Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems
Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:
The Plain Poem
When I first began writing this, I called this kind of poem a ‘Literal Poem’; but I decided ‘Plain Poem’ is a more poetic description, and reminds me of plain chant. Plain Poem also allows for some variation, some touches of figurative language perhaps, whereas the term ‘Literal’ invites too strict an interpretation. I have no idea what percentage of contemporary poems are Plain Poems, possessing minimal figurative language, but my hunch is that they represent fewer than one might expect, maybe only single digits. They’re very difficult to write well (or memorably). Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson would be its finest exponent in traditional forms. The fact of his plainness may, in some measure, contribute to his relative neglect. (It’s ironic that Ezra Pound preached the gospel of “everyday language and materials”, as Christopher Clausen put it, only to write a massive book, “The Cantos”, that becomes progressively all but incomprehensible.)
by EA Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Some readers might object that Robinson uses a smattering of figurative language, but they’re of the colloquial, ‘every day’ sort. We don’t need editorial footnotes to understand “from sole to crown” or “fluttered pulses” or “glittered when he walked”. This is truly the language of the every day and the reader would have to stretch, or be a Helen Vendler, to read more into it than is there. The power of the poem isn’t to be found in any sort of figurative or metaphorical elusiveness. As with the majority of Robinson’s poems, it is what it is, but beautifully so. Robinson uses meter and rhyme to lend the poem direction, succinctness and to make the poem memorable. Until the very end the rhymes seem innocuous enough, and then the rhyme of bread and “put a bullet through his head” strikes like a thunderclap. As with many good rhyming poems, the reader is likely to anticipate the final coup de grâce, which gives the narrative that extra kick.
- I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhyme do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.
Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
There is such a reflexive determination to think that a poem has to mean something more than what it says. I’m not sure how much sweat and blood has been spilled over what Williams really meant. And yet, the haiku-like sublimity of the poem is self-evident and probably instinctively grasped by anyone who reads it (and needs no explanation or rationalization). This poem, quite simply, means what it says. But what makes it so memorable? There’s no rhyme or meter, so something else is at play. In part, it’s very much its similarity to the best haiku. There’s no discourse or disquisition. In other words, a narrator doesn’t thrust himself, nattering, between the reader and the poem (an intrusion into the conversation that Williams can rarely resist). We are permitted to consider the facts as they are and draw our own conclusion — and that is how a poem is like a haiku. The next facet is the imagery. Williams has carefully chosen what to emphasize — the contrast between the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens, for example. As an experiment, substitute blue for red, or brown for white.
Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)
And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there, like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.
But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.
And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.
But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say. These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.
- I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.
Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:
Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]
There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself. In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.
Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.
And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:
we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.
my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’
and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw
one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
In the process of writing this post, I read through about two dozen poems by Bukowski, and if he ever wrote a simile, I haven’t yet found it. I would judge Bukowski’s favorite rhetorical device to be the analogy. In the poem above, for instance, Bukowski is essentially drawing an analogy between the goldfish and the suffering experienced by himself and mother. Even then, Bukowski’s use of analogy is sparing and far from obvious. A reader may read a Bukowski poem, read a scenario which he or she has never experienced, and yet feel a commonality because the subject is nevertheless analogous to his or her own experiences. This, I think, is at the root of Bukowski’s genius — his ability to provide a context for experiences that make them recognizable and universal. In the poem Bluebird, Bukowski is again essentially drawing an analogy between his suppressed empathy and compassion and a symbolic bluebird he keeps locked in his heart.
The Figurative Poem
By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems, as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).
I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before, but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):
“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17]
This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:
The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:
…then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.
…that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starved snake.
we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23]
Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:
Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:
Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot!
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
the purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)
In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:
There may be in the cup,
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)
The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [p. 196-197]
Most importantly, notice that Shakespeare never uses “as” or “like” in these two passages. The similes have been organically absorbed into the character’s “personal experience”, not tacked on as in Titus. It’s this difference that Spalding was trying to express almost a hundred years earlier. Shakespeare, in the course of his poetic development, learned to speak through metaphor rather than by the elaboration of similes (John Fletcher, not so much). It’s in this sense that Spalding delineated the difference between Shakespeare and Fletcher’s verse:
“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”
- A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc.“
The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology. And what do we find?
The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
…………………………….to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
………………………………………all golden, all in good time.
Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:
Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
…..low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.
Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:
Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black
Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):
Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back
The wind rattles its raw throat,
…………………………………but I still can’t go deep enough.
And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…
But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, begins:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
The poem begins with the famous simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. “Muttering retreats” is both an adjectival metaphor and personification. “Like a tedious argument” is another simile describing the way streets “follow” — itself a verbal metaphor. And why do I like these similes, and not Wright’s? Because Eliots are wholly original. When before has an evening been compared to a patient “etherized upon a table”, as opposed to an evening boater to Charon? (I don’t hold a high opinion of Greek mythology’s appearance in modern poetry. It’s often plugged into a poem when having to do the work oneself would be much more difficult.) When has the layout of a city’s streets been compared to “a tedious argument”. Eliot’s simile’s are not only fresh, they add a subtext to the poem. Why the choice of etherized? What does this say about the narrator? Why compare streets to a tedious argument? — And how does this play into the narrator’s own avoidance of complications and explanations later in the poem?
The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
··If this be error and upon me proved,
··I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”
And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
··············Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
···Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
···Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
·······································The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
··············“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
··············keeping their difficult balance.”
The poem, as I read it, comes very near to being what I would consider a Metaphoric Poem. I’d say it falls in the far spectrum of figurative poems, but still a Figurative Poem, because the poetic conceit of the angels is framed by the reality of eyes opening “to a cry of pulleys”. The conceit is framed by the reality of the “morning air” at the beginning and the thieves, lovers, and nuns at the close. It’s is brought ‘down from its ruddy gallows’, back into the difficult balance of the real world.
- The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”
The Metaphoric Poem
I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical. I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.
To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children:
“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”
That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.
Not so with Robert Frost.
For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)
Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”
Even when there isn’t.
As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:
“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]
But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:
“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [p. 155]
Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.
A Drumlin Woodchuck
One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.
My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.
I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow. To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger.
“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p. 5]
And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.
There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations. At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t. Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow
“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).
WE make ourselves a place apart
··Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
··Till someone find us really out.
’Tis pity if the case require
··(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
··The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
··At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
··Must speak and tell us where they are.
‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something. In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.
But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings, p. 157-159]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor, as it were.
So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.
And that’s that.
up in Vermont: March 7 2015
Reviewed and added the following book to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:
- Naked Soul: The Erotic Love Poems by Salil Jha
You will find it below and appended to the larger review linked above.
Just last night I finished may latest biography on the romantics, by John Buxton. This biography chronologically picks up where Ian Gilmour’s Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets, leaves off, though Buxton’s is written a few decades before Gilmour’s (1968). The difference between the two biographies is drastic. Where Gilmour digs in and gives the reader a real and eye-opening sense of Byron and Shelley’s milieu, Buxton’s tone comes from a completely different era — decorous with a hint of the Victorian sensibility that slips, every now and then, into an almost starry-eyed and exculpatory praise for his subjects.
I almost didn’t make it through the book.
The biggest problem I had with Buxton as that he wrote the book without offering a sense of personality — of his subjects, the places where they lived, friends, acquaintances, etc. The book feels like a checklist of events. They did this, at this time, at this place, wrote this, discussed this, and then this happened, & etc. I never got the feeling that I was in the story. (Gilmour is still the best I’ve read so far). No discussion of culture or politics, which is especially relevant to Shelley.
I read Amy Lowell’s biography of Keats, many years ago, and the most salient aspect I remember is her fine-grained analysis of Keats’s growth as a poet (which apparently takes another poet to accomplish). That’s something that none of the biographies (I’ve read so far) come close to accomplishing. They write about the poets’ lives — what they did, where they were, who they met — but are bizarrely silent on the one subject which, after all, is the only reason we read about them — their poetry. Lowell is the only biographer, I’ve read so far, that pulls it off (though I’ll soon be reading more). Vendler, as far as I know, doesn’t write biographies (though I’m not a big fan of her ‘Vendlerization’ of poets and their poetry).
Buxton tells us repeatedly that Shelley and Byron were friends and deeply influenced each others poetry, but never once demonstrates how. In fact, Buxton waits until the death of Byron, within 10 pages of the end of his book, to suddenly take us on a whirlwind summation of their poems. We end up with paragraphs like this:
Manfred, therefore begun while Shelley was with him, and continued after Monk Lewis had translated Goethe’s Faust to him, denotes the state in his poetic development which Byron had then reached: he had been made aware by Shelley of new possibilities of human experience, but his own self-knowledge had brought him to realize, however regretfully, that they were not for him. In form also the play is Shelleyan, rather than Aeschylean, lyrical drama, and owes nothing to Byron’s practical experience of the theatre. It is a precursor of Prometheus Unbound, where, in turn, Shelley is often indebted to Byron; but the relation between the two works is too complex for brief discussion. [p. 263]
Too complex? Yeah, I guess so, especially if the author waits until the last ten pages of a 268 pages book to do it. But that brings up another tone that annoyed me. There’s too much of the hoity-toity in Buxton’s writing; it smacks of arrogance. One gets the sense that his intended readers are already Byron & Shelley cognoscenti. He drops individuals into the narrative without the least effort (or minimal) to explain who they are or their relationship to the poets. He presumes we know who these personalities are. I mean, come on, does he really have to explain who Scrope Davies is? Seriously? He may briefly explain them once, only to reintroduce them a hundred pages later without a shred of reminding: Does he really have to explain who they are again? Buxton also doesn’t bother translating anything. Obviously, his Oxford educated readership spoke Latin, Greek, Italian, German and French; and if you or I can’t read classical Greek, then he can’t be bothered to condescend. So, for instance, he’ll write:
Byron was very kind, she told Maria Gisborne in writing to tell her that they would soon meet in England. ‘He promises that I shall make my journey at ease, which on Percy’s account I am glad of.’ But she could not leave until after Marianne Hunt’s confinement, which Dr. Vacca had predicted might be fatal to her. After eleven months in the country this stupid and commonplace woman could not speak a word of Italian, and need Mary’s help. [p. 249]
Never mind that Hunt’s wife probably didn’t want to be there, had four children to take care of (while the men were off riding, shooting, sailing, and being altogether lost in their self-absorbed literary vanities); and seemingly suffered the confinement of a near fatal illness. Buxton has no sympathy (and can’t be bothered with that kind of insight). Didn’t she know she was in the presence of geniuses? The stupid and commonplace woman should have learned Italian by now — and the same goes for the readers of his biography (one guesses). Worse yet, Buxton relates that Hunt’s children marred Lord Byron’s furniture and walls with dirty fingers.
Any of the historical personalities that dared criticize Shelley or Byron are summarily dispatched by Buxton, while the author breezes over (if mentioning them at all) any of the poets’ more controversial behaviors. (We barely get a hint of Byron’s sexual proclivities.) On the other hand, those who appeared to treat Byron and Shelley with due deference, loyalty and respect, like Edward Trelawny, are treated with a tolerable sufferance by Buxton. The author repeatedly praises Shelley’s gentlemanly, aristocratic and generous behavior, and encourages us to bask in the glow of Byron’s good humor, brilliance and masculine appeal.
So, would I recommend the book? Probably not. It’s either a victim of its author or its time. (I think the former.) The lives of Byron and Shelley, their influence on one another and the era’s obsession with the two poets, await a better biographer.
Scott Donaldson’s biography of Edwin Arlington Robinson is next.
up in Vermont : February 1 2015
- A recently discovered sonnet by Billy Shaksper. An annotation has been included to help English speakers with the Country Western dialect.
Baby, your eyes ain’t nothin’ like the sun;
My coon-dog’s tongue is redder than your lips;
One boob’s still ‘tryin’ but the other’s done;
Ain’t double-wides wreck traffic like your hips.
