I don’t believe that poems are written to be heard, or as Mill said, to be overheard; nor are poems addressed to their reader. I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own — so that it is a very different form of reading from what you might do in a novel where a character is telling the story, where the speaking voice is usurped by a fictional person to whom you listen as the novel unfolds.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
— T. S. Eliot: “East Coker” from Four Quartets
Others can carve out
in tombs and pyramids.
Our time cannot be trapped
Nor hope, nor laughter.
We let the moment rise
like birds and planes and angels
to the sky.
Eternity is this.
Your breath on the window pane,
living walls with shining eyes.
The surprise of spires,
uncompromising verticals. Knowing
we have been spared
to lift our faces up
for one more day,
into one more sunrise.
— by Imtiaz Dharker
Noticed this poem on the London Tube last week, on one of the “Poems on the Underground” posters. (Image source)
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day —
And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word — the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
— Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation by Robert Bly.
This is how writers grow, too: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater challenges.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, “The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.”
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.
She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.
What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.
This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.
The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tries to find the wind to touch her hearing.
Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.
(Translated by W.S. Merwin. From Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, first published in 1924, when the poet was about 20 years old. Via.)
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
When I was a child, I thought,
Casually, that solitude
Never needed to be sought.
Something everybody had,
Like nakedness, it lay at hand,
Not specially right or specially wrong,
A plentiful and obvious thing
Not at all hard to understand.
Then, after twenty, it became
At once more difficult to get
And more desired — though all the same
More undesirable; for what
You are alone has, to achieve
The rank of fact, to be expressed
In terms of others, or it’s just
A compensating make-believe.
Much better stay in company!
To love you must have someone else,
Giving requires a legatee,
Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
Of folk to do it on — in short,
Our virtues are all social; if,
Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort.
Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.
There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storm wash the plates
And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market –
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories
packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
— John Updike
“I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole I get my deserts, and something over — not a crowd, but a few I value more.”
— Robert Browning, letter, 1868
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.
Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,
a life rides, sealed in a small brown pill
that skims along over the basement floor
wrapped up in a simple obsession.
Eight legs reach out like the master ribs
of a web in which some thought is caught
dead center in its own small world,
a thought so far from the touch of things
that we can only guess at it. If mine,
it would be the secret dream
of walking alone across the floor of my life
with an easy grace, and with love enough
to live on at the center of myself.
You can watch Kooser read this poem on video here.
I was struck by this ad for Levi’s jeans, which features a few stanzas from Walt Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” If you dislike the spot, I understand. The bullshit factor is high even by advertising standards: half-naked slackers as “new American pioneers,” hawking these surpassingly American jeans that are actually made overseas, using a poet who probably never heard of blue jeans. And all this solemnity over … pants. But to me this looks like an ad for Whitman, not Levi’s. When was the last time poetry looked this cool or sounded this stirring? Whether the ad will actually sell jeans I have no idea. But it will get plenty of people asking, “What is that poem?” And that is a very good thing.
Yesterday I saw Jane Campion’s movie “Bright Star,” about the doomed romance between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and I liked it very much. How could I not like it? The romantic hero is a writer. You don’t see that very often.
Writers make bad film protagonists because the real work of writing is unfilmable. A writer at work is doing nothing more picturesque than scribbling on a pad or, worse, staring into space. The “action,” such as it is, takes place in his mind. So the struggle to create has to be extroverted, acted out: the writer balls up a piece of paper and flings it across the room in frustration. Personally, I have never balled up a manuscript page and flung it across the room. I work on a computer. Most writers do now, which should spell doom for this particular film cliché, a blessing for which we should all be thankful.
There are good movies about writers, of course, but they are generally not about the work itself. Successful writer movies — “Capote,” for example — include virtually none of their subjects’ actual prose. They are not about what’s inside the books; they are about the struggle to make the books.
This is why “Bright Star” is such an exceptional writer movie. Keats’s poetry is a constant presence in the film. It is read aloud by characters within scenes and in voice-over. The end credits alone, in which the actor Ben Whishaw reads the “Ode to a Nightingale” in its entirety, is worth the price of the ticket. Keats’s letters, too, are woven into the dialogue. The film is about a mood, and it is the same mood that Keats’s poetry captures so well — gloom, melancholy, languor, longing. The movie and the poems are written in the same key, so the poetry actually enhances the film just as the usual movie devices do, cinematography, music, and so on.
It is surprising that there are so few movies about poets. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one. But poetry and film work well together. E. L. Doctorow has written,
Film de-literates thought; it relies primarily on an association of visual impressions or understandings. Moviegoing is an act of inference. You receive what you see as a broad band of sensual effects that evoke your intuitive nonverbal intelligence. You understand what you see without having to think it through with words.
Yes, all right, it is a visual medium. But poetry does something similar. It “literates” emotion, it evokes moods without ever quite naming them. Sometimes it describes states of mind that have no name, that never coalesce into definite thoughts, and therefore can’t be thought through, only felt. You can understand a poem without quite being able to put its meaning into words.
At several points “Bright Star” seems about to tip over into preciousness, as so many period costume dramas do. Ben Whishaw, as Keats, is delicate looking. He stares dreamily at flowers or coughs with tuberculosis. (It is really Fanny’s movie. If there is any justice, the role will make a star out of Abbie Cornish.) What makes him affecting is the poems. No wonder Fanny fell for him — he’s John Keats. Whatever flaws the movie may have, I can’t think of any other that incorporates a writer’s actual words so much and so well.
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking — they were both walking — north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust,
To which the blast of Death’s incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet and marble, put for signs,
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting: what shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent, that, when thou shalt grow fat,
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.
— George Herbert (1593-1633)
Robert Pinsky has a lovely appreciation of this poem in Slate today. You can hear Pinsky read the poem using the player below.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
— Wallace Stevens