Oct 31, 2011

Shakespeare's "That Time of Year" and Kooser's "A Letter in October"

Blogspot is fighting me; please ignore the odd spacing. Besides, it's easier on the eyes, I guess.

Here are two poems in which the authors see autumn as a way of, and a cause for, looking inward. Please don’t be overly swayed in by the fact that Shakespeare wrote the older poem, a sonnet. The other writer, Ted Kooser, was the U.S. poet laureate in 2004-2006, so some important people think he can sling some verbal hash in his own right. Here’s the new twist. I want people to vote for the poem they prefer. Wait!  There’s more. You need to vote twice. 

 1.  Which poem do you like better?

 2.  Which poem do you respect more? That is, which is the better poem, whether or not you prefer it?

 Your answers to 1 and 2  may be the same, or not. If you’re a good person in the best of all worlds, including cyberspace, you’ll also talk a bit about why you answered as you did. And if you don’t, you flunk.


Sonnet LXXIII: That Time of Year thou mayst in me Behold by William Shakespeare : The Poetry Foundation

 A Letter in October by Ted Kooser : The Poetry Foundation

Oct 26, 2011

Robert Graves' "A Boy in Church" and Emily Dickinson's "Some Keep the Sabbath"

But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying
With furious zeal like madmen praying.

I hardly hear the tuneful babble,
    Not knowing nor much caring whether
The text is praise or exhortation
A Boy in Church by Robert Graves : The Poetry Foundation

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236) by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation

Robert Graves' "A Boy in Church" and Emily Dickinson's "Some Keep the Sabbath" are both a bit on the obvious side, but they nicely raise the question of where one finds church.

Also, a lot of churches, at least as physical structures, present their own beauty, which might inspire as well as nature does.

But such a lot of what goes on inside the buildings is troublesome that the contradictions have been fodder for writers for centuries. One might wonder why, with all those religions out there, more of them can't do better, more consistently--or at least "do no harm."

Maybe if we could just enter, alone, hear our own choice of music, rest and be silent for awhile, and leave . . . .  I suppose the Quakers were on the right track, but even they have to listen to each other as they try to arrive at one painstaking consensus after another.

Now I'm being as obvious as Graves and Dickinson are. We can have our cake and eat it too: church buildings, music, and nature, the whole enchilada (double cheese). So off I go, to The Church of the Holy Enchilada.
A Boy in Church by Robert Graves : The Poetry Foundation

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236) by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation

The July 25, 2010 Banjo52 touches on similar subject matter, Yeats' "Lake Isle of Innisfree":   


Oct 24, 2011

"Thoughts on One’s Head" by William Meredith: Brain and Heart in Poetry and Politics

Indiana University

Thoughts on One’s Head by William Meredith : The Poetry Foundation

Today it may seem I’m reversing myself on the feel-good Oct. 22 post, but I don’t think so. On my team, I want Michaela Terrien, John Prine and William Meredith.

But first, from Wikipedia, a couple of terms that were new to me:
“The central sulcus is a fold in the cerebral cortex of brains in vertebrates. Also called the central fissure, it was originally called the fissure of Rolando or the Rolandic fissure, after Luigi Rolando.”

And, “Trireme: . . . probably of Phoenician origin . . . as a ship it was fast and agile, and became the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC.” 

    With benevolent calm and wit, William Meredith’s poem, “Thoughts on One’s Head,” proposes that the human head, center of reason, carefulness, and correctness, and the home of the soul, ultimately dislikes itself. In the end, and for the sake of self-esteem and pleasure, or even ecstasy, one’s head would prefer beauty and passion to reason and judgment, which amount to the ability to measure. 
Indiana University

    In the timeless war between heart and head, the head is the responsible force that takes care of daily matters, which are necessary but unlovely, dispassionate, heartless, void of pleasure. One of my favorite lines is: “Judgment is in the head somewhere; it keeps sums . . . .” Some readers may have trouble seeing that as a bad thing; sums must be kept, after all, or one ends up trillions of dollars in debt. But what do you want written on your gravestone? “He was responsible”? “He kept sums”? And “sums” of what? Pleasure and pain, Meredith offers. Do you want your pleasure and pain measured out carefully as a sum? 

   The speaker was “ taught to read and write, make love and money, /Operate cars and airplanes, teach in a college . . . ”? Making love is on par with profits, driving cars and airplanes. It’s all taught. We may, for a second, ask what’s wrong with a little technique from a textbook? That’s not so bad. And driving is fun. Why not making love like driving a hot car--you know, down-shifting, double-clutching, peeling out? Well, then, how about teaching in college? Should that be the same kind of operation as making love? 

    The site of this careful rationality is the speaker’s head, “the place the soul calls home just now.” So if one ends up wondering why the speaker “dislikes” his “seat of Me,” one only need think about the old, old conflict between reason and passion. I think we tend to like ourselves better if we can believe we are rascals and outlaws who operate by passion. Robin Hood. Jesse James. We fancy ourselves reckless and romantic; we say all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy--and William Meredith too.  Ask any good Nazi: in the short term, success is all about the appeal to passion. If it feels good, it's irrational.

    It’s easy—and I mean easy—to go weak-kneed over the likes of e.e. cummings, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, or their ancestor Walt Whitman. It can be a labor to follow the lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s thought—or Richard Wilbur’s. 
People's Park, Bloomington, Indiana
Are You Sure about That? 

