‘The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall’

Killed a century ago a week before the warring powers signed the armistice, Wilfred Owen emerged from the Great War as its foremost poet, a versifier of great suppleness. His sexuality remains a matter of conjecture, fueled by his appearance in the Sitwell-Robert Ross literary circle. As anthologized as “Anthem for a Doomed Youth” is, it hasn’t aged a comma.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Happy Armistice Day.

‘No one believes it is happening now’

For me November signals the end of the beginning: after elections come Veterans Day, my birthday, Thanksgiving, and what remains of the school semester. This November seems apocalyptic. That’s when I reach for my Czeslaw Milosz and “A Song on the End of the World.”

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Good luck.

‘…Everything/remains to create my alibi’

Peruvian poet César Vallejo wrote a number of excellent sonnets. “Paris, October 1936” addresses my mood these days.

From all of this I am the only one who leaves.
From this bench I go away, from my pants,
from my great situation, from my actions,
from my number split side to side,
from all of this I am the only one who leaves.

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,
my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one.

And I move away from everything, since everything
remains to create my alibi:
my shoe, its eyelet, as well as its mud
and even the bend in the elbow
of my own buttoned shirt.

Happy second week of October!

‘But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist…’

At times vaporous or prosaic, Louise Glück nevertheless remains among the best known of American poets. 1990’s Ararat is her strongest work, but the recently published Collected Poems is one of those bricks that anyone with an interest in poetry will display on a shelf. I selected “Visitors from Abroad” for this month’s poem.

Happy October.

Sometime after I had entered
that time of life
people prefer to allude to in others
but not in themselves, in the middle of the night
the phone rang. It rang and rang
as though the world needed me,
though really it was the reverse.

I lay in bed, trying to analyze
the ring. It had
my mother’s persistence and my father’s
pained embarrassment.

When I picked it up, the line was dead.
Or was the phone working and the caller dead?
Or was it not the phone, but the door perhaps?

2

My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister — you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

3

The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.

4

Outside the street was silent.
The receiver lay on its side among the tangled sheets,
its peevish throbbing had ceased some hours before.

I left it as it was;
its long cord drifting under the furniture.

I watched the snow falling,
not so much obscuring things
as making them seem larger than they were.

Who would call in the middle of the night?
Trouble calls, despair calls.
Joy is sleeping like a baby.

‘Joyous and jubilant and sure’

Many poets, amateurs and pros, would cross “massively” out in the fourth draft. Wallace Stevens understood what he was doing. He also left “joyous” and “jubilant” in the same verse.

Last evening the moon rose above this rock
Impure upon a world unpurged.
The man and his companion stopped
To rest before the heroic height.

Coldly the wind fell upon them
In many majesties of sound:
They that had left the flame-freaked sun
To seek a sun of fuller fire.

Instead there was this tufted rock
Massively rising high and bare
Beyond all trees, the ridges thrown
Like giant arms among the clouds.

There was neither voice nor crested image,
No chorister, nor priest. There was
Only the great height of the rock
And the two of them standing still to rest.

There was the cold wind and the sound
It made, away from the muck of the land
That they had left, heroic sound
Joyous and jubilant and sure.

Here are clips of Stevens in the 1950s, at the peak of his fame, reading some poems. Happy Sunday.

‘He did not love me living…’

Better known these days than her brother Dante Gabriel, Christina Rossetti has seen her stock grow as feminist criticism has re-examined her long poem Goblin Market. Her devotional poems remain delights, and when she wrote about death, as she often did, it was with a sweet sigh, an acquiescence to the inevitable.

Below is “After Death.” Happy September.

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

‘Summer, do your worst!’

Dorothy Parker has a few things to say about the hottest month. Happy July:

When my eyes are weeds,
And my lips are petals, spinning
Down the wind that has beginning
Where the crumpled beeches start
In a fringe of salty reeds;
When my arms are elder-bushes,
And the rangy lilac pushes
Upward, upward through my heart;

Summer, do your worst!
Light your tinsel moon, and call on
Your performing stars to fall on
Headlong through your paper sky;
Nevermore shall I be cursed
By a flushed and amorous slattern,
With her dusty laces’ pattern
Trailing, as she straggles by.

‘Quiet’s cool flesh— let’s sniff and eat it’

A Pulitzer Prize winner and poet laureate of Virginia who came of age aesthetically during a moment when the times demanded anything but a long poem about her grandparents, Rita Dove has also written excellent lyric verse too. But she pisses people off; even so estimable a critic as Helen Vendler spluttered over Dove’s editorial selections for 2011’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, prompting a well-reasoned defense from Dove.

Below is Rita Dove’s “Flirtation.” Happy July.

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgewood plate
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh—
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

Supposedly fun things to do with prepositions

So it’s Dryden’s fault!