I seen the kinda’ gal that men call meek,
Well-mannered, mild, but you? Hell no you’re not.
Skunked beer spilled on a lime-green shag don’t reek
Near half so bad. Your breath? — like eau-de-rot.
But sugar-plum I’d sell my gun, I’d kick
The dog and turn my Mama out the door;
I swear, so help me, never drink a lick
‘Cause I got you and don’t need nothin’ more.
···Man never writ nor loved if this ain’t true:
···Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you.
1. Baby dear, honey, lover , a term of endearment. The term was applied to both men and women during the country western era. Much scholarly debate has examined the infantilizing endearment in this highly pateralistic culture. 2. ain’t a contraction for am not, is not, are not, has not, and have not in the country western vernacular. This archaic but very common contraction could indicate both the singular or plural verb form (see ain’t). 3. coon-dog Coon dogs were bred to hunt raccoons and other small animals. These coon hounds were trained to chase animals up trees to ease hunting while drunk. A favorite companion for men known as “rednecks” (see CoonDawgs.com). 4. boob breast, female mammary gland. Most country western men were noted boob-men (see Dolly Parton). 5. double-wide There is some uncertainty surrounding this passage’s meaning. Some scholars suspect textual corruption. The Shaksperian scholar B. Vickers has offered the most convincing explanation: double-wide being a reference to the twin, “double”, gluteal muscles of a woman’s rear-end, the gluteal muscles being a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus muscle, gluteus medius muscle and gluteus minimus muscle (see Cultural History of Buttocks: The female buttocks have been a symbol of fertility and beauty since early human history…). 6.Hell Believed by scholars to refer to an absence of beer, barbecued ribs and ESPN. 7. skunked beer spoiled beer having a sulfurous taste. Scholars debate the type of beer country westerners preferred, some finding evidence for Coors Lite, others Bud Lite. 8. lime green shag a type of thick wall-to-wall carpeting, often accompanied by faux wood paneling, The lime green color was preferred for its ability to blend well with any possible stain, including vomit and affairs with the neighbor’s wife (see rugstudio.com). 9. eau-de-rot an offensive perfume 10. I’d sell my gun a prized possession and status symbol among country westerners, often associated with the phrase: “my cold, dead fingers” 11. kick the dog the country western male’s love for his dog was second only to his gun 12. Mama mother, third in line after guns and dogs, though some scholars place country western Mamas after pick-up trucks, football and beer. 13. Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you. The double negatives in the concluding couplet have frequently called the meaning of the final couplet into question. If what he says isn’t true, then no man ever ‘wrote’, and yet the assertion is a palpable falsehood. (See, Vendler, Sonnets.)
The authorship question: There are some who assert the Sonnet could not have been by the uneducated Billy Shaksper, but by Eddy Oxfrord, the son of a well-heeled rancher who matriculated from a local community college. Most Shakspereans reject the attribution out of hand, noting that Eddy Oxford died in a freak bowling accident some years before the sonnet was published. Eddy’s defenders claim the sonnet was actually written a decade earlier, and was only published when the risk of embarrassment to the Oxford family was minimal. Few, if any scholars take the Oxfordians seriously. Oxfordians respond by accusing Shaksperians of conspiring to conceal the truth in order to preserve their socio-academic status. Shakspereans respond by calling Oxdordians idiots and morons. The noted scholar Gary Taylor claims the sonnet is actually by Tommy Middletown and is said to have wept upon reading the poem. Donald W. Foster fed the sonnet to Shaxicon and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Other attributions include Franky Bacon, and Lizzy, the era’s most popular, country western stripper and drag-Queen.
The title might lead you to think this book is about Richard Wright and Hiaku; but I guess only fools judge a book by its title. The book is actually a loose collection of essays of which the first four, 76 out of 150 pages, (or just over half the book) has nothing whatsoever to do with Richard Wright.
My mistake, I suppose, was in not taking the book jacket’s back matter at face value:
Richard Writing and Haiku is presented in two parts. In the first, Hakutani traces the genesis and decelopment of haiku in Japan, discusses the role of earlier poets — including Yone Noguchi and Ezra Pound — in the verse’s development in Japan and in the West, and deals with both haiku and haiku criticism written in English.
Given that the title showcases Richard Wright’s name as the centerpiece of the cover jacket, I mistakenly thought that these first “chapters” — really distinct essays with embarrassingly facile edits meant to draw them together — might somehow relate to Richard Wright. They don’t. So, keep that in mind if you decide to consider this book. The first half of the book isn’t about Richard Wright.
Getting on to what really irritates me: the poor writing and the banal, facile “scholarship”. The writing is so poor that I first thought the author, Yoshinobu Hakutani, must be Japanese. Were that the case, much could be forgiven (and more blame to the publishers for poor editing); but the opposite appears to be true. According to the inside cover, Hakutani is Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at Kent State University in Ohio.
The first thing the reader will notice is the bizarre repetitiveness of the book. In the Introduction, the third paragraph will start:
By 1680, when Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote the first version of his celebrated haiku on a frog jumping into the water… [p. 1]
The fourth paragraph of the first chapter will start:
By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog jumping into the cold pond… [p. 20]
Later, Hakutani will repeat an entire two sentences within the space of a page. To whit, Page 80:
In 1953, Wright traveled to Africa and published Black Power the following year. In 1955 he attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku.
And Page 81-82
Back in 1953, Wright attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku. Of his experience in this period, Wright’s travel to the newly independent Ghana… & etc.
But maybe that’s an honest editorial ctrl+c–ctrl+v-mistake? As he hurriedly moved paragraphs around he forgot to delete the source paragraph (try ctrl+x next time?). Distinguished Scholars and Professor’s of English do this sort of thing all the time. Less obviously, but still needlessly repetitive, are Hakutani’s repeated assertions that Wright was influenced by R.H. Blythe’s four volume study on haiku:
Harold G. Henderson, in An Introduction to Haiku, gives thanks to R.H. Blythe, with whom he had personal contact, and refers to Blythe’s “monumental four-volume work on haiku.” And William J. Higginson, the Haiku Handbook, refers to the American writer Richard Wright and says that he had studied R.H. Blythe’s books and “wrote several hundred [it was actually more than four thousand] haiku during the last year and a half of his life.” [p. 80]
In the late 1950s Wright borrowed R.H. Blythe’s four volume book of haiku from Sinclair Beiles, a South African Beat poet. [p. 108]
When Wright studied R.H. Blythe’s four volumes on the art and history of haiku… [p. 135]
Just as tragedy is considered a higher genre of literature than comedy, haiku is classed higher than senryu. R.H. Blythe, from whom Wright learned how to write haiku and senryu… [p. 142]
In studying R.H. Blythe’s volumes of Japanese haiku, Wright was deeply impressed with the Buddhist theory of trimigration… [p. 150]
How many times do we need to know that Blythe’s works were “four volume”, or that they were “volumes”, or that he studied them (as if he hadn’t already told us)? This kind of repetitiveness is probably a result of each coming from a separate essay — or “chapter’ — but avoidable if Hakutani had taken the time to re-arrange the essays into a cohesive book. Am I nitpicking? But the larger problem is the astonishingly poor, hardly undergraduate-worthy, “scholarship”. Let’s go chapter by chapter (skipping the introduction).
Chapter 1, The Genesis and Development of Haiku in Japan, is vaporously uninformative. No one without a prior familiarity with haiku is going to learn anything whatsoever about their genesis or development. Consider that it takes Hakutani all of two paragraphs (of the opening three) to move from “The genesis of haiku can be seen in the waka…” to “By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog…” There’s zero discussion of Waka, other than to mention that it’s a 5-7-5-7-7 verse form. Renga, from which Haiku really got started, aren’t even mentioned. So much for the “genesis” or “development” of haiku. But Hakutani apparently decides he’s covered it. The next seven pages are essentially a checklist with examples: “human life in association with nature”, “unity of sentiment”, yugen, sabi, Shiki’s “modernist challenge”, wabi. Hakutani’s habit is to print a haiku, then breifly analyze it — but his analyses are embarrassingly obvious – barely worthy of a high school student. In discussing Sabi, Hakutani offers the following haiku:
In the hospital room
I have built a nest box but
Swallows appear not.
Not only do the first and third lines express facts of loneliness, but also the patient’s will to live, suggested by the second line, evokes a poignant sensibility.
And that’s that. This is what a distinguished scholar gives you. Nothing of a haiku’s uniqueness is conveyed. By the time we’re done with the first chapter, the uninitiated reader will have learned only that haiku can be like the thinly explained yugen, sabi, and wabi, and will have learned nothing about their genesis, development or what distinguishes them from western poetic practice. Hakutani writes: “Haiku traditionally avoided such subjects as earthquakes, floods, illnesses, and eroticism — ugly aspects of nature or humanity. Instead haiku poets were drawn to such objects as flowers, nests, birds, sunset, the moon, and genuine love.” Which, when you think about it, makes the entirety of the Japanese poetic tradition seem like nothing more than a meeting of the Victorian Ladies Poetry Society. La! Most importantly, Hakutani is flatly wrong. Some of Japan’s most striking haiku touch on the ugliness of nature. For example:
A flying squirrel
munches a small bird’s bones
in a bare winter field
Chapter 2 is called Basho and Haiku Poetics. The essay doesn’t so much as mention Wright. It examines Basho’s Haku for their “affinity with nature” 28-30, Confucianism 30-33, Buddhism 33-36, Zen 36-39, “juxtaposition of imagery” 39-41, and “unity of sentiments” 41-43. That’s all well and fine, but there’s a checklist feel to the essay’s progression and any explanation of Confucianism or Buddhism, for example, is of the most generic kind. For instance:
A Zen point of view enables one to see things in humanity and nature more objectively. Zen teaches us to gain freedom from our ideas and desires. Basho expresses this notion in his haiku:
To be rained upon, in winter,
And not even an umbrella-hat, —
From a human point of view, being rained on when you do not have an umbrella is uncomfortable. From nature’s perspective, however, rain provides water for all objects in nature; water, nourishing plants and animals, creates more life on earth. [p. 39]
First of all, it’s not even clear that this was Basho’s intention. Rain “in winter”? What plants need a nourishing rain in winter, but then again perhaps Basho wrote this in a more tropical clime? We don’t know because Hakutani doesn’t do any of the work that might inform us. Out of curiosity, I checked the weather forecast for Atsuta, Japan (it’s presently the middle of January) and came up with the following:
So, it’s a safe bet that since Basho was walking to Atsuta (he wasn’t flying in from a northern clime) the rain was a comparatively warm one (compared to New England).
Another translation from here, reads:
no rain hat in the winter showers? well, well!
kasa mo naki / ware o shigururu ka / ko wa nan to
A later footnote adds the following literal translation and explanatory information:
hat even is-not / me ! winter-shower ? / this as-for what
• Winter: winter showers (shigure*). 1684–85. In another version, the last line is literally “what what” (nan to nan to).
shigure (verb:shiguru): early winter showers. Brief, intermittent, cold showers or drizzle of early winter and sometimes late autumn. WINTER.
Matsuobasho-wkd offers the following translation:
kasa mo naki ware o shigururu ka ko wa nantono
in the winter showers?
~ Tr. Barnhill Written in 貞亨元年, Nozarashi Kiko, on the way to Atsuta. Winter of 1684/85
He was surprised by a sleet shower on the road.
shigure 時雨 is not simply a kigo for winter, it also expresses the important “fuuryuu 風流” furyu – “poetic elegance” in Japanese poetry. ko wa nan to – short for nan to nan to shows his great way with choosing words.
