a current exhibit of Larkin artifacts at Hull’s Brynmore Jones Library, where he was a librarian for many years.

It notes his tortured sexual life, indulgence in pornography, racist asides, and complex relationships the writer terms “despicable” with several women, whom he allegedly treated unfairly, particularly Monica Jones, his lifelong lover and collaborator.

The show includes a small Hitler bust given him by his father, a Nazi sympathizer, who had once taken his son to a Nuremberg rally.

Beyond announcing the exhibit, about which there’s very little, not even its running dates, columnist Hannah Ellis Petersen tells us Larkin was obsessed with his appearance, weighing himself twice daily on two different scales, fastidious about his clothes, etc.

A good portion of the article paraphrases or quotes the exhibit’s curator Anna Farthing, who ironically seems apologetic for the exhibition, perhaps thrown on the defensive by a rehearsed biased protocol: “The challenge is alway to not judge, and present the story in a way with lots of perspectives and hooks so people can make their own minds up. I’ve had lots of different reactions to him as I’ve started to get to know him, from complete respect to being appalled.”

I find the article, spirited perhaps by feminist indulgence, a blatant dismissal of Larkin’s perfected artistry as a poet. Larkin may well be Britain’s best poet since Auden. Unfortunately, literary criticism has taken on a contemporary intrusion of sexual politics.  I side with Terry Eagleton in his contention  that we appear “less interested in ideas than in the sexual habits of those who had them.”

Her take isn’t anything new. As Stephen Walsh recalls (The Guardian, May 30, 2017), during “the 2015 premiere of a BBC documentary about the poet, a female audience member disrupted the generally cosy atmosphere by asking why Hull people should be so proud of Larkin. He was a misogynist and racist, she said, and he didn’t do anything for the image of the city.”

Aside from this, what concerns me more are those who would shun an artist on the basis of alleged moral incongruities or ideology. Ellis-Petersen dubs the exhibit “a morally complex minefield.”

Do we stop reading Voltaire or Gide because they were anti-Semitic; or more famously, D. H. Lawrence, who exhibits a considerable misogynist vein in his work? And what about Hemingway caught up in his male chauvinism? Or the writer I know best, James Joyce with his notorious kinkiness that once got Ulysses banned? Is there a new Index in town?  A moral or political registry to which artists must do obeisance?

My interest in Larkin, or any artist for that matter, isn’t foregrounded in his life. Artists, after all, are human beings, each with their flotsam of inertia or indulgence and dark secrets shaped by the interweave of parental, cultural, economic and social phenomena often imprinting them psychologically, as any reading of Freud’s seminal Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) should remind us.

Truth is, though a brilliant student at Oxford, Larkin was nonetheless self-deprecating. As a youth, he stuttered and all his life suffered from bad vision. He sought validation from women, but even that couldn’t suffice for low self-esteem.

He shied from interviews and readings. The current exhibit, virtually underwear and all, would undoubtedly have violated his sensibility and his privacy, as much, maybe more, than his inclusion in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey

Flashback to my student days in a modern poetry course at Exeter College, Oxford, summer of 1979:

I know nothing of Larkin. My tutor, one of the best ever, steeped in bibliography and intertextual nuance, introduces us to the idiomatic, conversational cadence of poems like “Church Going,” “Toads,” and “Whitsun Weddings”.

He knows Larkin personally and has invited him to our class for a reading, but Larkin cancels at the last moment, pleading illness. It’s a let down.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter, for Larkin would become a poetic staple in my life.

Larkin bravely translated the anxieties of modern life into verse. A leading candidate for Poet Laureate in 1984, the withdrawn Larkin wasn’t interested. He died the following year.

Larkin had become librarian at the University of Hull in 1955, beginning a thirty year association. He’s still remembered for his modernization and expansion of its facilities, though this gets omitted in the article.

Biographer Alan Brownjohn notes that Larkin quietly achieved “the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years.”

George Dekker, in Agenda, comments that no living poet “can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England.”

Even curator Farthing finally gets it right in exclaiming “to have achieved work that is so human and engaging and continually relevant, it seems that he did it despite his demons, not because of them.”

And, of course, this is what matters.

