Jan 29, 2012

Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Carrion Comfort": Unique Agonies

I think the best of Hopkins’ terrible sonnets is “Carrion Comfort.”  Its diction and imagery may be eccentric and difficult, or even off-putting, but they seem entirely unique to this particular speaker and this poet, without sacrificing universality.  

Maybe all who have felt themselves on a psychological precipice at one time or another can feel some connection to "Carrion Comfort," have known something such as Hopkins' sense of betrayal and desertion. He converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest, so it makes sense that his Important Other is his deity. Others have probably felt such abandonment and bullying by different persons or forces—a lover or parent or friend or employer or system of beliefs and values. But aren't some of us like this lonely poet in feeling abused, kicked when we are already down, thanks to someone or something we trusted?

                 CARRION COMFORT
                 by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

             Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
             Not untwist — slack they may be — these last     strands of man
                In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
                Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
                But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
                Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
                With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
                O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

               Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
                Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
                Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
                Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
                Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
                Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
After expressing some reservations last time about Theodore Roethke's "In a Dark Time," my main point now is that the particular details in “Carrion Comfort” feel authentic, not generic. They are specific to the quirky mind, ear, and eye of Hopkins. The imagery and phrasing reflect a soul’s chaos and feeling of abandonment by God; perhaps only Hopkins could have felt it in just this way. If that makes the poem demanding, it also makes it seem genuine, in spite of all the poetic shenanigans.
Hopkins' language and probably his mind are unusually idiosyncratic, even 120 years after his death, so I hesitate to ask Roethke (last post) or any other poet to match Hopkins' originality or intensity. What I was trying to say about “In a Dark Time” was that a few of Roethke’s images or utterances sounded as if they’d been bought from the poetry kiosk down the street. To the extent that they sound like something many poets would say, or have said, they lose at least a little punch and sense of an honest, unique psyche’s raw cries.

I’ll await responses before trying to clarify further.  Let me also repeat that I find “In a Dark Time” a good poem and good Roethke, though not as good as his extraordinary“The Waking”--or “I Knew a Woman” and maybe some others.

Jan 24, 2012

"In a Dark Time" by Theodore Roethke

I think I’ve heard that Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” is one of his more admired poems, but I'm not sure how to think about it. I think I’d use that handy reviewer word, “uneven,” to describe it. I find some of the lines gorgeous: 

            I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
            A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
            I live between the heron and the wren . . .    

Or provocative:

            What’s madness but nobility of soul
            At odds with circumstance?

Or personalized, unique, and convincing images of nightmare and desperation:


           My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.   
            That place among the rocks . . .

            The edge is what I have.

            A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon . . .

I also like the fact the final line leaves some ambiguity about just how much of a
solution this union of the human mind and God might be, as we find it “free” only to
exist in a “tearing wind.” How comforting is that? How complete is that salvation?
There’s a realism in that uncertainty that works well against a facile cure-all for

However, some of Roethke’s lines and images feel a bit hyperbolic and histrionic, or
pat and predictable. The images can be rather non-specific, as if collected from a
psychology text, a formula, rather than testaments of this particular speaker’s
individual, personalized imagery of being on the brink:

                                    The day’s on fire!   
            I know the purity of pure despair,

            And in broad day the midnight come again! 

            All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

            Dark, dark my light, 

I hear more rhapsody than agony in those lines. Even the poem’s title, “In a Dark Time” strikes me as a rather generic summation of angst. To say “a dark time” is to speak something a lot of folks might have uttered. Is it wrong to expect from a major poet a higher percentage of original images and thoughts about psychological chaos? It’s not that those are absent here, but aren’t they a bit inconstant?

Let me know if the subject interests you. If it does, I’ll try to post one or two of G.M.
Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets” where the themes are similar, but the imagery seems to me more consistently stunning and creative, even though Hopkins is almost a century older than Roethke.

In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke : The Poetry Foundation

Jan 19, 2012

Chase Twichell Again: "Self-Portrait"

Self-Portrait by Chase Twichell : Poetry Magazine

I've read that Chase Twichell is serious about and learned in Buddhism. I don't know much about it, but I wonder if "Self-Portrait" reveals a somewhat Buddhist dialogue within a self.

The big old Anhinga, also known as the snake bird or water turkey, is quite a sight. I think this one's in dialogue with himself, as he dries his wings in the sun. 