Of the word fuuryuu, the site Jaanus has this to say:
Lit. refined taste. An aesthetic ideal implying traditional elegance, chic stylishness, creative ingenuity, and sometimes, eroticism . The term is derived from the equally broad Chinese, fengliuu 風流, which originally meant good etiquette, but eventually came to signify the opposite, and later referred to various types of beauty. In 8c Japan, fuuryuu was used to mean urbane manners but soon came to refer to things elegant, tasteful, or artistic. By the Heian period, fuuryuu could indicate either an elegant object or a cultivated person. In later centuries fuuryuuevolved several quite distinct meanings and usages. The word was used frequently in the poetry of the Zen priest *Ikkyuu 一休 (1394-1481) who, drawing upon the range of Chinese implications, used it to mean alternately the rarified beauty of monastic life, the essence of an eremitic existence, and the charm of sexual relations. The sensual side of fuuryuu emerged in the Momoyama period fad for the fuuryuu dance found in *Houkokusai 豊国祭 screens. More broadly, the concept of fuuryuu can be seen as the operative aesthetic in 17c genre painting *fuuzokuga 風俗画. The term fuuryuu was also used to distinguish popular styles of arts such as garden design, flower arrangement, and *chanoyu 茶湯. For example, the style of *wabi わび tea was often refered to as wabifuuryuu わび風流. In the Edo period literature of the floating world *ukiyo zoushi 浮世草子, also called fuuryuubon 風流本, fuuryuu implied an up-to-date stylishness, often with erotic implications. It is related to the aesthetic ideals of *sui 粋 and *iki いき. fuuryuu often appears in titles of *ukiyo-e 浮世絵 prints, particularly parody pieces *mitate-e 見立絵.fuuryuu was also applied to haiku 俳句 and to southern paintings *nanga 南画 where it implied a work based upon a past style.
So, perhaps this shows some small measure of the cultural knowledge a Japanese reader can bring to a single haiku. Hakutani communicates none of it. And I’m also not convinced by Hakutani’s reading or translation — is it Hakutani’s? But my overall argument with Hakutani is that he conveys none of the subtlety or complexity of haiku. He prints a given haiku, then gives facile summaries that usually amount to no more than two or three sentences. He’ll write that a given haiku portrays Basho’s loneliness, and “that a living being is connected to another”, and that therefore the haiku reminds him of the loneliness in a Langston Hughes poem — the kind of thing I’d expect from a grade-school book report. But why stop there? Surely it also reminds him of every other poem, in just about every other language, that’s ever been about “loneliness” and ‘connected beings’.
His next two essays — Yone Noguchi and Japanese Poetics and Ezra Pound, Imagism, and Haiku — examine the poetry of Noguchi, then make the circumstantial argument that it was Noguchi who was responsible for Pound’s theories of imagism — “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object)”.
- Noguchi was born in Japan and learned English as a second language. He eventually emigrated to California and being a deep admirer of western poetry, began writing it. (While Noguchi’s poetry isn’t all that good, one does have to admire anyone who can write passable poetry in foreign language).
But to the first of the two essays. Hakutani’s weakness as a reader of poetry comes to the fore when he attempts to trace the influence of Japanese poetic aesthetic in Noguchi’s poetry.
…more importantly [Noguchi] is suggesting that Japanese poets always go to nature to make human life mmeaningful to make “humanity more intensive”. They share artistic susceptibility where,as Noguchi writes, “the sunlight falls on the laughter of woods and waters, where the birds sing my the flowers.” This mystical affinity between humanity and nature, between the beauty of love and the beauty of natural phenomena, is best stated in this verse by Noguchi:
It’s accident to exist as a flower or a poet;
A mere twist of evolution but from the same force;
I see no form in them but only beauty in evidence;
It’s the single touch of their imagination to get the embodiment of a poet or a flower:
To be a poet is to be a flower,
To be the dancer is to make the singer sing.
The fusion of humanity and nature, and the intensity of love and beauty with which it occurs, can be amply seen in haiku… [p. 54]
Yes, the fusion of humanity and nature can be amply seen in haiku, but it can also be amply seen in poetry straight back to Chaucer (let alone Blake or Whitman). Noguchi is writing firmly in the Western tradition — no need to reference haiku. And there’s nothing uniquely Zen in a poet’s desiring union with nature, though Hakutani seems to think so (as if that’s all that Zen were about). A page later, Hakutani will claim that personification and anthropomorphism is somehow a unique indication of haiku’s influence:
An empty cup whence the light of passion is drunk! —
To-day a sad rumour passes through the tree
A chill wind borne by the stream,
The waves shiver in pain;
Where now the cicada’s song long and hot?
Such images as chilly wind and the shivering waves are not used to signal the passing of summer. Rather the chilly wind and the shivering waves themselves constitute the passing of summer. Similarly, such phrases as “the light of passion” and “the cicada’s song long and hot” are not metonymies of summer, thereby expressing nostalgia or some sort of sentiment about summer; instead they are the summer itself. In Noguchi’s poetry, then, as in classic haiku, poetry and sensation are spontaneously joined in one and the same, so that there is scarcely any room left for rationalism or moralism. [p. 56]
- Personification n. A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form, as in Hunger sat shivering on the road or Flowers danced about the lawn. Also called prosopopeia.
Here’s an example from Shakespeare:
“When well-appareled April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.”
Was Shakespeare also influenced by classic haiku?
Hakutani then goes on to assert that Pound was influenced by Noguchi. Pound was strongly influenced by Chinese and Japanese aesthetics (as far as he understood them); and Pound’s famous haiku “In a Station of the Metro” put into practice what he learned — a “Direct treatment of the thing”. (Stevens and Williams, respectively, would later write:”Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself” and “No ideas but in things”.) So, if Noguchi was a primary influence on Pound’s poetics then by extension Noguchi is partly responsible for Imagism and western poetry’s modernist movement (hence Hakutani’s interest in the subject and his effort to trace the influence back to haiku). He highlights some of the apparent affinities between Pound and Noguchi’s poetics (which may or may not indicate familiarity between the poets), but only waits until the end, with a single closing paragraph, to make his central argument:
Noguchi’s English poems had been widely circulated in London well before September 1914, when Pound’s vorticism essay appeared, and Noguchi’s essay on hokku in Rhythm and his book The Spirit of Japanese Poetry were published in January 1913 and March 1914, respectively. The material in the essay and the book was delivered in a series of lectures during his stay in English from December 1913 to April 1914. In these circumstances it is hardly conceivable that the imagists did not acquaint themselves with Noguchi’s ideas. Even though Pound’s modernist theory might partly have derived from other sources, one can scarcely overlook the direct link between haiku and Pound’s imagism through Noguchi.
Yes, I suppose anything is possible. We go from “hardly conceivable” to “might partly have” to “one can scarcely overlook the direct link”. Unfortunately, the only evidence to support Hakutani’s assertions is circumstantial (it’s typical academic legerdemain to skip so lightly from the vacuous “hardly conceivable” to a therefore “direct link”). Hakutani overplays his hand, and it’s unnecessary. But what does any of this have to do with Richard Wright?
Chapter 5 finally begins a discussion of Wright, a ten page essay called Haiku and Haiku Criticism in English. This essay efficiently enumerates the haiku books Wright and others might have read. Hakutani’s version of examining criticism of Haiku in English literally amounts to nothing more than quoting, verbatim, two pages of Higginson (which are actually some of the more insightful passages on Wright).
The next five essays are essentially “the book” you thought you were buying: Wright’s Haiku as English Poems, Wright’s Haiku and Classic Haiku Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Modernist Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Africa, Wright’s Haiku as Senryu. What’s absent in these chapters is any sense of Wright’s personality or of his place, as a living breathing poet, among other poets of the day. There’s no human interest. As is Hakutani’s habit, each essay is a checklist of observations — in this haiku we see X, in this haiku we see Y, etc… The comments tend toward the utterly banal:
The path in the woods
Is barred by spider webs
Beaded with spring rain.
On which Hakutani writes:
“The Path in the Woods” portraying a scene of spring where insects live in their natural environment, creates an image of beauty. [p. 92]
And that’s that. That’s the flavor of all the comments from this distinguished scholar. The banal summaries add nothing to our understanding of Wright and they often miss the deeper sublimity of the poems:
In a drizzling rain
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.
The dreary scene of a drizzling rain is brightened by a flower shop, but the unhappy vision of a prostitute would make the viewer disillusioned. [p. 148]
He seems to completely miss the comparison between the girls and flowers, both for sale. And what is being compared to what? And when Hakutani’s not telling us what’s already obvious he seems at a loss, making observations that aren’t so much obvious as just plain sophomoric:
Wright also learned how to express loneliness from Issa, who wrote haiku such as this:
For you fleas too,
The night must be long,
It must be lonely.
Wright composed the following:
For you, O gulls,
I order slaty waters
And this leaden sky!
While Issa employs the image of a flea to express human loneliness, Wright describes gulls, slaty waters, and leaden sky to create a visual effect of loneliness. [p. 111]
The notion that Wright learned how to express loneliness from Issa is just aggravatingly absurd — but Hakutani has to write something and at first glance — maybe — the assertion looks substantive. A page later Hakutani will claim that “Wright substituted English punctuation marks for cutting words. For example” Hakutani writes “the exclamation point at the end of the first line is a substitute for the cutting word, ya, a sigh of admiration:
Look, look, look!
These are all the violets
Left by last night’s rain!
The assertion is beyond silly. As if every poet who ever wrote a haiku in English decided: “Hey! Why don’t I substitute punctuation marks for kireji! I wasn’t even going to use punctuation marks!” But it’s this sort of assertion (which I can only assign to his being at a loss for anything better) that repeatedly mars Hakutani’s essays. Again and again he’ll link this or that word, image or sentiment to the influence of Japanese poetics, sensibility and culture when there’s simply no need to. It’s forced, concocted, and distorts Wright’s poetic practice. For instance, how much did Wright really know about or understand Zen? Hakutani never discusses the matter and yet, in a footnote, he can confidently assert the following:
As my anger ebbs,
The spring stars grow bright again
And the wind returns.
In this haiku, Wright tries to attain the state of mu, nothingness, by controlling his emotion. This state of nothingness, however, is not synonymous with a state of void, but leads to what Wright calls in Black Power “a total attitude toward life.” “So violent and fuckle,” he writes, “was nature that [the African] could not delude himself into feeling that he, a mere man, was at the center of the universe.” In this haiku, Wright relieves himself of anger, he begins to see the stars “grow bright again” and the wind return. Only when he attains a state of nothingness and achieves a “total attitude toward life” can he perceive nature with his enlightened senses. [p. 197]
Without any background or biographical support, the explanation could just as easily be cut from whole cloth. There’s no compelling reason to think that Wright’s haiku drew on such an intimate knowledge of Zen. Here’s what I mean: Among the many books R.H. Blythe wrote on Oriental poetics was Zen In English Literature and Oriental Classics in which he extracted haiku/zen-like passages from poets and writers of the western canon. Does this mean that Keats or Blake studied Zen or that Zen influenced their poetry? No. It means that poets and writers have realized the same insights without the Zen. Zen systematized a certain kind of philosophy, but much (if not most) of Zen’s sentiments are not unique.
Or consider a little book I recently picked up on a lark: The Tao and the Bard: A Conversation. It’s a great little book. And what’s eerie (and amazing) is how Shakespeare’s phrasing and thought so closely parallels Lao Tsu’s.
Out of tao comes the One,
out of one come two,
out of two, three.
From three all things come.
Why railest thou on thy birth? the heaven and earth?
Since birth, and heaven, and earth, all three do meet
In thee at once. [p. 68]
If a distinguished scholar like Hakutani got hold of the book, one wonders whether he’d soon be adumbrating Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Lao Tsu and the philosophy of Toaists (as if poets weren’t capable of sublime insight without Zen or Taoism). It’s nonsense; and a book like The Tao and the Bard demonstrates why. The difference of course is that Wright read Blythe and was exposed to the philosophy of Zen — but to what degree? Japanese scholars, even among themselves, debate the degree to which Basho’s haiku are really indebted to Zen.