–rj

 

America’s Unofficial Poet Laureate: Mary Oliver

Judging by her phenomenal sales, Mary Oliver surely rates as America’s unofficial poet laureate, and yet the anomaly that she’s never held the office since its inception in 1937.

I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of her, despite teaching modern poetry for some thirty-five years, probably because the Modernists held sway when I was in graduate school and during much of my tenure.

Likewise, she’s excluded from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, a principal text in modern poetry courses, despite having won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

In her favor, however, is a sympathetic overview of her work by the Poetry Foundation, which I recommend as a starting place for those new to her poetry.

I came to her poetry late and in the oddest way through an online course in meditation called “Demystifying Mindfulness, ” where one of her poems, Mindful,” was included for its affinity with mindfulness practice, often associated with Buddhism:

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

I’ve now read a lot of her poetry, with many more to go–she’s written 26 books of verse–with every poem a kingdom of delight.

I think she’s given poetry back to us with her craft wielded in directness and simplicity, yet latent in nuance. And then there’s that redolent pathos, or intensity, of a voice resolute with conviction hammered out on the anvil of experience, not always kind.

Over a lifetime, I’ve preferred a poetry complicit in ambiguity, or tension; poetry resounding in the inequities of existence and the paradoxical.

Oliver wins me over, nonetheless, because like the Romantics before her, her verse glistens with acute awareness of life’s brevity and the imperative of living each day as Wordsworth might say in “wise passivity,” mindful of the sensory aspects within ourselves that connect us with all sentient beings in the bubble of transience.

Best of all, I’ve found that in those nights that I cannot sleep, in turning to her poetry I find solace and with it, sleep.

I’m not surprised there are Buddhist affinities in poems such as “Mindful.”
Buddhism isn’t really about reincarnation; its about being alive to the nowness of the moment, whether good or bad, in a cosmos of impermanence where even the stars ultimately suffer mortality.

Buddhism, however, can’t claim her, for her poetry embraces a spirituality that transcends religion with its orthodoxies, reverencing the sanctity of all things, like her great master, Walt Whitman, in its celebration of the holiness of the profane.

Of her many poems, I think “When Death Comes,” surely a thematic key to her poetry, is my favorite. Accordingly, I find myself hungry to lock its wisdom into the privilege of each morning’s waking:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–rj

On First Looking Into Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. –Edna St. Vincent Millay

 


I recently finished Nancy Milford’s biography of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay [2001]). While it has some limitations, it remains a seminal treatment of a poet who once enjoyed immense popularity, went out of fashion, but currently is enjoying a revival.

While the book’s scope is large, relying chiefly on letters, diaries, journals and interviews, important details are sometimes omitted and the organization of her massive material could be better integrated.

Unfortunately, Milford proceeds chronologically, transitioning in step-stone fashion from one source to another, interspersed with brief commentary. Instead of critical acumen, she offers readers laudatory generalizations, rendered in ejaculatory phrases.

Millay enjoyed a stunning popularity for a poet and playwright in the 1920s and 30s, her poetry collections selling in the thousands and providing a comfortable income. She was awarded a Pulitzer for her poetry in 1923.

She also barnstormed America several times. Appearing before sold-out audiences, she mesmerized them with her spectacular delivery, though outwardly it came unexpected, since there was always this latent fragility about her.  At just 5”1” and scarcely weighing a 100 pounds, she gave off the aura of a child, doll-like in silk gown.

Audiences were most certainly lured by her unconventional lifestyle. Rumored to be sexually promiscuous, Millay was bisexual and in an open marriage. She was also outspoken, a social activist, chain smoker and heavy drinker.  Not since Byron, with whom Millay was often compared, had a poet so widely captured the public’s imagination and curiosity. The poet of the Jazz Age had, in our contemporary idiom, taken on the likeness of a rock star.

Milford rightly dubs her the exemplum of the New Woman, which helps explain Milford’s motivation to undertake Millay’s biography, a poet who sadly lived to see her poetry eclipsed by the rise of the Modernist Poets (e.g., Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams and Auden).

Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy famously commented that there were only two great things in the United States, its skyscrapers and the poetry of Millay.

Millay had good luck on her side in her early years. Coming from an impoverished, dysfunctional family in Maine, she had submitted a poem called “Renascence” in a contest sponsored by Lyric Year. The poem would launch a career.

