Dickinson Revisits Keats: “I Died for Beauty”

dickinson2I died for Beauty–but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining room

He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For beauty”, I replied–
“And I–for truth–Themself are One
We brethren, are”, He said–

 And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night–
We talked between the Rooms–
Until the Moss had reached our lips–
And covered up–Our names–

Emily Dickinson’s favorite poets were John Keats and Robert Browning. Certainly, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “I Died for Beauty” are indubitably linked through their exploration of Platonic idealism in regard to Beauty and Truth.

For Keats, Beauty becomes synonymous with Art, or Imagination. When he famously offers near the ode’s end his maxim, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he means that what the imagination perceives as real is both beautiful and true.  Putting it another way, Art is Truth beautifully rendered.

Dickinson, in contrast, exhibits a more modern, complicated sensibility in her latent suspicion of a priori reasoning. Truth and Beauty, undefined in her poem, are relative terms, not verities. Although she may initially appear accepting of their affinity (i.e., “kindred”) a closer reading indicates that their synthesis isn’t a given. Why are the two entities in separate rooms?  Why must they converse “between the rooms”? In short, they’re separate bed fellows.

What does Dickinson connote in the first speaker’s use of “died,” subsequently rendered “failed” by the second speaker?  If the two entities are related, it consists in their earnest pursuit of absolutes, or closure within the context of human experience. Ironically, failure, not success, informs their liaison in death as we’ll see in the poem’s conclusion.

For the Platonist Keats, their proffered unity transcends mortality.  Not so for Dickinson’s poem in which Truth and Beauty, never articulated, nor the context of their demise, metamorphose into indecipherable headstones, swallowed up by the anonymity of death and its oblivion:

We talked…
Until the Moss had reached our lips–
And covered up–Our names.

In sum, death abrogates every human quest, even the most noble.

–rj

A Poet Reminisces: Essays After Eighty

ows_141652973541643I have always liked poetry and poets, in particular, because of their sensitivity to human experience.

One poet I like a lot is Donald Hall, a giant among contemporary American poets, although he’s given up the craft, or as he puts it, since “poetry abandoned him.”

Hall is now 85.

Let me assure you, while the tropes may not come as easily as before, his acuity remains vibrant in his newest book, Essays After Eighty, a slim volume of 120 pages, yet filled with reminiscence, keen observation, and sober wisdom.

I first got introduced to Hall by way of his textbook, Writing Well, which I used for a number of years in teaching college composition. The book lived up to its title, emphasizing sentence clarity and how to achieve it, with eloquence added in.

Hall has always been a diligent stylist, whether writing poetry or prose. He confesses that he’s written some individual essay drafts for Essays After Eighty upwards of eighty times to get things said right.

I used to tell my students that the name of the game in all good writing lay in revision, pointing out that scholars have come upon nearly fifty drafts of Yeat’s famed “Second Coming” poem.

I like how Hall says it: “The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.”

I’ve always held that a good style is etched by its economy, the right words sufficing for empty fillers drowning readers in verbosity; a pleasing rhythm like waves, in and out, upon a sea shore.

Good prose, like poetry, runs lean.

And Hall is the great master.

Let me give you a sampling of Hall’s trademark writing acumen, simple, yet keen with observation, each detail chosen well, verbs especially, accumulating into a verbal, painting, reflecting the ethos of a skilled artisan:

In spring, when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, bluejays that harass them, warblers, red-winged blackbirds, thrushes, orioles. Mourning doves crouch in the grass, nibbling seeds. A robin returns each year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw, twigs and lint. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them….

Reminiscence weighs heavily upon these essays, not surprising for a writer in his mid-eighties. the ghosts, as it were, looming out of the past–grandparents, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, friends;  wife Jane Kenyon, the love of his life and fellow poet, succumbing unexpectedly to cancer at age 47.

Even the northern New Hampshire topography has yielded to change, farms giving way to rebirth of forest as the new generation migrates to the prosperous cities of southern New Hampshire.

As I read this moving collection of personal reflections on sundry topics, I made sure to highlight a number of striking passages, and some of them I’ll share with you.

On writing:

As I work on clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little to do with import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.

If the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they be, the essay fails.

Nine-tenths of the poets who win prizes and praises, who are applauded the most, who are treated everywhere like emperors–or like statues of emperors–will go unread in thirty years.

I count it an honor that in 1975 I gave up lifetime tenure, medical expenses, and a pension in exchange for forty joyous years of freelance writing.

I expect my immortality to expire five minutes after my funeral. Literature is a zero-sum game. One poet revives; another gets deader.

On aging:

When I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did.

In the past I was advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do.?

On leisure:

Everyone who concentrates all day, in the evening needs to let the half-wit out for a walk.

On mortality:

It is sensible of me to realize that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away.

At some time in my seventies, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries.