The bottom line is that Hakutani makes assertions that are, for all we know, entirely baseless. That makes his insights into Wright’s poetry questionable (a more responsible author might simply draw attention to the parallels between Wright’s poetry and Zen). To ascribe Wright’s insights to “Zen” risks distorting and even diminishing Wright’s poetic accomplishment.
I can’t recommend the book, let alone for the $50.00 dollar asking price. The quality of the scholarship doesn’t merit it. If you can pick up the book for five dollars or less, then maybe. In the meantime, I’ve ordered the following from Amazon:
My hope is that this will be the book that Hakutani’s book should have been.
How about this for an exciting new kerfuffle: A New Hampshire politician, “someone on the legislature”, has decided the state needs an official “State Poem”. The choice is potentially going to be made this Thursday — apparently. How did I get wind of it? Another local poet, Dave Celone, forwarded the following:
Dear NH Poets and Readers,
There is a proposal that there be a state poem, being considered this week, on Thursday.
I am writing to you to ask if you would read this and get in touch with your representative (see info below) about it. My feeling is that this poem is inappropriate for a number of reasons. One is that, in a state where Jews (such as myself), Muslims, Buddhists, and people of other faiths, as well as agnostics and atheists, live, a poem that speaks of “Christ our Lord” is not a good choice. Even our Governor speaks passionately of inclusion. Other reasons not to choose this particular poem include the fact that it simply is an amateur work, and we live in a state that has fostered, and continues to foster, serious, skilled poets.
Yes, one could argue that there is much that is lovely, heart-felt and NH-based in this poem; but, for a number of reasons, I, along with other poets I’ve spoken to, including the president of the NH Poetry Society, Don Kimball, would like to see a different approach to this interesting idea of a state poem.
My proposal is that it would be wiser, and more exciting, to put out a state-wide call for entries. These could be poems already written, that poets and readers in our state would like to submit for consideration, or ones that we NH poets write. A committee made up of a team of knowledgeable readers and writers would choose from among the “candidates” submitted, looking for a worthwhile poem, with language that would inspire more inclusion as well as reflect the best in NH, to represent poetry in our state, and make a recommendation to the legislature.
Please read the proposed poem and contact your state representative. If you agree with me, let him or her know that this is not the poem for NH today or for the future, and that you would like to see implemented a process such as what I’ve outlined above, in order for us to make an informed, valid choice for this consideration of a state poem. Remember, the vote happens this Thursday morning! Thank you. And please spread the word!
The email goes on to cite the bill: “HB 152, the one proposing establishing a state poem, is scheduled for discussion in the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee on Thursday 1/22 at 11:00 AM in the Legislative Office Building, Room 306.” I was skeptical at first — my chain-mail alarms were going off — but, no, the bill’s for real. Here are the details, taken from the New Hampshire’s legislative website.
Session Year 2015
Text [HTML] [PDF]
|Title: establishing a state poem.
Just back in July, and down south, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory nominated — by executive/royal fiat it seems — Valerie Macon. For an artistic form that nobody cares about, all hell broke loose. The typical complaint leveled against Macon was the following:
“Valerie Macon is a beginner in her poetry career. Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations. If you don’t honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, than what’s the purpose of the laureate position?” [Melville House]
The counter-example was North Carolina’s prior poet laureate Joseph Bathanti, six books of poetry in tow and a recipient of awards and fellowships. Personally, I’m not the least impressed by Bathanti’s poetry. A count of books published is next to meaningless; and awards and fellowships are a dime a dozen. If poetic quality were ever a requirement for Poet Laureate-ness, then we’d have few, if any Poet Laureates. So, I personally wasn’t buying the she’s-not-a-good-enough-poet objection. Neither was Bathanti (and neither is our current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey). They’re competent.
The real complaint (and not without some legitimacy) can be summed up as follows:
“Pat McCrory made his selection with no input from the North Carolina Arts Council – which oversaw nominating and vetting in previous years – North Carolina’s poetry community reacted to her appointment with swift vehemence.” [&newsobserver.com]
In short, McCrory passed over the self-appointed guardians of literary-choosing — they who sit on the North Carolina Arts Council. How dare he. It does need stating, however, that there is no law requiring a governor to vet his choice with the Arts Council. That said, neither side, in my opinion, handled themselves well. Those offended by McCrory’s decision saw it as a partisan Republican snub, presumably, of liberals’ self-appointed, artistic pretensions:
“…this particular maverick political act doesn’t rank with McCrory’s legislative disdain for women, children, the middle and lower classes or the environment, but his cultural disdain for the people of North Carolina is almost as insidious. …could McCrory be sacrificing the hapless Macon in an effort to eliminate the laureate program altogether? You can anticipate his smug 2016 statement: “We’ve evaluated the effectiveness of the poet laureate over the last two years and have decided the position no longer merits taxpayer funding.” The budget line item is, however, tiny—the News and Observer reported the laureate’s stipend as between $5,000 and $15,000. That’s around 5 percent of the taxpayer funds McCrory had planned to spend to renovate his Executive Mansion bathrooms until public furor flushed his boondoggle last year.” [Chris Vitiello: IndyWeek]
While accusing McCrory of boorish manners, the same crowd eviscerated the hapless poet Valerie Macon — and that’s what nettles me. The North Carolina Arts Council (and individuals like Chris Vitiello) had a chance to step up. They could have accepted Macon, encouraged her, and shown some real class and humanity. Instead, they decided the whole affair was about them, and effectively eviscerated Valerie Macon. Sure, she may have self-published her books — so what? — and she may not have been the recipient of awards or fellowships — so what? — but she might have been a great Poet Laureate. It doesn’t take much to be a good Poet Laureate — writing decent poetry is not a prerequisite. In the meantime, Macon appears to have closed her website and withdrawn from public view. That’s a shame.
The best post I’ve found on the subject has this to say:
“North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory is a Republican and most definitely not a fan of the liberal arts. He’s also anti-gay, hates the Affordable Care Act, cut unemployment benefits, has been accused of voter suppression and believes the “educational elite” (that’s GOP code for pinko, homo, commie, hippie liberals) have taken over the schools and universities. So, his selection of Valerie Macon as the new state poet laureate should come as no surprise.
McCrory bypassed the North Carolina Arts Council and selected Macon on his own. Some believe that McCrory picked Macon because she’s a fellow Republican who speaks and writes in a voice far removed from the “elitists” he disparages on a regular basis. Of course, by selecting the hapless Macon, the governor has made her both a political and artistic football. Despite her political leanings, I have no doubt that Macon is mortified and hurt by the vitriol unleashed upon her by fellow poets, the press and on social media. By all accounts, Macon was just as surprised as anyone else by her appointment and was not seeking the job.”
And getting right to the point:
“The North Carolina Arts Council has seen its budget slashed, which is a typical move in Republican controlled states. Reading accounts of last year’s political maneuverings, it’s obvious that if the GOP had its way the arts council would cease to exist. So, it also comes as no surprise that McCrory would not seek the advice of a council that he would like to abolish. When pressed by the media about appointing Macon, the governor made some remarks about opening up opportunities for people who aren’t part of an “elite group” (note the use of “elite” again) and that he believed it was a good idea to “welcome new voices and new ideas.” [Collin Kelly: Modern Confessional]
But getting back to Governor Pat McCrory, the bruhaha demonstrates just how thoroughly anything and everything can become partisan. And that brings us back to New Hampshire. What kind of poem might the New Hampshire legislature adopt? Here it is:
My Homeland Sea
Sitting alone on a coral beach,
I looked far out to sea,
And memories cherished reflected then,
Of days that used to be.
The wintry blasts, the summer calm,
The quiet woodlands, the New England farm,
The sleeping pines, the springtime thaw,
Are only a few of the visions I saw.
Thanksgiving day and Christmas morn,
The day that Christ, Our Lord, was born,
New Years – birthdays – weddings – and births,
Burning embers in hand hewn hearths.
Will I see them again, I then asked of myself,
These things man can’t buy with material wealth?
Will I again see those mountains and the valleys below,
All covered in winter with a blanket of snow?
Will the church by the roadside with its white steeple high,
Still be sheltered by willows beneath the blue sky?
Will the robins in springtime still play on the lawn,
And the sleeping flowers blossom at each waking of the dawn?
The air of pines, the morning fog,
The singing loon on the cranberry bog,
The rockbound coast, my homeland sea,
Will they still be there awaiting me?
And the lovely lass I left behind,
Those memories, too, are on my mind.
Will she still be there when war is done,
And proudly sailing home we come?
And clouds once dark turn fleecy white,
And men no more for freedoms fight.
When human hearts rejoice in peace,
And America ours for life to lease,
When guns are silenced and lands are free,
The answers then will come to me.
Richard T. Hartnett
Navy Patrol Bombing Squadron 16
Saipan, Marianas Campaign
It’s a wonderfully heartfelt poem written by a poetaster. To the extent that it’s a private poem, I have no quarrel with it. But as a poem thrust before us as the poem of the state of New Hampshire? I reluctantly critique. It’s a well-meaning poem rife with all the expected flaws of an amateur poet – mawkish, sentimental, precious. What’s not to love if you’re a politician?
And memories cherished reflected then,
Of days that used to be.
As always, there’s a difference between writing poetically, and writing poetry. Hartnett’s poem is a prime example of the former. The archly poetic phrasing of “memories cherished reflected then” is so precious and syntactically contorted as to be almost incomprehensible. Nobody talks like this. Experienced poets don’t write like this. This is the kind of stuff that made Ezra Pound cringe. It’s a throwback to the aesthetics of the Victorian era.
Thanksgiving day and Christmas morn,
The day that Christ, Our Lord, was born…
The poem obviously presumes a Christian readership — and that surely appeals to a certain brand of politician. If the poem is to be the representative poem of New Hampshire, then the message is clear: We are a Christian state and Christ is “Our Lord” — and your Lord too (by the way). But setting that aside, more of the author’s amateurishness is on display. What else is Christmas morn but the day that Christ was born? It’s more than a little redundant. The two lines come off as mawkish with a touch of Sunday-school pedagogy. The truth of the matter is that born rhymed with morn. Hartnett, like any amateur poet, sacrifices quality for the easy rhyme.
Will I again see those mountains and the valleys below,
All covered in winter with a blanket of snow?
Hartnet wants to rhyme with snow, so he writes the completely gratuitous below. Ask yourself, when has a valley ever been anything other than below? Mountains below? Valleys above? The next line descends further into rank amateurishness. All covered as opposed to covered? A thing is either covered or it isn’t. Hartnett is simply padding the line. So, the valleys are all covered, but even that’s not enough. Hartnett then adds the superfluous blanket. There’s not much going on in these lines.
Will the church by the roadside with its white steeple high
A grammatical inversion for the sake of rhyme. The hallmark of the amateur formalist.
Still be sheltered by willows beneath the blue sky?
When has a steeple been anything other than beneath the sky? More gratuitous redundancy.
…waking of the dawn…
The air of pines, the morning fog,
The singing loon on the cranberry bog,
Possibly the best lines in the poem. No redundancies. No syntactic pirouettes for the sake of rhyme.
Those memories, too, are on my mind.
As opposed to where? Where else would those memories be but ‘on his mind’? More gratuitous padding.
And clouds once dark turn fleecy white…
Yes, the cliché of clichés — ‘fleecy white’. It doesn’t get better than this if you’re a connoisseur of clichés.
When human hearts rejoice in peace,
And America ours for life to lease…
The second of the two lines is a syntactic disaster, utterly distorted and almost incomprehensible — all for the sake of a bad rhyme.
My advice? This is a wonderful, personal poem written by a young soldier yearning for an end to war. Leave it at that. It was never meant to be New Hampshire’s state poem. There are much better poems, better written and more inclusive. What about Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, written in Vermont?
In the meantime, I notice that another poem has been forwarded as an alternative, one by Andre Papillon.