Wealthy arts patron Caroline B. Dow, who heard Millay recite the poem and play the piano, offered to financed her at Vassar College, which provided the milieu that ultimately fashioned Millay into a highly cultured woman.

Millay was forthright when asked why she thought her poetry was so popular:

I think people like my poetry because it’s mostly about things that anybody has experienced. Most of it is fairly simple for a person to understand. If you write about people who are in love, and about death, and nature, and the sea, thousands…understand…my poetry because it’s about emotions, about experience common to everybody.  Then, too, my images are homely, right out of the earth.

Today, Millay has largely been relegated to a footnote in literary history. I still have my copy of Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry. After a brief introduction, it features only two Millay poems, among them, her most famous quatrain that foreshadows the transience theme pervading her poetry:

My candle burns at both ends,
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.

Years ago, can’t remember where or when, I had read a critical review that dismissed Millay’s significance. Sadly, it had prejudiced me until I took an online course from Stanford in 2015, called Ten Pre-Modern Poems by Women, which included Millay.

Forced to wrestle with “Recuerdo”, outwardly a seemingly simple poem, I discovered a subtlety between the lines, alerting me that maybe this was a poet I needed to know better, and Milford has convinced me even more.

As for the Norton Anthology’s superficial inclusion of Millay, you can argue it’s merely anachronistic, not substantive, a bastion of male hegemony needing to be challenged and on good grounds.

But then Millay didn’t allow herself to be the tool of any polemic, including feminism:

A woman poet is not at all different from a man poet. She should write from the same kind of life, from the same kind of experience, and should be judged by the same standards. If she is unable to do this, then she should stop writing. A poet is a poet. The critics should estimate her work as such.

All of which makes me think of Derek Walcott, who died just hours ago.  He didn’t want to be thought of as a black poet, but as a Caribbean poet.

What would she say to a course like Stanford’s that excluded male poets, making for a segregated artistry?

Or to academic conferences for women writers only?

It’s the sort of thing the male dominated academy used to do in their condescension:

We are supposed to have won all the battles for our rights to be individuals, but in the arts women are still put in a class by themselves, and I resent it, as I have always rebelled against discriminations or limitations of a woman’s experience on account of her sex.

Millay’s candor, her directness, the ease with which her words flow in her letters and journals I greatly admire. She filled a room with her presence, made you feel important with her focus, proved prodigious in her love and compassion for family and the unfortunate.

As a former Vassar classmate expressed it, “She was a girl who wanted to be beautiful and well-liked and powerful in her class. And she set out to be just that.”

The sad truth of transcience, or impermanence, her poignant theme, remains:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough. (“Spring”)

In all things, aesthetic conventions ultimately dissolve before new facets of engendering. Millay’s poetry straddles two worlds, that of the Victorian with its Romanticism, diction and metrics; and the modern with its strident subversion of conventional sensibilities and aesthetic maxims.

In reflecting upon her work, I think of  Second April (1921) as among her best work with its free verse and passionate sonnets. I would point readers to her “Spring” and “Ode to Silence” poems in particular.

For specifically feminist poetry, I’d recommend sonnets 8 and 18 in The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1922). Reviewing The Harp Weaver, influential and accomplished poet Harriet Moore wrote, “How neatly she upsets the carefully built walls of convention which men have set up around their Ideal Women. {She is} perhaps the greatest woman poet since Sappho.”

Milford’s biography abruptly ends with Millay’s seemingly accidental death on October 28, 1958, at Steepletop, her beloved rural farm in Austerlitz, NY, nestled in the Berkshire foothills. In actuality, she had suffered a heart attack, precipitating her falling down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck.  She was 58. She is buried there and a guided trail, open year round, takes you to her grave.

There is more:

Milford owes an immense debt to Millay’s sister, Norma Millay Ellis, who inherited Steepletop and turned over her large collection of salient materials for Milford’s pursuit, making her biography possible. Norma had selected her to do the biography based on her success with Zelda, a best selling biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.

Milford doesn’t mention it, but the well-regarded poet Mary Oliver had visited Steepletop and developed a close relationship with Norma, living with her at Steepletop for seven years, and was instrumental in organizing the Millay manuscripts.