Jan 17, 2012

Chase Twichell, "A Negative of Snow"

White Pelicans--very rare, I'm told
A Negative of Snow by Chase Twichell : The Poetry Foundation

Chase Twichell's "A Negative of Snow" is a brutally honest poem about a daughter's father-love. The first verse paragraph is a superb set-up for the shift to a somewhat different subject at the poem's center. In that opening, I especially love this (note that Ms. Twichell's reading somehow, oddly omits the first verse paragraph):

     It was my job to carry the birds.
     I’d have them all plucked
     by the time we got back to the car.
     On the walk out I’d look
     for puddles I’d missed
     and break them. 
These lines prepare us both beautifully and awfully for the tough facts to come. The daughter can
pluck birds efficiently, probably better than any boy, and she makes sure she fractures
every iced puddle she comes across. She is no softie; she knows anger. And that dramatizes, by
contrast, her softer filial affections as the rest of the poem develops, adding one cold complication
to another.

The season, of course, is winter; it almost has to be. So I've added Florida shore birds as balance.
Roseate Spoonbill, flanked by White Ibises, in Synchronized Flea Biting

[Blogspot is again fighting me on formatting above, after the quotation. Hope you can ignore it].

A Negative of Snow by Chase Twichell : The Poetry Foundation


Jan 13, 2012

Anne Marie Macari. More on Bishop's "Filling Station."

This is another occasion when readers’ comments on the last post were just too good for a cursory response from me.

For those who came here seeking a new poem today, here is Anne Marie Macari’s short, but probably not simple “From the Plane.”  From the Plane by Anne Marie Macari : American Life in Poetry  Feel free to comment on it, of course, or to say more about “Filling Station.” I hope to look at more of Macari’s work in the future.
Now, back to your comments on “Filling Station.” (By the way, note the possible word play:  it’s not a gas station or service station, but a place where things get filled).

Barbaro, I thought I'd offered the poem before, then couldn't find it (still can’t), so I went ahead and posted it.  Clearly you did hear the tone that was troubling me. Maybe you heard it even louder. Whether or not others agree with you, your strong, fine comment would be hard to dismiss.

Among all the visitors’ comments last time, there are several fascinating beginnings. Beginning with Birdman, the issue of life vs. the art arose again, so here’s a quick link to Wikipedia’s bio of Elizabeth Bishop. I’ll let each reader decide how entitled her life seems. 

We need to pay attention to Pasadena Adjacent's point about the "hidden female" in the poem. Is that what the poem is about? Is it above all else a feminist poem? 

Also, we musn’t gloss over PA’s point that our reactions to the poem (any poem?) say more about us than they say about the poem. The idea is so huge and complicated that I wonder if we could somehow make it a stipulation in all criticism about literature and art:  who are you, Mr./Ms. Commentator. Where do you come from, in the largest senses of those words, and why have you come here?

Or is that so huge and complicated that it becomes, by default, a defense of The New Criticism’s elimination of all factors other than the art object itself. We must ignore the lives of the commentators just as we ignore the lives of the writers and artists.

I’m interested in Gothpunkuncle's thought that the poem’s potentially offending tone might result from a strategy by Bishop:  make us feel our own classism by feeling the speaker’s. And certainly that last line could be a step back from what was gentle mockery: “Somebody loves us all,” even among the grease. Or it could be the most mocking line of all.

Brenda, although Bishop did some teaching, it's indeed interesting to wonder what she thought about teachers, students, and the process. Do teachers fill gas tanks and spill things, make messes, live and work in some kind of metaphorical grease?

 Stickup Artist, I have the same soft spot. In a town I knew in the 1950s and 1960s, Cap Johnson's Sohio station on the town square was a standard place for a Coke if the day was hot, or if we were too sweaty for a drugstore Coke after an afternoon of pickup basketball in Arnie Snider’s driveway. I recall absolutely no sense of class distinction among us, toward ourselves or our elders’ ways of making a living. If Cap told us not to do that, we stopped. It was understood that he spoke for our parents, as well as every other merchant on the square, plus the sheriff, whose jail was two doors away, just this side of The Roxy. And don’t even ask about Woody Renrock’s shoe repair shop; the smell of that leather was better than any pipe tobacco--yes, even Kentucky Club.

Maybe Hillary Clinton created or exploited the aphorism, “It takes a village,” but the idea is very old. It's not all sweetness and light, but it's worth a long, hard look.

On the other hand, there were adults there in my Mayberry Junior who . . . thought they were somebody, as the saying goes. We knew who those folks were, and what we thought of them. At least in childhood, snobbery was bad for business, and maybe we developed good noses for it. We’d go somewhere else for our Cokes or even splurge on a milkshake there, just to make a point.

I wonder if we’d have chosen to buy anything from this Elizabeth Bishop lady.

Elizabeth Bishop - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

From the Plane by Anne Marie Macari : American Life in Poetry


Jan 11, 2012

"Filling Station" by Elizabeth Bishop

Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop : The Poetry Foundation

 Elizabeth Bishop's attitude and tone in "Filling Station" strike me as at least a bit condescending, patronizing. It's hard for me to accept that a mind as sharp as hers would settle for a superficial take on her subject, so I keep coming back to the poem every few weeks or months. That nagging feeling persists. Is it just me? Or would you argue that the filling station people deserve condescension from a major poet?

Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop : The Poetry Foundation


Jan 8, 2012

Macbeth Again, Further Thoughts

Here again is Macbeth’s soliloquy, one of Shakespeare’s most famous:

            To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
            Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
            To the last syllable of recorded time;
            And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
            The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
            Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
            That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
            And then is heard no more. It is a tale
            Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
            Signifying nothing.

Macbeth knows his ill-gotten tenure on the Scottish throne won't last much longer, and now his wife’s gone mad and killed herself. Because Macbeth’s life seems a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, he projects that everyone’s life is like that. Shakespeare know, whether or not his character does, that we all have felt that way at times. 

But Macbeth’s life is a tale told not so much by an idiot as by an ambitious, hen-pecked, anxiety-ridden, speechifying criminal whose ambition leads him to kill a king who trusted, loved, and respected him. Oh yes, and his good friend Banquo (too bad the kid got away).  Oh yes, and the wife and child of Macduff. Yes, we’ve all had days or months like Macbeth’s, haven’t we. And instead of aspirin or Xanax, here we go off to slaughter a few humans, the closer to us they thought they were, the better. There’s no blood like familiar blood, especially the children’s.

I’ve never understood why Shakespeare considered Macbeth a tragedy, which by definition details the fall of a great character. What’s great about Macbeth beyond his skill as a warrior and a few elegant speeches? 

One of these days I'm going to read some psychoanalytic criticism on Macbeth. So much about him is pure psychopath. But in spite of his murders, he seems at times to have a conscience, seems beset by guilt, unlike his cold wife.
Then again, even she goes through some ritual hand washing toward the end ("a little water clears us of this deed").  As for her madness and suicide, does she hate herself for her deeds? Does she feel genuine guilt, or even shame, or does she just see her ill-gotten gains coming to an end?  Better to off herself than let the riff raff do her in?  

I’ve also wondered whether the Tomorrow and Tomorrow speech is Macbeth’s point of recognition, his awareness of himself, his flaw and his mistakes, his wisdom achieved through his suffering? Or is it this one, two scenes earlier?--in which the term “mouth-honor” gives me chills, though not on behalf of Macbeth, who doesn’t deserve even the hollow echo of mouth-honor.

            I have lived long enough. My way of life
            Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.
            And that which should accompany old age,
            As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
            I must not look to have, but in their stead
            Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath
            Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

How many people do you know who would settle for mouth-honor, or who wouldn't know the difference between that and more meaningful honors bestowed by peers or superiors, from their hearts and minds? 

Do Little Leaguers who get a trophy just for showing up know, at some level, that that's insulting, patronizing mouth-honor?

Methinks we got some honor-inflation goin' on the last two or three decades.

Jan 5, 2012

Robert Frost's "Out, Out--" and Macbeth's Soliloquy

And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

‘Out, Out—’ by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation

Frost's title is an allusion to Macbeth's famous speech upon the occasion of the death of Lady Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

Jan 1, 2012

Lisel Mueller and William Carlos Williams: What's New?

Blogspot was singularly unfriendly yesterday, so here is a revision of that post.

Sometimes, When the Light by Lisel Mueller : The Poetry Foundation

I'm just starting to look at Lisel Mueller's poems with some attention to overall patterns, but in the two I've linked to here (today and November 16), my question is, "Is this enough?"

In November by Lisel Mueller : The Poetry Foundation

Some may respond, "Typical English major type. If it's accessible and has a hint of pleasantness, he says it's shallow."

But with literature, and I assume with other art, we need to ask, where's the beef? Where's the resonance, the impact, the intensity? What's new here? Is it new with a purpose or just new in some flashy, superficial way? Conversely, if it's conventional or traditional, is there something new and distinctive within those bounds? Is the bird in the cage singing or dying? And in any case, why should I care?

William Carlos Williams comes to mind as one who sometimes gets the most and best echo from what may seem a flat plainness of diction.  Here is his famous "The Red Wheelbarrow":

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Can a poet write what seems to be prose broken whimsically into lines and still achieve emotional or intellectual impact? Does some poet do it better than Mueller or Williams?

Based on only a poem or two apiece, the question, I agree, is absurd, and the whole notion of making poetry competitive is open to challenge. But it's what we do with all art, whether or not we like to admit it and whether or not the system is fair.

Besides, this is just a blog, not world peace, not even a New York Times headline, so I'm asking the questions anyway. Maybe it will cause someone to look at more work by each poet, and others, in which case, just take me out back and shoot me.

Oh, yeah, Happy New Year.

Sometimes, When the Light by Lisel Mueller : The Poetry Foundation

Lovers' Lane