New Hampshire Impressions
This bridge of land has been unlocked
From careful hand to masts of rock
That loom and stretch the ribboned road
Has quarried most, that green she coats
Then inks to black where eyes of doe
Flit swift and cold near boulder’s throne
By cutting gullies, frothing white
The heads of moss poke holes through night
And burdened there with cat-like eyes
Are sparkler brights on country heights
Whose patient rovers crossing lanes
Drop tracks of rolls and coffee stains
My apologies to Andre Papillon, but this isn’t any better. The use of meter and rhyme does not excuse poor grammar and incomprehensible syntax. If we take the first stanzas and turn them into prose, this is what we get:
This bridge of land has been unlocked from careful hand to masts of rock that loom and stretch the ribboned road has quarried most, that green she coats then inks to black where eyes of doe flit swift and cold near boulder’s throne by cutting gullies, frothing white the heads of moss poke holes through night and burdened there with cat-like eyes are sparkler brights on country heights whose patient rovers crossing lanes drop tracks of rolls and coffee stains (period?) …
This is doggerel. My advice to poets writing traditional poetry is this: If it’s not readable prose, then it’s not going to be readable poetry. A passage that utilizes rhyme and meter should withstand a turn to prose. That is, the rules that govern prose govern poetry. E.E. Cummings, you object! Yes, but E.E. Cummings choices were a careful and deliberate departure. It’s not easy, and there’s only been one E.E. Cummings. Emily Dickinson? Sometimes she’s successful. Sometimes not. Despite her genius, her poetry can be incomprehensible without annotation.
Beyond that, Papillon’s poem suffers from the same flaws as Hartnett’s, in one instance indulging in precisely the same gratuitous excess (for the sake of rhyme):
A cloud of crow, a wash of dove
Round heights that ice has gripped above
Just as with with Hartnett’s “valley’s below”, Papillon gives us ice that has “gripped above”. As opposed to where? Below? This kind of gratuitousness is the hallmark of the inexperienced rhymer — the sort of thing that makes free verse practitioners groan.
My advice to the New Hampshire legislature: Make it an inclusive poem, yes; but make it a good poem. If you’re not a carpenter, you might want to think long and hard before you build your own house. Likewise, don’t be embarrassed to ask for advice from those with some experience in the poetic trade. It’s not about elitism. It’s about choosing a poem that represents the best in poetic craftsmanship — and New Hampshire.
Written from up in Vermont: January 19th 2015
Or as Robert Frost once put it:
“It’s restful to arrive at a decision,
And restful just to think about New Hampshire.
At present I am living in Vermont. “
Because I was having trouble focusing on my own poetry, I flipped open my complete Norton Shakespeare, to a page at random, and started reading. I had stumbled into Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 2 — the argument between Brutus and Cassius — one of my favorite dramatic scenes. The swift give and take between the two characters is beautifully imagined (naturally enough, this is Shakespeare). At the very end of their argument, do you remember this part?
Cassius Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
Cassius: O Brutus!
Brutus: What’s the matter?
Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight. etc.
Some readers might have a vague memory of this. Others, much more familiar with the play, may notice something or someone missing — the Poet. The Poet is a character who only appears once in the entire play, without any warning, without any preamble, and only between the lines above (which I removed).
Now, if you’re anything like me, the first thought that occurs to you is: Huh? Where did this utterly superfluous and arbitrary character come from? And why? What purpose does he serve? And where did he go? The scene works just fine without him. So I got to thinking about it and came up with an almost completely baseless theory proceeding from the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. But hear me out. The first thing to notice is that I could excise the passage without messing up the lines (meter). This may be complete coincidence, but it may also hint that the passage is an interpolation added later.
However, knowing that Shakespeare based Julius Ceasar on Plutarch, I first wanted to see if “the Poet ” is in Plutarch. In fact, he is… sort of. Here’s the relevant passage from here:
Brutus now summoned Cassius to Sardis, and as he drew near, went to meet him with his friends; and the whole army, in full array, saluted them both as Imperators. 2 But, as is wont to be the case in great undertakings where there are many friends and commanders, mutual charges and accusations had passed between them, and therefore, immediately after their march and before they did anything else, they met in a room by themselves. The doors were locked, and, with no one by, they indulged in fault-finding first, then in rebukes and denunciations. 3 After this, they were swept along into passionate speeches and tears, and their friends, amazed at the harshness and intensity of their anger, feared so untoward a result; they were, however, forbidden to approach. 4 But Marcus Favonius, who had become a devotee of Cato, and was more impetuous and frenzied than reasonable in his pursuit of philosophy, tried to go in to them, and was prevented by their servants. 5 It was no easy matter, however, to stop Favonius when he sprang to do anything, for he was always vehement and rash. The fact that he was a Roman senator was of no importance in his eyes, and by the “cynical” boldness of his speech he often took away its offensiveness, and therefore men put up with his impertinence as a joke. 6 And so at this time he forced his way through the bystanders and entered the room, reciting in an affected voice the verses wherein Homer represents Nestor as saying:—
|“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am,”|
and so forth. 7 At this Cassius burst out laughing; but Brutus drove Favonius out of the room, calling him a mere dog, and a counterfeit Cynic. However, at the time, this incident put an end to their quarrel, and they separated at once. 8 Furthermore, Cassius gave a supper, to which Brutus invited his friends. And as the guests were already taking their places at the feast, Favonius came, fresh from his bath. Brutus protested that he had come without an invitation, and ordered the servants to conduct him to the uppermost couch; but Favonius forced his way past them and reclined upon the central one.b And over the wine mirth and jest abounded, seasoned with wit and philosophy.
So, a mystery is afoot. If Shakespeare was solely being faithful to Plutarch, why introduce Favonius as a “Poet”? And if faithfulness was at issue, why exclude Favonius from Brutus and Cassius’ drinking bout? And if faithfulness was not at issue, why introduce Favonius at all? How does he advance the play? In Plutarch’s original, it was Favonius’ interruption (and Brutus and Cassius’ mutual contempt for him) that united them and ended their quarrel. In Shakespeare’s version of events, Brutus and Cassius had already embraced prior to the “Poet’s” appearance, so there’s no reason for Favonius, or the Poet, to enter the scene (let alone the play). None.
So, what’s going on? Well. I have a theory.
My theory, which I’ve already alluded to, is that the Poet’s appearance wasn’t in the original play, but was an interpolation added by Shakespeare (most likely) at some point after the play was originally written. Why? I think the clue is that Favonius was changed to a poet. Right about this time, the famous (or infamous) “Poet’s War” was getting started (Ben Jonson being in the middle of it). I think the “Poet” was Shakespeare’s jab at Jonson. There’s reason to think that Shakespeare made other jabs at Jonson, and Jonson appears to have lampooned Shakespeare in his plays (setting aside his satirical characterizations of Webster and Dekker). The Poet’s War was no secret and the Elizabethan audience was in on it. They were well aware of who was being satirized and lampooned — and they loved it.
But, you may object, the character of Favonius was never referred to as “a poet”. How would the audience have been in on the joke? My answer? Probably because he was dressed like a poet, or dramatist, and possibly was even made to look like Ben Jonson. And furthermore, going completely out on a limb, my bet is that Shakespeare (to really capitalize on the joke) played the part of the Poet. But before we go any further, let’s take a step back. Would Shakespeare really “mar” one of his masterpieces for the sake of a joke?
We know that Shakespeare was involved in the poet’s war because of a reference to Shakespeare and Jonson made by an anonymous author at St. John’s College in 1601-2, in his A Return from Parnassus. My source for this (and all that follows) is Shakespeare & The Poet’s War by James P. Bednarz. Bednarz writes:
…the anonymous author has the students impersonating Richard Burbage and William Kemp not only reveal that Shakespeare participated in the struggle but also affirm that by the strength of his wit he managed to overcome all other combatants in the process. “Kemp” especially exults in Shakespeare’s victory over Jonson:
Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, ay and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow. He brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit. [p. 21]
The rest of Berdnarz’s book is dedicated to teasing out exactly what this “purge” might have been. All critics agree on the “pill” — Jonson’s denunciation of Marston and Dekker in Act 5, Scene 3 of Poetaster, but there’s no real agreement on the “purge”. First to the pill. Jonson was in a snit. Marston had gotten things going by, among other things, stating that Jonson was little more than a translator who stole the works of others. Jonson’s riposte was to satirize Marston’s turgid style and mannered vocabulary in the character of Crispinus. The specific passage is about half way down, but I’ve copied this much because it begins with the “pill”. As Bednarz points out, “Crisponus disgorges fourteen words and phrases that can still be located in Marston’s prior work: ‘barmy froth,’ ‘chilblained,’ ‘clumsy,’ ‘clutched,’ [etc…]” p. 215]
Hor. Please it, great Caesar, I have pills about me,
Mixt with the whitest kind of hellebore,
Would give him a light vomit, that should purge
His brain and stomach of those tumorous heats:
Might I have leave to minister unto him.
O, be his AEsculapius, gentle Horace!
You shall have leave, and he shall be your patient. Virgil,
Use your authority, command him forth.
Caesar is careful of your health, Crispinus;
And hath himself chose a physician
To minister unto you: take his pills.
They are somewhat bitter, sir, but very wholesome.
Take yet another; so: stand by, they’ll work anon.
Tib. Romans, return to your several seats: lictors, bring forward
the urn; and set the accused to the bar.
Tuc. Quickly, you whoreson egregious varlets; come forward. What!
shall we sit all day upon you? You make no more haste now, than a
beggar upon pattens; or a physician to a patient that has no money,
Tib. Rufus Laberius Crispinus, and Demetrius Fannius, hold up your
hands. You have, according to the Roman custom, put yourselves upon
trial to the urn, for divers and sundry calumnies, whereof you
have, before this time, been indicted, and are now presently
arraigned: prepare yourselves to hearken to the verdict of your
tryers. Caius Cilnius Mecaenas pronounceth you, by this
hand-writing, guilty. Cornelius Gallus, guilty. Pantilius Tucca–
Tuc. Parcel-guilty, I.
He means himself; for it was he indeed
Suborn’d us to the calumny.
Tuc. I, you whoreson cantharides! was it I?
Dem. I appeal to your conscience, captain.
Tib. Then you confess it now?
Dem. I do, and crave the mercy of the court.
Tib. What saith Crispinus?
Cris. O, the captain, the captain—
Bor. My physic begins to work with my patient, I see.
Virg. Captain, stand forth and answer.
Tuc. Hold thy peace, poet praetor: I appeal from thee to Caesar, I.
Do me right, royal Caesar.
Marry, and I will, sir.—Lictors, gag him; do.
And put a case of vizards o’er his head,
That he may look bifronted, as he speaks.
Tuc. Gods and fiends! Caesar! thou wilt not, Caesar, wilt thou?
Away, you whoreson vultures; away. You think I am a dead corps now,
because Caesar is disposed to jest with a man of mark, or so. Hold
your hook’d talons out of my flesh, you inhuman harpies. Go to,
do’t. What! will the royal Augustus cast away a gentleman of
worship, a captain and a commander, for a couple of condemn’d
caitiff calumnious cargos?
Caes. Dispatch, lictors.
Tuc. Caesar! [The vizards are put upon him.
Caes. Forward, Tibullus.
Virg. Demand what cause they had to malign Horace.
Dem. In troth, no great cause, not I, I must confess; but that he
kept better company, for the most part, than I; and that better men
loved him than loved me; and that his writings thrived better than
mine, and were better liked and graced: nothing else.
Thus envious souls repine at others’ good.
If this be all, faith, I forgive thee freely.
Envy me still, so long as Virgil loves me,
Gallus, Tibullus, and the best-best Caesar,
My dear Mecaenas; while these, with many more,
Whose names I wisely slip, shall think me worthy
Their honour’d and adored society,
And read and love, prove and applaud my poems;
I would not wish but such as you should spite them.
Tib. How now, Crispinus?
Cris. O, I am sick–!