These days most old people die in profit-making dormitories. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and don’t want to forgo the routine of their lives.

Essays After Eighty has been a wonderful read for me with its acerbic wit, cogent wisdom, delivered in a simple, yet elegant, style, proving again that the best art conceals itself.

And yet there’s a melancholy that haunts these excursions into reminiscence, a sense that the best is over and, now, there’s just the waiting. As Hall confesses, “My problem isn’t death, but old age.”

Hall, of course, is addressing physical decline with its imposed limitations and dreaded dependency; but surely his words resonate still more–the sense of ephemerality that mocks our labors and brings to an end all that we love most dearly.

For Hall, “There are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended.”

Still, this work, perhaps his last, formulates a testimony to a life lived well.

And, very rarely, do you find such honest telling.

–rj

Winter Discontent: Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”

dickinsonI’m sitting here in our sunroom, looking out this afternoon on our backyard, smothered with frost. We had our first snow cover a week ago, which came early to Kentucky.

I’m a warm weather lover, and while those around me complain about heat, I say, more is better.

You’d think coming from New England, I’d be more tolerant of snow and ice and lashing wind, but I can tell you that over time I’m liking old man winter much less.

But neither am I some isolated crank in finding winter oppressive.

Take fellow New Englander, Emily Dickinson, for example, that fervent champion of spring and summer, and with them, birds, flowers and even snakes populating her many poems, emissaries of nature’s cornucopia and the inherent goodness of its plentitude.

Understandably, she didn’t soften her distain toward winter in a poem I’ve memorized, “There’s a certain Slant of light.”

I’ve always admired this poem, like so many others she wrote, cerebral, observant, brief, but dependably engaging, centered in detail, redolent in ambience.

Here’s the poem, followed with my commentary:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

 Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

 None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.

 Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, this one deals with death, as ultimately revealed in its closing line. Keenly aware of the temporal, she always dreaded saying good bye to not only visiting friends, but the passage of the temperate seasons.

Appropriately, the poem’s ambience is foregrounded in emerging darkness on a winter afternoon, signified in the angular, or slanted, solstice light. While “Slant” suggests not only a way of seeing things, it more likely connotes a cosmic knife that wounds, amplified in the second stanza’s “hurt” and “scar” allusions.

In the first, stanza, however, this visual image of a slanting light evolves into one of sound, the light being like the “Heft” of Cathedral Tunes, heft denoting heaviness, or the solemnity of perhaps tolling bells or funeral music.

The speaker’s reference here to cathedrals plainly suggests the poem exceeds depiction of a gloomy New England winter’s day, entering into metaphysical concerns embracing religion, God, and mortality.

Dickinson, after all, was not only a rebel in writing non-traditional verse, both formally and thematically, but in her strident skepticism when it came to the assurances of Christianity.

In stanzas two and three, the persona traces the cosmic sources of the day’s oppressive gloom to Deity (1.e., “heavenly hurt,” “an imperial affliction /Sent us of the air”).

As to the specific nature of the transient day’s mood, it is rightfully left ambiguous (“None may teach it–Any–“), underscoring the persona’s angst in a cosmos ruled at best by a silent deity, who allows death’s intrusion into every aspect of nature.

The speaker can only offer analogies in attempting to articulate her resulting emotional dissonance in response to the waning light, since words often prove ineffectual in rendering matters of our psyche:  “We can find no scar,/But internal difference/Where the Meanings are.”

The persona’s allusion to the Book of Revelation with its apocryphal judgments, “T’is the Seal Despair,” underscores the angst of this “imperial affliction” in its psychological reign.

In the concluding stanza, two additional analogies appear, the first employing personification:  “When it comes’ the Landscape listens–/Shadows hold their breath–”

The pronoun “it” brings us back to the slanted light of the initial stanza, reminding us again that we are at the moment when the winter sun is about to slip below the horizon. With anxious anticipation, afternoon shadows stand at attention like sentries.

In the final analogy, the speaker breaks through with simile to the source of her angst in the sun’s passage:  “When it goes, ’tis like the Distance/On the look of Death–”

Or like viewing a corpse, distanced from every human concern.

In the poem’s absence of any proffered reunion or resurrection, Dickinson’s deep vein of skepticism is readily apparent, despite her Puritan forbears and living in a culture still permeated with conservative Christian belief.

But it didn’t come easily to Dickinson, earning my admiration for her candid questioning of cherished communal beliefs. In an early letter, she would confess to “an aching void in my heart which I am convinced the world cannot fill.”

Though often thought of as eccentric, preferring solitude to company, the truth is Dickinson relished her family, had close friends as her extensive correspondence confirms, and received occasional visitors.

Separation from those she loved was always acutely stressful.

And death, of course, which came early and often in her time, was the ultimate ransacker of human bonds. In a three year period she would lose some forty-six friends and relatives.