Milford subsequently edited and wrote an introduction for a collection of Millay’s poetry, The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2002).

Norma died in 1986, but Steepletop remains, lovingly preserved, both house and the gardens her sister delighted in, which you may tour through an appointment (May-October).

In the dining room, Millay’s china remains set out as though at any moment, our poet will make her appearance, silently, unexpectedly, as was often her way in life.

—rj

Sarah Teasdale: “There Will Come Soft Rains”

sara-teasdaleAm in a poetry mood again, which just shows you how subversive reading a poet’s biography can be (Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay).

In doing so, I came across Sara Teasdale, a once in-vogue poet and first recipient of a Pulitzer for poetry (1922).

Teasdale wrote verse that’s direct and without complication or artifice, elements contemporary critics eschew. She didn’t make the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed., one of the best repositories of verse in English out there.

I had come across her poetry before as a prof of modern poetry, but never found leisure to take her in.

I admire a number of her poems for their ability to resonate those salient emotions in all of us when it comes to nature, love and loss and, of course, mortality without engaging in self-pity or straying into sentimentality.

With their redolent attention to metrics, much of her poetry has transitioned into contemporary music; for example, the Scarecrow band rendition of eleven poems from Flame and Shadow.

And then there’s that enticing title of one of her poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” that I find among the most remarkably beautiful of all poetry titles. We principally know it today as Ray Bradbury’s title for one of his most celebrated stories, inspired by her poem.

Written shortly after the Great War, it features a world of nature absent of Man, who has annihilated himself. Lines 10-12 prove remarkably prescient in their intuitive application to our contemporary world with its apocalyptic tenor, replete with proliferation of nuclear arsenals; and yet Teasdale composed the poem in 1920.

Teasdale may not be one of our most renowned poets, but she wrote a haunting poetry of careful craftsmanship, rooted in the pathos of the human condition. She deserves a re-reading:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

–rj

Solace for the Hard Places: Jeffers, “Shine, Perishing Republic”

Big Sur Jeffers' residence
BIG SUR

I suppose every generation thinks it’s in crisis and, you know, they’re probably right, given the volatility of history; our time, no less so, as we make the transition to a new Washington regime that appears menacing to many of us seeking an America that fulfills its promise to promote the welfare of all its citizenry and not the interests of the privileged few, often White, endowed by wealth and power.

It’s in times like ours that I’m thankful for the healing repository of good poetry in its beauty, counsel and solace.

As I write, Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) sweeps into my mind as a poet with uncanny prescience of America’s soul-ache in his own time, expressed in maybe his finest poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic.” What follows is his relatively short poem, with my own commentary on each stanza, and a final summation:

The Poem:

1.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens.

2.

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and deca-
dence; and home to the mother.

3.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stub-
bornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.

4.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thick-
ening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.

5.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught–they say–
God, when he walked on earth.

Commentary

Stanza 1.
In the initial stanza, the persona decries what he sees as burgeoning American imperialism taking its place among the nations. (Robinson lamented what he perceived as a growing “Caesarism.”). Note his “This America,” signaling out contemporary America in contrast perhaps to past America with its espousal of Jeffersonian democracy, harbinging Jeffer’s notion of genesis, maturation and decay in the subsequent stanza.

A striking image also occurs here of lava hardening to depict the insensitivy of a nation, other than for an inconsequential few who protest—“only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out.”

Stanza 2:
What follows is Jeffers’ use of the cyclic, a favorite motif, reflecting his wide reading in Voto, Spengler and Nietzsche. That nature poses not only genesis, but decline suggests consolation. In the scheme of things, humanity must inexorably yield to Nature’s conquest. So much for its arrogance or self-importance. Here, the line rhythms of the stanza’s conclusion reinforce the persona’s notion of the cyclic.

Stanza 3:
A startling, accusatory address begins the stanza: “You making haste on decay.” You perhaps refers to the individual as well as the nation. We who are mortal or perishing committing the folly of investing in the ephemeral (i. e., making haste on decay) should be accepting of our mortality, whether of Self or Nation. Dissolution or demise is Nature’s law.