Hor. A bason, a bason, quickly; our physic works. Faint not, man.
Caes. What’s that, Horace?
Hor. Retrograde, reciprocal, and incubus, are come up.
Gal. Thanks be to Jupiter!
Hor. Well said; here’s some store.
Virg. What are they?
Hor. Glibbery, lubrical, and defunct.
Gal. O, they came up easy.
Tib. What’s that?
Hor. Nothing yet.
Mec. Magnificate! That came up somewhat hard.
Hor. Ay. What cheer, Crispinus?
Cris. O! I shall cast up my——spurious——snotteries——
Hor. Good. Again.
Hor. That clumsie stuck terribly.
Mec. What’s all that, Horace?
Hor. Spurious, snotteries, chilblain’d, clumsie.
Tib. O Jupiter!
Gal. Who would have thought there should have been such a deal of
filth in a poet?
Cris. O——balmy froth——
Caes. What’s that?
Hor. Balmy, froth, puffie, inflate, turgidous, and ventosity are
Tib. O terrible windy words.
Gal. A sign of a windy brain.
Hor. Here’s a deal; oblatrant, furibund, fatuate, strenuous.
Caes. Now all’s come up, I trow. What a tumult he had in his belly?
Hor. No, there’s the often conscious damp behind still.
Hor. It is come up, thanks to Apollo and AEsculapius: another; you
were best take a pill more.
Cris. O, no; O——O——O——O——O!
Hor. Force yourself then a little with your finger.
Tib. Prorumped I What a noise it made! as if his spirit would have
prorumpt with it.
Virg. Help him, it sticks strangely, whatever it is.
Hor. Now it is come; clutcht.
Caes. Clutcht! it is well that’s come up; it had but a narrow
Virg. Again! hold him, hold his head there.
Cris. Snarling gusts——quaking custard.
Hor. How now, Crispinus?
Tib. Nay, that are all we, I assure you.
Hor. How do you feel yourself?
Cris. Pretty and well, I thank you.
These pills can but restore him for a time,
Not cure him quite of such a malady,
Caught by so many surfeits, which have fill’d
His blood and brain thus full of crudities:
‘Tis necessary therefore he observe
A strict and wholesome diet. Look you take
Each morning of old Cato’s principles
A good draught next your heart; that walk upon,
Till it be well digested: then come home,
And taste a piece of Terence, suck his phrase
Instead of liquorice; and, at any hand,
Shun Plautus and old Ennius: they are meats
Too harsh for a weak stomach.
Use to read (But not without a tutor) the best Greeks,
As Orpheus, Musaeus, Pindarus,
Hesiod, Callimachus, and Theocrite,
High Homer; but beware of Lycophron,
He is too dark and dangerous a dish.
You must not hunt for wild outlandish terms,
To stuff out a peculiar dialect;
But let your matter run before your words.
And if at any time you chance to meet
Some Gallo-Belgic phrase; you shall not straight.
Rack your poor verse to give it entertainment,
But let it pass; and do not think yourself
Much damnified, if you do leave it out,
When nor your understanding, nor the sense
Could well receive it. This fair abstinence,
In time, will render you more sound and clear:
And this have I prescribed to you, in place
Of a strict sentence; which till he perform,
Attire him in that robe. And henceforth learn
To bear yourself more humbly; not to swell,
Or breathe your insolent and idle spite
On him whose laughter can your worst affright.
Tib. Take him away.
Note the monologue at the end, where Ben Jonson, in the guise of Virgil, gets to pompously lecture Marston and Dekker. My point in copying it here is, first, because it’s actually hilarious if you can imagine it onstage and, two, to show how Jonson, Dekker, Marston, and eventually Shakespeare, after his own fashion, were playing out their argument before all of London. Not only were they making their case before the Elizabethan public, but it’s also liekly that their on-stage dispute was raking in the money; and they weren’t fools (Marston, Dekker, and Jonson would all happily work together again.) It’s not unreasonable to suspect that they kissed and made up well before they ended the feud. But getting back to Shakespeare, what was his fashion? Berdnarz argues that Shakespeare satirized Jonson in the character of Ajax from his play Troilus and Cressida:.
“As Elton observes, the language of A Return from Parnassus is more prcise in its connotations than readers had heretofore recognized. Kemp’s line, “our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit,” uses the word “beray” as a synonym in Elizabethan parlance for “befoul” or “beshit.” Elron concludes that Shakespeare ‘purged’ Jonson by satirizing him as a witless braggart soldier compounded of humours, and berayed his credit — befouled his reputation — by naming him Ajax, signifying a privy’ Shakespeare needed Ajaz for the depiction of Trojan history, but he built into the role a reference to Jonson in order to expose him by proxy to his own comic plotting. Ever since John Harington in The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) encouraged his readers to pronounce the hero’s name with a stress on the second syllable (“a jakes”), it had had a latent comic association. Harington incited a reply from an anonymous rival who took him to task in Ulysses Upon Ajax, or in other words, “Ulyssess on the privy.” [p. 32-33]
Shakespeare’s satire of Jonson is gist for the entire book, but this at least gives an introduction. What did Jonson say that irked Shakespeare? As it turns out, one of Jonson’s surviving criticisms of Shakespeare pertains to his play Julius Caesar:
“Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, “Caesar, thou dost me wrong,” he replied “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”
Now, strangely enough, this line can’t be found in the play as it as come down to us. Instead, we find the following:
“Know Caesar doth no wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.”
Somebody changed the line. Not only that, when but when they changed it they left a half-line, as if, in Berdnarz’s words, they indicated a revision. What this tells us is that the play was altered subsequent to Jonson’s barb; and this is important because it adds just a little plausibility to my own contention that the “Poet” was also, possibly, a subsequent revision. In other words, Shakespeare may have corrected the much maligned line, but also added a little barb in the guise of the “poet”.
But before I copy out the lines with Shakespeare’s “Poet” included, a couple more observations. There was another criticism that Jonson made of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, and that was lambasting Shakespeare for ignoring the classical unities. Jonson especially singled out the Shakespeare’s Henry V, contemptuous of the play’s personified “Prologue” who wafted the audience hither and anon in complete disregard of the “classical unities“. In the 1616 Folio Edition of Jonson’s plays, the following prologue appeared in Every Man In His Humour.
Though need make many poets, and some such
As art and nature have not better’d much;
Yet ours for want hath not so loved the stage,
As he dare serve the ill customs of the age,
Or purchase your delight at such a rate,
As, for it, he himself must justly hate:
To make a child now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster’s king jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.
He rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;
But deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would shew an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.
Except we make them such, by loving still
Our popular errors, when we know they’re ill.
I mean such errors as you’ll all confess,
By laughing at them, they deserve no less:
Which when you heartily do, there’s hope left then,
You, that have so grac’d monsters, may like men.
The whole of it is a scathing criticism from beginning to end. From what I can gather, the assumption seems to be that because the prologue first appeared in print in the 1616 Folio Edition, it must have been written then. I don’t see a compelling reason to make that assumption. Why would Jonson write such a scathing prologue almost 20 years after Henry V’s first appearance (1599)? My own supposition, and based on Shakespeare’s “Poet”, is that it appeared much earlier, and was probably appended to the play during the Poetomachia. Every Man In His Humour was first staged in 1598, before Henry V, but continued to be staged, and probably contemporaneously with Henry V. In fact, Jonson’s play was entered into the Register of the Stationers’ Company on 4 August 1600, along with Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V. It’s much more likely, in my opinion, that the prologue, or an early form of it, appeared shortly after Henry V as the Poetomachia heated up. If I’m right, then Jonson only formally added it to the play, for the sake of the folio, in 1616.
And one last bit of information before we read the passage with the poet. Here’s a brief explanation of Jonson’s Humours from here:
As Jonson has been much misrepresented in this matter, let us quote his
own words as to “humour.” A humour, according to Jonson, was a bias of
disposition, a warp, so to speak, in character by which
“Some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way.”
But continuing, Jonson is careful to add:
“But that a rook by wearing a pied feather,
The cable hat-band, or the three-piled ruff,
A yard of shoe-tie, or the Switzers knot
On his French garters, should affect a humour!
O, it is more than most ridiculous.”
Jonson’s comedy of humours, in a word, conceived of stage personages
on the basis of a ruling trait or passion (a notable simplification
of actual life be it observed in passing); and, placing these typified
traits in juxtaposition in their conflict and contrast, struck the
spark of comedy.
Now, what would you do if you were Shakespeare? Not only does Jonson lay into your play Julius Caesar, shooting off his mouth about a phrase that he finds utterly nonsensical,
“I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. . .” ~ Ben Jonson
But he’s he added a rhyming Prologue to his play Every Man in his Humour, accusing you of provincial incompetence, of ignoring the classical unities (messing with the normal progress of time and place), and does it all while lording his own classical education over you. Why, if you were Shakespeare, you might go back and insert a few lines, changing Plutarch’s Favonius into a character who looked and acted suspiciously like Ben Jonson, and probably much to the uproarious delight of the playgoers.
Cassius: Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
Cassius: O Brutus!
Brutus: What’s the matter?
Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
Enter [Lucillius and] a POET
POET: Let me go in to see the generals.
There is some grudge between ’em; ’tis not meet
They be alone.
Lucillius: You shall not come to them.
POET: Nothing but death shall stay me.
Cassius: How now! What’s the matter?
POET: For shame, you generals, what do you mean?
Love and be friends, as two such men should be.
For I have seen more years, I’m sure, than ye.
Cassius: Ha, ha! How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!
Brutus [to the Poet] Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!
Cassius: Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.
Brutus: I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?
[To the Poet] Companion, hence!
Cassius: Away, away, be gone!
Brutus: Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight. etc.
That Poet, I propose, is Ben Jonson. He can’t keep from barging in and giving his pompous, bloated opinion in the midst of the play. I suspect the audience immediately recognized him. In he goes! Nothing but death shall stay him! (And that might be a barbed reference to Jonson’s boasting that he had taken Marston’s pistol from him. ) What does Jonson do? He claims legitimacy “for I have seen more years” in a way that echoes his claim to a superior knowledge of classical literature — (the classical unities & dramaturgy). “How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!” cries Brutus. Favonius was a cynic, a “member of a philosophical school that refused to respect differences in social class.” [The Norton Shakespeare p. 1575] Jonson, among other jests, ceaselessly made fun of Shakespeare’s desire to be a gentleman and obtain a coat of arms. Consider this from Wikipedia:
Every Man Out of His Humour includes several references to Shakespeare and his contemporaneous works: a mention of Justice Silence from Henry IV, Part 2—”this is a kinsman to Justice Silence” (V,ii) and two allusions to Julius Casear, which help to date that play to 1599. “Et tu, Brute” occurs in V,iv of Every Man Out; in III,i appears “reason long since is fled to animals,” a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s line “O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts” in Julius Caesar, III,ii,104. Some critics have seen a dig at Shakespeare in the coat of arms that Jonson gives his character Sogliardo in III,1, whose crest features a ” boar without a head, rampant – A boar without a head, that’s very rare!” and the motto “Not without mustard.” The motto of Shakespeare’s family coat of arms granted three years earlier was Non Sans Droit, “not without right.”
Shakespeare’s humorous jab is both true to Plutarch (Favonius was a cynic) and also true of Jonson (who disrespects Shakespeare’s social climbing). The “rhyme”, in my opinion, refers to the rhyming of the prologue to Every Man In His Humour. Shakespeare, in the character of Brutus, then brusquely dismisses Jonson: “Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!”
Cassius, perhaps representing the common opinion on Jonson, says: “Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.”
This is the praise that damns. Jonson’s posturing is merely fashion, rather than anything principled. And then Brutus executes the coup de grâce:
I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?