I share her sensibility when it comes to winter. I miss Nature’s teeming sights, sounds, and smells: my flowers in variegated hues blooming proudly, attended to by murmuring bees; the smell of Spring lilacs; the taste of fresh berries; chickadees in their yellow jackets at the bird feeder, impervious to the wind.

Looking out my window at a checkered landscape of grays and whites on yet another eclipsed day of light on a winter afternoon, I grieve their absence and share the sense of pervasive temporality that so haunted Dickinson.

And thus, like her, I relish the return of every spring, enjoying what I can, while I’m able, and with what light remains.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Memorize a Poem?

memory (1)I’ve been thinking about memorizing some of my favorite poems. I remember how in the fifth grade in Philly each of us had to take a chair beside our teacher’s desk when our time came and recite a poem of at least 28-lines.

I honesty can’t recall the purpose of the exercise and don’t even remember the poem I chose. I suspect Mrs. Hazlitt was trying to instill in us a kinship with poetry, allowing us to choose freely a poem that struck our fancy and have us, through memorizing it, engage it thoroughly.

Some of the boys I hung out with made quite a feat of it, putting away more than the minimal requirement in pursuit of bragging rights.

I wonder if some teachers still encourage memorizing an occasional poem. I was in education, if you count college teaching, for forty years and can’t remember any pedagogy recommendation or state mandated requirement. Except for my fifth grade teacher, I never bumped into a memorization stipulation again.

As it stands, I’m curious if poetry is given any serious attention in today’s public schools in our information age of sophisticated technology and pervasive teaching to the test, though I suspect it might still happen in the private sector, or prep schools.

I happen to think there’s value in memorizing poetry. Let me count the ways, pilfering a famous line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “How do I Love Thee,” certainly a poem widely loved by the Victorian middle classes and probably frequently memorized by bedazzled lovers.

It exercises my brain: Now don’t laugh. I’ve gathered quite a few years along the way, and I’d like to think, that just maybe, it’s something I can do to ward off dementia or Alzheimer’s. They say doing mind-things like crossword puzzles, chess, Sudoko, or learning a new language may possibly massage our gray matter. Why not add memorization to the list and, while at it, pursue some of the mellifluously expressed truths of human experience?

It helps me navigate stress: I think it much nicer to draw on a Shakespeare passage to relieve a bout with insomnia than count sheep or numbers backward. If you’re into the Bible, young David sang psalms to the troubled King Saul to relieve his anxiety. I can almost guarantee that not a few have found Psalm 23 (the shepherd’s psalm) a good fit for tight places.

It’s an accomplishment in its own right: Hey, how many people today, even among English majors–or profs like me–can strut their stuff with Hamlet’s famed soliloquy or pull off Keats’ glorious seasonal indulgence by reciting his sensory sonnet, ” To Autumn”?

By the way, when I was learning my trade, I was lucky to come across one of the most memorable teachers I would ever encounter, Dr Maddox, up there in years, but able, effortlessly, to take a poem or prose passage in our American Literature class and embellish it with effortless recall of kindred passages across the spectrum. In doing so, he resonated the beauty at the center of literary art.

It makes a poem a part of you:   I’m assuming some of you who read my posts enjoy poetry, since I write about poetry every so often or employ it in my blog. It can be hard work, but memorizing a poem has a way of getting into the sinew of your psyche, or what we used to call, soul.

But why bother with the memory stuff when you can just whip out your smartphone and google up your favorite poem?

Besides, poetry memorization was well-suited for times of isolation; but in our electronic age, no such thing. We’re all virtually connected–wherever, whenever. Ours is a noisy, busy, meddlesome world.

In rebuttal, I like how Brad Leithauser put it in his engaging New Yorker piece, “Why We Should Memorize” (2013): “The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

I like that! We wear wedding rings, collect CD’s and DVD’s, record on our VCR’s, store our photos, etc., so they can be with us whenever we want them, and often we do, for they represent life moments when we laughed or cried or were intrigued, spellbound, elated. and, of course, loved–wives, sweethearts, children, friends, pets. As such, they comprise our “spots of beauty” in a sea of flux, bequeathing ports of safety and solace defiant of time.

But when you memorize a poem, it transcends any material repository of recall. Indeed, I think of it as something akin to the communion service, the bread and wine becoming flesh.

I’m with Keats in all this. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” How much more so, when through memory it becomes a salient part of you and me!

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teach me….

oakTeach me to love all things, big and small; clean and dirty: the burr oak massive with age; the silent worm that threads the earth; my fellow beings, rich or poor, sung or unsung.

Teach me to be patient, learning first to forgive my own infidelities, that I may love others more.

Teach me the wisdom of the past, of hope invested in the future–but best, the gift of this new day.