Whether life is long or short, life is to be affirmed: “meteors (short-lived) are not needed less than mountains (longevity). Everything has its place in Nature’s scheme of things. The imperative then is to live life passionately: “Shine,perishing republic. ”Shine” perhaps also connotes life lived nobly, or honorably. Or like the last shine, as of a fire’s glow just before it goes out. Cf. Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into that good night.”

Note the speaker’s insistence that “life is good”; that is, when lived rightly, despite its governance by mortality.

Stanza 4:
Employing archetype, Jeffers emphasizes that we needn’t capitulate to the nation’s malaise centered in its cities as opposed to the sanctuary of the mountains offering transcendence. In essence, plurality often imposes its own tyranny.

Stanza 5:
The speaker would have his children live cautiously in a time such as this, i.e, with tempered idealism in regard to collective humanity with its intrinsic capacity for chicanery and despotism (“a clever servant, insufferable master”) avoiding the fate of other idealists like Jesus:

Summary: History proceeds in repetitive cycles, implying we learn little from it in ameliorating the human condition in its enamorizing power with its resulting despotism. Live apart with integrity and passion in the solace of Nature. As Jeffers memorably expressed it in his poem, “The Beauty of Things, “To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things/…to feel /Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural/Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.”

In essence, Jeffers gives counsel on how to live in the context of what Buddhists might equate with Dhaka, or disillusion. Given our post-election malaise, I find it’s advice worth heeding.

–rj

A favorite poem: William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All”

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast–a cold wind.  Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen.

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leaflets vines–

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches–

They enter the new world naked
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.  All about them
the cold, familiar wind–

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curls of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined–
It quickens:  clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance–Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

I’ve always liked the poetry of William Carlos Williams.  I like how he doesn’t put on airs, uses everyday vernacular, is strident for justice and filled with compassion.

Is he a romantic.  I can’t answer that.   Wallace Stevens said he was.  Williams, however, said no.

I do know that I cherish his imagistic prowess and his maxim, “No ideas, but in things.”  Accordingly, his poems sparkle with the presence of everyday objects like even a red wheelbarrow unlikely to attract our attention.

Reticent in symbolism, his poems nonetheless are latent with nuance and ultimately translate the local into the universal.

I haven’t  done a post on poetry in recent days, but it’s springtime now, bringing with it thoughts of one of my favorite Williams’ poems:  “Spring and All.”

It belongs to a genre  tracing back to the 13th century called “Reverie,” or poetry  celebrating spring.

I think of spring as the moodiest season of the year, sometimes stormy; other times, gentle.  Often it takes its time to make an appearance, stubborn, cross, and perverse.  Were it a psychological client, one might suspect borderline personality disorder.

Williams takes all of this in quite well when he likens a landscape adjacent to a road that leads to a “contagious hospital” (a facility for diseases  like tuberculosis) as analogous to the hospital, or replete with putrefaction and contagion, hinting at malady and death:  trees and bushes splotchy with red and purplish hue.

It’s Williams’ ingenuity, however, to undermine our usual negative take on “contagion” into just its opposite:  if there is contagion, then it’s not that of mortality, despite the ” dead, brown leaves under them/leaflets vines–”

In short, the small buds of reddish hue tell of spring’s incipient quickening of landscape as it makes its “sluggish,” “dazed” approach.

In essence,  William draws on the archetype of rebirth and restoration.  Spring emerges, inexorably, reversing winter’s tenacious sovereignty of the poem’s initial three stanzas.

They enter (i.e., the red buds) the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.   All around them
the cold familiar wind–

Now the grass, tomorrow,
the stiff curls of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined–
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf.

Williams’ poem isn’t simply a listing poem of quick observations.   If you look carefully, you’ll find it’s carefully structured as dialectic, or into an antithesis of life and death, with the former achieving the new synthesis.

Dialectic informs the very imagery in its couplings of stillness vs. motion and of sky with earth in the initial stanza.

Appearance with its mortality nuances gets routed by spring’s  slow, dazed, but inevitable entrance.

…now the stark dignity of
entrance–Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

Addressing the human context, which Williams never neglects in any of this poems, the poem mirrors the continuity of life and hints of human resolve in spite of the ambience of mortality as a universal tenet.