In my view, Shakespeare all but spells it out. “I’ll know his humour” — a sly reference to Jonson’s plays Every Man In and Every Man Out of His Humour, if not his philosophical dramaturgy in general “when he knows his time.” I suspect time is a coy jab at Jonson’s harping on the classical unities. In other words, Shakespeare will give a damn what Jonson thinks when Jonson knows his time — that he’s a playwright in Elizabethan England and not ancient Rome. Basta. And then he adds (with possibly a reference to Henry V) — “What should the wars (Henry V) do with these jigging (rhyming) fools (Ben Jonson).”
“Away, away, be gone!” says Cassius, as though speaking the general censure.
All the while, Brutus and Cassius are laughing; and this too is true to Plutarch, who wrote that Favonius’s foolery disarmed both Brutus’s and Cassius’s anger. Shakespeare substitutes the so-called “Poet”, Ben Jonson, for the fool, Favonius; and probably to the delight of the Elizabethan audience, who laughed along with Brutus and Cassius.
A stroke of genius, if you ask me (and if I’m right). Let me know what you think.
So, the other book I read was Byron & Shelley in their Time: The Making of the Poets. This is written by Ian Gilmour. Gilmour’s writing is much different from Sisman’s. Whereas Sisman’s narrative voice is more generically reportorial, Gilmour packs his narrative with subjective opinion and analysis – revealing a knowledge of culture and politics that Sisman nowhere matches. Gilmour digs in, hard, giving opinions on both Byron and Shelley’s behavior — and doesn’t pull any punches. I frankly like Gilmour’s style of writing more than Sisman’s. If Gilmour thinks Shelley was being ridiculous, he says so. And there’s plenty of opportunity. Interestingly, it strikes me that Gilmour repeatedly dismisses Shelley’s atheism and I do have to wonder whether part of that is because of his having been a Conservative MP from 1962 to 1992, “having served as Secretary of State for Defense under Edward Heath and then as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.” I don’t know if a conservative MP is the same thing as a conservative in the United States (those in the United States never saw a problem the Bible couldn’t fix.)
The downside to Gilmour’s biography is that there’s relatively little poetry. He spends much of his time on Byron and Shelley’s politics (which makes sense, I suppose, given his background) and sexual proclivities, speculating time and again on whether their various physical ailments were due to STD’s. To be fair, the lion’s share of the biography takes place before they had written anything memorable, and yet some influence on their later work ought to be demonstrable. If you visit Amazon you’ll see that other readers thought Gilmour dwelt too much on the “biography” and too little on the poetry.
As for myself, the whole book was an education on the brutal Lord of the Flies that was the British educational system, and the incompetent, self-interested, cruel corruption that characterized the rule of the aristocracy. What really struck me is how, in certain respects, little has changed. We still see the same forces battling each other today, including in the United States. The aristocrats have been replaced by monied conservatives and Republicans. The Republicans of Byron and Shelley’s day, on the other hand, have become our modern liberals. Just as the authoritarian English aristocrats felt they were entitled to their money and status (and didn’t owe a shred of their wealth to the less well off) so it is with modern authoritarian conservatives — whose cries of socialism are little more than an affirmation of Social Darwinism (which is all well and good when the money’s in their pocket).
The British government didn’t serve the people; it was the other way around and knowingly so. And Religion, by the way, really was the opiate of the masses. The upper classes knowingly expected the Church (which has almost always enjoyed the status of an aristocracy) to uphold the social order:
Together with Napolean and many others, Edmund Burke was convinced that only if religion was able to keep the poor, if not contented, at least quiescent, could great inequalities of wealth survive. Thus to the Church — long an important part of the state — fell the task of providing ‘divine cement’ to hold society together by urging the poor to seek their consolation in the next world, not this one. [p. 48]
In our own time, the parallel is to the elevation of unregulated Capitalism. Just as the poor were urged to seek consolation in the “next world”, the poor in the United States are urged to seek consolation in the promise that they too, given the right circumstances, could enjoy the ‘next world’ that the wealthy and rich already enjoy — the ‘divine cement’ of modern America is the illusion of “equal opportunity” or rather, the notion that all opportunity is equal, that the same wealth can be had by all — promised (though through different means) by both Republicans and Democrats. Gilmour goes on to add:
William Wilberforce, who took a much stronger line on slavery, of course, also urged the poor to be grateful for having to withstand fewer temptations than the rich, consequently they should be content to have ‘food and raiment’ (even though many of them did not have enough) since ‘their situation’ was better ‘than they deserved at the hand of God.’ [p. 48]
And for comparison’s sake, here’s Tucker Carlson of Fox News:
“All of us should be happy about one thing, and it’s that for the first time in human history you have a country whose poor people are fat. So this does show this sort of amazing abundance. For the last however many millennia, poor people starved to death. And this is a country that’s so rich, whose agriculture sector is so vibrant and at the cutting edge technologically, that our food is so cheap, poor people are fat! I mean, I don’t know. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”
It’s the same monied aristocracy alive and well today. By today’s standards, Shelley would be a scrappy progressive writing blistering jeremiads for far left think tanks, giving Republicans dyspepsia (he reviled marriage before settling, it seems, for an open marriage), and Byron would be the well-heeled Democratic Senator from Massachusetts (a devastatingly handsome, brilliant, womanizing, Ivy-League progressive with a gated colonial at Martha’s Vineyard). Both Shelley (and Bryon especially) came from aristocratic families, and both were active in their political leanings. For example, the British law of the entail requires that “the passage of (a landed estate) [be limited] to a specified line of heirs, so that it cannot be alienated, devised, or bequeathed.” This meant, by law, that Shelley was entitled to his father’s inheritance and estate (and none of his sisters). And, as it turns out, William Bysshe Shelley was the first and only eldest son and aristocrat, in the history of England, who tried to disinherit himself — so disgusted was he by the whole system. Shelley’s father, Timothy Shelley, a cold, disinterested and inept father of strong conservative conviction would have been equally happy to disinherit his son:
Shelley had had no word from his father. As soon as Timothy received his son’s letter of 25 August, posted by Charles Grove (which, as we have seen, boorishly demanded his belongings), he hastened to London to consult Whitton, his solicitor. He would have liked to disinherit his son, but Whitton showed him that the entails ruled that out, much as they had ruled out Shelley disinheriting himself. [p. 280]
And that was that. Gilmour also devotes a chapter to Shelley’s trip to Dublin, Ireland.
The object of his Address to them, which he had written at Keswick and revised in Dublin where it was printed cheaply and shoddily, was to ‘awaken… the Irish poor’ to the evils of their present state and suggest ‘rational means of remedy — Catholic Emancipation, and a Repeal of the Union Act, (the latter the most successful engine that England ever wielded over the misery of fallen Ireland,)… Hence, Shelley had ‘wilfully vulgarized its language… [to suit] the taste and comprehension of the Irish peasantry who have been too long brutalized by vice and ignorance.’ [p. 306]
Gilmour goes on to assert that Shelley misjudged the Irish only insomuch, it seems, as he was too progressive. “Shelley further offended his target readers by telling them that the gates of heaven were open to people of every religion, which was not the general view in a country where, as Byron had written… ‘jarring sects convulse a sister isle'” [p. 307] Byron, on the other hand, is portrayed as a more practical personality with a more even-keeled intelligence. And that’s where I discovered that I liked Byron after all, and more than Shelley (though I don’t dislike Shelley).
Byron’s ill-repute is based on his womanizing, his incestuous relationship with his sister, and his aristocratic hypocrisy (while decrying the undeserved entitlements of the ‘nobility’, he nevertheless took offense at the most trivial slights to his own). In another biography of Byron and Shelley (I’ve just started) the author, John Buxton, puts it this way:
Charles Hentsch, the banker, who at twenty-six was already well known [in Geneva] came [to Byron] to apologise for not recognizing Byron when he visited the bank on the previous day. He had the tact to say that he had had no idea that he was then speaking to one of the most famous Lords of England. Byron took to him at once (as he would not have done had Hentsch called him one of the most famous poets of England… [p. 6 Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship]
That made me laugh. And I’m inclined to agree with Buxton. The thing about Byron though (and this is also true of Shelley) is that one has to consider his upbringing before judging his adulthood. Byron was born with a club foot (or an abnormality that was inaccurately diagnosed as such). As a child, he had to wear a brace (concocted by a quack) which was ostensibly meant to correct the leg but only caused extreme pain and possibly worsened Byron’s leg. Once Byron landed in school, a brutal environment where a hundred boys might be ‘disciplined’ by a single adult, he was bullied mercilessly because of it (like Shelley for smallness, eccentricity and effeminacy). Sex between adolescent boys was, if not rampant, tacitly accepted. Boys were expected to grow out of their homosexual experimentation (if not desperation) once they reached manhood. Education for the young men of the aristocracy was a brutal affair, a true Lord of the Flies tale of bullying, favoritism and ruthless hierarchy. Shelley learned to identify with the downtrodden, as did Byron, who pointedly protected younger students from bullying once he was old enough (another reason I like him).
Byron was also sexually exploited [abused?] as a child by his nurse, May Gray:
According to Byron, he ‘certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; yet he had sexual experiences. These were provided by his nurse Mary Gray. As the boy subsequently told his solicitor… his sternly Calvinist nurse ‘used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person… [p. 35]
Add to this the extremes of anger and affection that characterized his mother, the utter abandonment of his gold-digging (if not sociopathic) father, and the Gordon and Byron family history of murderous dysfunction (too much to go into), it honest-to-God makes George Gordon Lord Byron look like a Saint (compared to who he could have been). If incest and aristocratic hypocrisy are the worst of this crimes, then I love the man. As to Byron’s seemingly “misogynistic” attitude toward women, this was not unique to Byron, but was shared by nearly all men of the age (except perhaps the ‘pantisocratic‘ Coleridge). Women, by in large, were considered light-brained, trivial beings, incapable of much beyond macramé and sugar plums.
The opinion I have of the generality of women–who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar plum than my time, forms a barrier against matrimony which I rejoice in. ~ John Keats
And if we’re fair, women chased Byron with as much alacrity as he chased them. It’s not as if Byron thrust himself on them (or his sister). The Byron that I discovered (more so than with Shelley I think) was a deeply intelligent man, inquisitive, gentle, sensitive to the suffering of others, compassionate, with a fixed sense of right and wrong, but also proud, quick to take offense, and volatile. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, prompted by the 1812 Frame Breaking Act, he could write the following:
But suppose it past,—suppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame ; suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault than he can no longer so support; suppose this man—and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims,—dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law,—still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!”
The force of Byron’s personality (which he captured in the heroes of his poetry) led to the neologism: Byronic.
“…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” ~ Lord Macauley
All that said, if Shelley walked through the door, I’d drop everything: my best wine, a four course dinner. and maybe my lover if he asked. I mean, come on, it’s Shelley and Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maybe, at some point, we’d discuss poetry; but to spend the evening with that keen and impatient idealist — and intelligence — would be pretty cool.
So, anyway, this post is just some brief impressions and the renewal of my friendship with Byron. Gilmour’s book ends just before Byron and Shelley meet, so while I can guess at the mutual attraction (similar backgrounds, sympathies and politics), I haven’t read the biography. Fortunately, John Buxton’s Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship (written earlier) will pick up where Gilmour left off. I’ll report on that book too, when I’m done with it.
I’ve been reading about Wordsworth and Coleridge — gaining perspective on their works and accomplishments. (I also read a biography on the friendship of Byron and Shelley which I’ll talk about in a later post — the curious thing is that I ended up disliking Shelley and liking Byron, and that was completely unexpected.) My dislike for Wordsworth, unfortunately, has only been reinforced. Now, not only does Wordsworth’s poetry exasperate me, but I find his person (at least as revealed in Sisman’s biography) more than a little dislikable. I don’t blame Sisman. He treats Wordsworth equitably, but it’s hard to ignore the man’s narcissism, self-centered’ness and the execrable way he treated Coleridge. The “friendship”, after all, appears to have been predicated on both mens’ idolatry and love of Wordsworth (and for that, Coleridge doesn’t go Scott-free).