Teach me to persevere up the mountain, to resist the stitch in my side that urges quitting and with it, forfeiture of the runner’s prize.

Teach me never to love anything so much that I cannot accept its loss; the inevitability of change and ending and, someday too, my own.

Teach me the right of others to discover themselves and walk a road different from my own; to listen that I may hear and not judge.

Teach me what true freedom means: to choose without the weights of culture or tradition; the courage to revoke what inhibits happiness; the right to self-knowledge and to live in accord with it; a resolve to accept the bottom line cost in living free

Teach me to discern between having and being; to know the folly of the former, the ecstasy of the latter.

Teach me courage in a world with dark valleys; boldness to speak for those who grieve, the excluded poor, oppressed minorities, women and children, and the animals too.

Teach me to love our wounded earth, to nourish it wherever I am as though it were my own garden.

–by rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry is Truth in Sunday Clothes

quietnessWe live busy lives and often it seems difficult to take time out, catch our breath, and maybe just reassess whether what we’re chasing is worth our time and worry.

In a frenetic world, we probably all have a favorite way of finding sanctuary–perhaps taking time off, or traveling to some idyllic spot, or just off to a meal out or a movie with sweetheart or family, or maybe indulging in a hobby or interest. Me, I like gardening.

I know one thing–we all need time-out, moments when we can drench ourselves in silence and apartness, returning renewed and, just maybe, wiser–the gift of self-reflection when we glimpse where we’ve been, and are, and where we need to go.

Cultivating quietness long term means we have to work at it, just like other good things in life. They say practice makes perfect. I don’t know about that, but I do know it makes things better.

Some find meditation important in gaining equilibrium, and I can endorse that, particularly the Zen kind with its focus on mindfulness that affords me access into myself without my need to control.

Lately, I’ve added poetry to ways I can augment my need to exit life’s speedway. I bathe in its wisdom, marvel at its concision, the depths of psyche it plums, its mellifluous stream of words, the cornucopia of  tumbling imagery that makes me see again things I’ve missed or erringly tossed or lost in my life’s journey.

We busy ourselves in a world often filled with self-centeredness and aggressiveness that, if we’re not careful, can dull our humanity and turn our hearts to stone. Poetry helps us keep the wolves at bay–the world’s and our own–and with our best self, love and hope again.

Poetry does it all so well.

As poet Joseph Roux marvelously puts it, “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.”

I like that, and I think you will, too.

–rj

 

 

 

Christina Rossetti’s “After Death”: Her unction to the living

 

crossettiI have always liked the poetry of Christina Rossetti, Victorian England’s foremost female poet. Poetry ran in her genes. Her maternal grandfather had been a poet and translator; and, of course, so was her more famous brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also excelled at art.

I like to think of her in conjunction with the American poet, Emily Dickinson, our most prominent woman poet; in fact, they share the same birth year, (1830). Both suffered losses in love and never married.

Both were raised in devoutly religious homes. Dickinson’s grandfather was prominent in founding Amherst College, initially a school to train ministers. Rossetti’s mother was an evangelical. Both wrote a cerebral poetry of ardent sensitivity to life around them.

But there are differences, too. Religiously, Dickinson proved rebellious; at times, even skeptical.

On the other hand, Rossetti’s poetry is replete in piety. Still, thematically both poets seem often preoccupied with retreat and mortality. Strikingly, several of their poems feature a persona speaking from the grave.

Here is a poem I’ve always liked and taught in my literature classes for many years. Maybe you will like it too:

After Death

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child”: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.

ANALYSIS

In this poem, a deceased person reminisces her funeral. She recalls the man she loved, filled with pity, gazing at her corpse and weeping.

But there is disillusionment on the persona’s part: her friend did “not touch the shroud, or raise the fold/That hid my face, or take my hand in his,/or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head.” In short,  he exhibited no commitment, even in the context of death. (It’s not what he does, but what he omits to do that matters here.) At best, his response proves ambiguous and we are left unsure his grief manifests love, for grief is not necessarily synonymous with love. We only know from the persona’s perspective that he “did not love me living.”

Ironically, the persona’s anguish eclipses that of the mourner, for what she yearned for in life was love and not the pity that comes from her death.

The poem’s last lines are saved from self-pity in their matter-of-factness: “He pitied me; and very sweet it is/To know he still is warm though I am cold.”

But the poem with its subtle “I am cold” also returns us to the theme of death and its inexorable alienation from life with which the poem opens. And even more: it hints at the persona’s repressed anguish in the close–“He still is warm though I am cold,” sparing these lines from their seeming sardonic, or derisive, tone. The truth she reaches for is that he did not make use of the opportunity to love her while she lived.

While pity may speak for the mourner’s potentiality for love, death has foreclosed on its possibility.

Mortality’s unction is that we fervently love while we can in this brief parenthesis of light.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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