I read somewhere, I think in the New York Times, that many critics regard “Spring and All” as one the last century’s greatest poems. You’ll get no argument from me.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Visiting Bloedel Reserve

If you have a garden and a library you have everthing you need.–Cicero

I’ve been doing a lot of walking in the Seattle area these past several days, while visiting my daughter and family. As a gardener back home in Kentucky, it’s nice to see what cool temperatures and ample moisture can do for making verdant landscapes and, maybe more to the point, motivating green thumbs to spend time outside, free of humidity, high temperatures and, of course, mosquitoes.

Case in point was yesterday’s day long excursion to Bainbridge Island via one of Seattle’s ubiquitous ferries that add to the area’s delights. There we took in the 150 acre Bloedel Reserve with its rich tapestry of Douglas fir forest intersected by well-kept trails, rhododendron and tea garden displays, reflecting pool and sea vistas.

As the Irish poet Yeats might say, “peace comes dropping slow” in a place like this.

I confess to being a Romantic unashamedly, though tempered sufficiently with realism to know nature’s moods. Unfailingly, gardens possess a spirituality for me, moving me out of myself into an awareness of connection with universal rhythms of genesis, maturation, and ending. I am but a leaf of the tree of life. Beauty lies here in the now, not in a speculative destiny.

there, all days, my heart goes
Because there, first, my heart began to know
The glories of the summer and the snow,
The loveliest of harvest and of spring
.  _Edith Nesbit

–rj

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo”: A Close Reading

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                              RECUERDO
                               by Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you! for the apples and pears,
And we gave all our money but our subway fares.

It seems almost an anomaly to do a close reading of a poem that seems to not withhold anything in its meaning. Millay tells us that the poem entails–its frame if you will–an all night ferry ride, to and fro, of two companions, ending with the two giving away their previously purchased fruit to a woman either on the ferry or on shore at ride end in the early morning, saving for themselves only their subway fare.

Presumably, this is a poem that captures the frenzied excitement of two lovers, for whom time together, even in a humble setting and with little money (they had bought fruit), is what matters. Millay’s lover-friend, Floyd Dell, one of many, tells us in a 1959 letter that Millay had done the ride with Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva, later affirmed that year by Millay’s sister, Norma, who offered the poem’s Spanish title, “Recuerdo” (i.e., “I Remember”), as evidence. (De la Selva is a lover Milford misses in her biography of Millay (Savage Beauty 2001).

Famously, the poem’s initial two lines, “We were very tired, we were very merry,/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry” repeat themselves at the beginning of each stanza. Intriguingly, we anticipate a “but” to set up the contrast between the states of fatigue and exuberance, but it doesn’t occur, adding complication, perhaps suggesting the fervency of their passion. The omission could also imply a fatigue leading to silliness.

In their repetition, Millay ensures her readers’ focus on the activities themselves, separately depicted in each stanza: looking into a fire, leaning across a table; lying on a hilltop underneath the moon (stanza 1); eating fruit (stanza 2); buying a morning newspaper, hailing a mother, her head “shawl covered,” to whom they give their remaining fruit (stanza 3).

The references to looking into the fire and lying on a hill-top under the moon may initially appear incongruous in a poem supposedly confined to an all night ferry ride. A closer reading, however, implies they had exited the ferry at some point, perhaps to visit a tavern or café, enjoy the warmth of a fire and, later, lie on a hill top and gaze at the stars before reboarding: “And the whistles kept blowing….”

The mother appellation suggests the lovers’ own freedom from the encumbrances of marital. love. As such, this is a poem intrinsic to the Greenwich Village bohemianism of that era.

While the poem is sparing of the usual metaphors, it turns sharply poetic in the exquisite “And the sky went wan and the wind came cold,/And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.”

As such, it reflects the poem’s latent contrast between their practiced frugality and the plenitude of their love, reinforced at poem end in their giving their fruit away.The poem haunts with its rhythms–hexameter lines replete with feminine and masculine rhymes along with occasional near rhymes, alliteration and assonance, coalescing into a sensuous ambience.

Redolent with the nuances of memory, the poem sparkles with the effulgence of new love and idealization of a day that endures because of it. And like Whitman, the poem sanctifies the individuality of everyday experience. Despite the denigration of Modernists, the poem’s fundamental strength lies in its very simplicity, affording accessibility and enjoyment.

–R Joly

 

 

 

 

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