Wordsworth was prolific and produced poetry with apparent ease. Coleridge, initially, produced almost as much poetry as Wordsworth, but struggled to a degree that Wordsworth didn’t. Writing didn’t come as easily; and Coleridge was also afflicted with self-doubt (and self-recrimination) in a way that Wordsworth never was. As the friendship progressed, Coleridge fêted Wordsworth’s ego by calling him the era’s great genius and comparing him to Milton, which in some quarters was higher praise than to be called the “next Shakespeare”. On the other hand, Coleridge was considered the far greater poet by his peers and the general public. He was an extempore speaker of genius. He possessed a photographic memory and could recite from memory any piece of writing having read it once. Coleridge’s impression on his peers is hard to overstate.
And so Coleridge’s self-doubt and ceaseless self-recrimination is especially hard to swallow. I, myself, consider Coleridge to be the better and greater poet, despite his minuscule output (as compared to Wordsworth). In my opinion, there’s nothing in all of Wordsworth’s output that compares to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, or Kubla Khan. The Rime was initially published alongside Wordsworth’s poems in a joint publication called Lyrical Ballads. The critical reception of the anthology wasn’t good and was especially hard on Wordsworth’s poetry (Wordsworth was a nobody in those days); and Wordsworth didn’t take criticism well. Sometime later, though, Wordsworth and Coleridge decided to reissue the Ballads. Despite their poor critical reception, they continued to sell (if not as well as they would have liked). And this is where it gets hard to rationalize Wordsworth’s behavior as anything other than cruel (or not to characterize him as a self-serving liar — plain and simple).
The initial plan for the reissue was to include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, for which Colerdige had now written two parts. Wordsworth and his sister were initially ‘Exceedingly delighted with the second part of “Christabel”‘. (p. 320) Or at least they pretended to be exceedingly delighted, for the very next day Wordsworth decided to exclude it from the reissue. Not only that, but as plans developed, Wordsworth informed Coleridge that he would be publishing the joint venture without Coleridge’s name on it. Furthermore, Wordsworth would be taking any and all proceeds, income, money from their publication, despite Coleridge’s Rime being one of the most extensive poems in the collection. Wordsworth had concluded, self-servingly and with little to no evidence, that it was Coleridge’s poetry that had sunk the first collection (not his own). What did Wordsworth substitute for Christabel?
“Meanwhile, Wordsworth was writing a new poem to fill the vacant place at the end of the second volume, ‘Micheal’ was the very antithesis of ‘Christabel’, a pastoral poem evoking the sturdy qualities of the sheep farmers among whom he was now living.”
La! Sheep farmers. There you have it — one of our language’s great poems traded for a didactic poem on sheep farmers. It makes me want to climb into a time machine to throttle him. Worse yet, Wordsworth, having deluded himself into thinking that his rightful genius was unrecognized solely because of The Rime, persuaded Coleridge to rewrite the poem . Coleridge, by now thoroughly pickled in the Kool-aid of Words-worship, obediently complied. The rewrite prompted the following from Charles Lamb:
“I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere ‘a poet’s Reverie’ — it is as bad as Bottom the weaver’s declaration that he is not a lion but only the scenical representation of a Lion. What new idea is gained by this title, but one subversive of all credit, which the tale should force upon us, of its truth? For me, I was never so affected with any human Tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days…” (p. 316)
According to Sisman, Lamb summed up his opinion of the second volume (of the original edition) stating “that no poem in it had struck him so forcibly as the ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘Tintern Abbey'”. This, apparently, is not what Wordsworth wanted to hear. Wordsworth’s riposte is lost, but not Lamb’s.
“The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my Reluctant Letter-Writer, the purport of which was, that he was sorry his 2nd vol. had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and was ‘compelled to wish that my range of sensibility was more extended…’ — With a deal of Stuff about a certain Union of Tenderness and Imagination…” (p. 317)
Then Lamb goes on to mention a letter received by Coleridge:
“Coleridge, who had not written to me some months before, starts up from his bed of sickness, to reprove me for my hardy presumption: four long pages, equally sweaty and more tedious, came from him; assuring me that, when the works of a man of true genius, such as W undoubtedly was, do not please me at first sight, I should suspect the fault to lie ‘in me and not in them’, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. What am I to do with such people?” (p. 317)
Truth was, there were a number of Coleridge supporters who were very nearly fed up with Coleridge’s cult-like idolatry of Wordsworth, including Josiah Wedgwood, who had generously patronized Coleridge. Wedgwood’s intent had been to encourage Coleridge’s own literary efforts, not subsidize his subservience to Wordsworth. Even so, Coleridge spent the next several months editing the reissue of Lyrical Ballads, his thanks to Wordsworth for Wordsworth’s removing his poetry, his name, and any recompense. And as if Wordsworth weren’t delusional enough, he decided to preface Coleridge’s Rime with an apology to the reader:
“Wordsworth added an apologetic footnote to the ‘Ancient Mariner’ acknowledging the many criticisms of the poem, which ‘had indeed great defects’. He elaborated these defects before listing what he considered to be the merits of the poem. He claimed credit for its continued presence in the volume, ‘as the Author was himself very desirous that it should be suppressed.'” (p. 315)
Such was the gratitude Wordsworth extended to his “friend”. Sisman points out that in another note written contemporaneously, Wordsworth “warmly defended his own poem “The Thorn” against the criticisms it had received”. Wordsworth’s interest in poetry that wasn’t his own was marginal, if nonexistent. (It’s said that Wordsworth died with an unopened copy of Keats’ poetry in his library.) While Coleridge devoted his time and energy to furthering Wordsworth’s career at every opportunity, Wordsworth’s thanked him by snubing his “friend’s” poetry and career (and especially if he thought it could benefit his own). Such was Wordsworth’s almost sociopathic narcissism. In fairness to Wordsworth, Coleridge seemed to “cheerfully” go along with it, but this was not the decision-making of a healthy man. It’s clear that Coleridge suffered from psychological issues that would gradually degrade his health and mind, manifested, in part, by an addiction to the pain killer laudanum. Wordsworth, in later years, would express deep concern over Coleridge’s health, but one questions whether his concern was for an erstwhile friend or an erstwhile admirer.
Sisman sums up the waning of their friendship this way:
“Wordsworth apologists have claimed that Coleridge accepted the rejection of ‘Christabel’ ‘cheerfully’, and quote his own self-justificatory letters afterwards in support of this argument. They cite Dorothy’s comment on Coleridge’s next visit to Dove Cottage; ‘we were very merry’. But Dorothy, though very fond of Coleridge, was blind to the possibility that her brother might be at fault. And Coleridge tried to put a brave face on his disappointment. In reality he had suffered a mortal blow; his spirit was broken; he would never be the same man again. ‘I have too much trifled with my reputation,’ he reflected sadly to Poole….
Colridge concealed his distress from the Wordsworths, and perhaps they remained unaware of its true cause. His mind would no longer be wholly open to them. The wound continued to fester. As the years passed, entries critical of Wordsworth began to appear in Coleridge’s notebooks. Though the friendship remained warm a long time, it could never recover the same closeness…” (p. 325)
Sisman then concludes the chapter quoting Coleridge’s letter to Godwin:
“‘If I die, and the Booksellers will give you any thing for my Life, be sure to say — “Wordsworth descended on him, like the γνῶθι σεαυτόν from Heaven; by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet.’
Colreridge’s confidence was in ruins. As he told Godwin, ‘the Poet is dead in me’. He was twenty-eight years old.” (p. 326)
This is a lot to lay at the feet of Wordsworth, but if Wordsworth had reciprocated with even a fraction of the generosity and encouragement devoted to him, Coleridge’s life and poetic output might have been very different. But my heart goes out to Coleridge. I feel like I’ve discovered his poetry all over again. I see myself in him: Frustrated by a feeling that I haven’t done enough, by self-doubt, self-recrimination, inadequacy. I wish I could have been Coleridge’s friend. His surreal poetry appeals to me like no other poet’s and I can’t help thinking we share a kindred spirit. I love his poem Frost at Midnight. I would trade a hundred pages of Wordsworth for another like it.
Wordsworth’s poetry, meanwhile, continues to leave me cold. As I wrote in a hotly contested previous post criticizing The Prelude, I find all but a handful of his poems tedious, repetitive, full of triviality and above all, exceedingly poorly written. At the close of Sisman’s book, the author quotes Coleridge once again, referring to Wordsworth, and this time the veil is lifted:
“Never does he turn round, or ponder, whether one has [already] understood him, but each word is followed by three, four, five syn- or homonyms, in a tiring sequence of eddies, and in this manner for three, four hours… I was repelled by the infinite number of dissonances which his way of thinking, feeling and arguing created with my own — the worst being his great worries over money and trifling money matters. Recently, all the shortcomings, which marked him in his early manly years, have increased considerably; the grand flourishings of his philosophic and poetic genius, have withered and dried. (p. 424)
- Tom O’Bedlam, of SpokenVerse, has beautifully read Skeletons. I was unfamiliar with Tom’s readings until recently (and astonishingly), but I’m a bit of hermit. Tom read Browning’s poem My Last Duchess, quoted my summary of the poem and provided a link to my post. I listened to his Duchess, then other poems, and then was so taken by his readings that I wrote Skeletons for him; imagining a poem to suit his voice. In truth, the poem is dedicated to him. So here it is, once again, and beautifully read by Tom O’Bedlam. I’d be happy to write him a hundred poems. He’s inspired me.
My skeleton and I go out for walks,
Although he mostly likes it in the closet.
I’ll hear him tap, tap, tapping
His skull for some conundrum; there are many.
It’s no small thing for any skeleton
To think. His skull’s a ruined house, its clasps
And door-locks long since gone.
························He teeters, grasps —
Ideas are fretful winds. They blow into
And through his vacant stare, emptily tumble;
Then out the way they came. He stands perplexed,
A sharp forefinger’s bone upraised, his jaw
Aslant — he’d almost had it.
························So it goes
It’s times like these that we go out. I keep
Our walks discreet though every now and then
We’ll meet a passerby (my skeleton
And theirs will pay no mind). We pass a cape,
A woodpile covered by a sheet of tin,
And laundry—skirts and sheets. They billow ghostlike
Above the ruined dooryard.
With fingers laced behind his spine; looks
A little this way and a little that.
The dust recoils between his toes and smolders
At his heels. There’s nowhere he’ll stop
Unless it’s where there used to be a house,
Midfield, where now there’s just foundation stone.
He’ll gaze with longing and he’ll heave
And here and there a leaf snagged in his ribs
(And bones withal) will tumble down. They’ll scrape
And skitter through and in between until
He stands in them.
··················He lingers. He’d share
A secret he kept in life; that now,
In death, keeps him. I never asked and yet
One day he pointed where the house had been
With such a trembling grief
He might have been as likely reaching to touch
Another’s unseen fingertip.
Took from the cellarhole a crackling smoke
Of leaves.·The sheets of the house nearby
Were chased into the field’s conflagration
Of nettle, thorn and thistle. Too late
They fled but couldn’t flee. The sudden gust
Confounded them — the mother and her child!
I saw them both. How like a mother’s hand,
And like the daughter’s where the small sheet clung
If only by a clothespin to the larger;
As if they’d change what was already done,
As if this time they’d reach his outstretched sorrow;
Undo, a hundred years gone by, the crows
That rise like startled ashes from the ruins—
Their screams dispersed into the neighboring hemlock
······His lowering finger curls beneath
Their rake of knuckles. The sheets lay motionless
Under a settling soot of leaves and wildflowers charred
······He never afterward did more
Than linger. I’ll not swear that what I saw
Was true, but then I can’t be sure that I
Won’t too, for guilt, regret, or for some sorrow
Dwell in your home.
······You’ll know me, if I’m there—
My bones, a few remains, shelved in a poem;
Willing, if just for company, to share
Your walk and should you need me to — your pain.