[John]Dryden loved the classics; he was easily the most prominent translator and critic of Ovid, Horace, and Virgil, although his translations (like a lot of his own writing) were sort of bombastic and larger-than-life. He was fluent in Latin and worshipped the classics. And English was in a place where it was about to accelerate; it had been paused and now it was un-paused. Dryden’s ideas about what English should be were heavily motivated by Latin and Latinate ideas. It’s believed this is where his preposition thing comes from; in Latin, the preposition, as indicated by the first three letters of the word “preposition,” always comes before the noun. It is assumed that this is what motivated Dryden to make this case.

Most of us who write professionally have yielded to the imagined voice of the pedantic college writing instructor who lambasted us for ending sentences with prepositions. I still fall victim to a kind of piss elegance on occasion. If any yielding should take place, it’s to rhythm, sound, melody. Should a paragraph demand variety for the sake of avoiding a repetition that’s not rhetorically motivated, then don’t end a sentence with “on,” “from,” “with,” and so on.

Yet some word arrangements strain so obviously with the effort of sounding erudite that writers should avoid them altogether. Examine the following:

  • These are the facts with which we must deal.
  • It’s the illness about which I’m writing.
  • To whom am I speaking?

Even so, I’d want to see what else is going on in the sentence.

‘Vain are the thousand creeds/That move men’s hearts…’

I was the nerd who read Wuthering Heights in the summer of eighth grade, developing a serious crush on the palsied Linton Heathcliff. Although only a handful of her poems ranks beside that novel, Emily Brontë would insist, I’m sure, on “No coward soul is mine” as a complement. Happy June.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Delicious odor! music sweet’

Although May doesn’t excite me to the degree it did Wordsworth, I like the month for its mild heat (just enough to enjoy the pool) and milder teaching schedule.

Here’s “To May.” Make it a good one.

THOUGH many suns have risen and set
Since thou, blithe May, wert born,
And Bards, who hailed thee, may forget
Thy gift, thy beauty scorn;
There are who to a birthday strain
Confine not harp and voice,
But evermore throughout thy reign
Are grateful and rejoice!

Delicious odor! music sweet,
Too sweet to pass away!
Oh for a deathless song to meet
The soul’s desire—a lay
That, when a thousand year are told,
Should praise thee, genial Power!
Through summer heat, autumnal cold,
And winter’s dreariest hour.

Earth, sea, thy presence feel—nor less,
If yon ethereal blue
With its soft smile the truth express,
The heavens have felt it too.
The inmost heart of man if glad
Partakes a livelier cheer;
And eye that cannot but be sad
Let fall a brightened tear.

Since thy return, through days and weeks
Of hope that grew by stealth,
How many wan and faded cheeks
Have kindled into health!
The Old, by thee revived, have said,
‘Another year is ours;’
And wayworn Wanderers, poorly fed,
Have smiled upon thy flowers.

Who tripping lisps a merry song
Amid his playful peers?
The tender Infant who was long
A prisoner of fond fears;
But now, when every sharp-edged blast
Is quiet in its sheath,
His Mother leaves him free to taste
Earth’s sweetness in thy breath.

Thy help is with the weed that creeps
Along the humblest ground;
No cliff so bare but on its steeps
Thy favors may be found;
But most on some peculiar nook
That our own hands have drest,
Thou and thy train are proud to look,
And seem to love it best.

And yet how pleased we wander forth
When May is whispering, ‘Come!
‘Choose from the bowers of virgin earth
The happiest for your home;
HeavenÕs bounteous love through me is spread
From sunshine, clouds, winds, waves,
Drops on the mouldering turret’s head,
And on your turf-clad graves!’

Such greeting heard, away with sighs
For lilies that must fade,
Or ‘ the rathe primrose as it dies
Forsaken’ in the shade!
Vernal fruitions and desires
Are linked in endless chase;
While, as one kindly growth retires,
Another takes its place.

And what if thou, sweet May, hast known
Mishap by worm and blight;
If expectations newly blown
Have perished in thy sight;
If loves and joys, while up they sprung,
Were caught as in a snare;
Such is the lot of all the young,
However bright and fair.

Lo! Streams that April could not check
Are patient of thy rule;
Gurgling in foamy water-break,
Loitering in glassy pool:
By thee, thee only, could be sent
Such gentle mists as glide,
Curling with unconfirmed intent,
On that green mountain’s side.

How delicate the leafy veil
Through which yon house of God
Gleams ‘mid the peace of this deep dale
By few but shepherds trod!
And lowly huts, near beaten ways,
No sooner stand attired
In thy fresh wreaths, than they for praise
Peep forth, and are admired.

Season of fancy and of hope,
Permit not for one hour,
A blossom from thy crown to drop,
Nor add to it a flower!
Keep, lovely May, as if by touch
Of self restraining art,
This modest charm of not too much,
Part seen, imagined part!

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne…’

Happy Shakespeare Sunday!

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.