Sit-ins feel good, but they don’t accomplish much until some leaders—who can use their left brains to strategize, as William Meredith does in his poem—come to the rescue and form a plan that might actually accomplish something. What a shame that, consciously or otherwise, we think of those pragmatists as dull. We’d rather swoon to emotional oratory than sit down and crunch the numbers. The fact is, we need it all, though it makes for a drier insurrection, or a drier poem.

Thoughts on One’s Head by William Meredith : The Poetry Foundation


Oct 22, 2011

"In Spite of Ourselves," John Prine, Iris DeMent, Steve McClain, and Michaela Terrien of Iowa

Over the years, a few friends, knowing my musical tastes, have asked about John Prine. Were we soulmates? Fact is, I never fully connected with the guy and didn't know why. I did respect his work at a distance.

That just changed. In scouting Iris DeMent for the last post, I came across her duet with Prine, on his goofy, charming, witty, touching, offbeat love song, "In Spite of Ourselves."  Left Brain tells me not to take it too seriously, while Right Brain tells me it's brilliant and I can't take it seriously enough. If Prine's good-natured, teasing, self-effacing words don't capture what love is, including the heart's hyperbole for young and old, well, it's what love ought to be.

 John Prine & Iris DeMent - In Spite of Ourselves - YouTube

And here is a young couple from Iowa, performing the song, inhabiting it, as we like to say in show biz. These two are the perfect picture of young love. That's not just a rhetorical gesture. They are ideal. These two, including her reserved, reluctant, Iowa adoration of him, and his slightly dumb pretense of control and dominance . . .  these two are young love, though they're old enough to take seriously.

If you disagree, Take your jaded absence of soul down to the crick and noodle a big greasy catfish. I hope he bites you, stings you, fries up bad in your pan, stinks up your kitchen till the cows come home. No, stink forever.

So just be good. Listen, watch now, and fall down in worship: 

In Spite of Ourselves - John Prine & Iris DeMent cover - 2010 Heart of Country - YouTube

Oct 21, 2011

Iris DeMent: In the Spirit of Hopkins?

Some say that they're comin' back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Let The Mystery Be - Iris DeMent H.Q. - YouTube   

Hurrahing in Harvest by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The First Stanza:

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

The Closure:

These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet. 


Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you're gone you're gone forever, and some say you're gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they're comin' back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Let The Mystery Be - Iris DeMent H.Q. - YouTube


Oct 19, 2011

"Lying in a Hammock at William Duffys Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" by James Wright

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation

Off Indiana Rt. 1, near Angola
Here's a revised version of an earlier post about James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock."  Several works about fall, directly or indirectly, are just too good not to post twice, or more.

After I read the poem for the first time, I threw the book across the room and stayed away from Wright for over a year. How dare he spring that last line out of nowhere. Yes, a poem is a journey, a discovery, for the poet, or at least his speaker; but there's discovery and there's snake oil.

On the other hand, does that last line come out of nowhere?

Peer pressure—in the form of anthologies that insisted on including the poem—kept me going back to it. Finally, I used it in a class to see what would happen. Of course, some students are all too happy to hate any poem, especially work that seems dishonest, interested in tricking a reader or leaving him in the dust for no reason better than illustrating the poet's intellectual superiority.

Off Indiana Rt. 1, near Angola

But soon enough students and I began to see the earlier lines more or less prepping for the final boom (or is it a thud? a whimper? a flash?).

“Lying in a Hammock . . . “ is now among my favorites, and in my most reckless moments of outrageous bravado, I exclaim that no work better illustrates the nature of epiphany. Take that, James Joyce.

My experience with "Lying in a Hammock" also illustrates a great line from E.M. Forester, who said, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”

Near Jonesville, Michigan
When I risked sharing "Lying in a Hammock" with students before I was sure what I thought about it myself, I had to say things and let them say things that eventually led us as individuals and groups to what we thought about a significant poem with a compelling idea (or a few) at its core.

No, we did not all agree about every part or the whole; some conversations and some individuals were animated, yet we didn't kill each other and no one shouted, "You lie!" (I was glad I'd kept my book-throwing to myself).

Off Indiana Rt. 1, near Angola
Pedagogy: experiences like those class discussions amount to one more reason I blast off about rigid adherence to rigid lesson plans, which lead to rigid, stultifying classes, aimed at mere coverage, not inspiration, discovery, pleasure, or meaningful interaction with others. Clocks and calendars must bend; coverage has to happen, but we don't need to be its whipping boy. 

I propose that calendars and clocks and A.P. exams and admission to any of the several Harvards out there must take a back seat to the enjoyment of learning, which includes polite but frank discussion and debate, in which "You lie!" will usually be an unacceptable comment, and "Let me re-think that" or "Maybe I was wrong" are essential statements that every student and every teacher (and every Congressman) must learn to embrace.

I've probably already bitten off too much for one post, but let me add this link to a Warren Buffet idea about Congress, which connects to my point about honesty informed by civility:


Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation


Oct 15, 2011

"Hurrahing in Harvest" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hurrahing in Harvest by Gerard Manley Hopkins

In previous autumns, I've not posted "Hurrahing in Harvest" because some readers might be put off by Hopkins' use of natural beauty an excuse to extol a Christian God. It seems obvious to me that one can easily substitute for that deity whatever source of inspiration one prefers, and that includes the possibility of not going beyond the beauties and ecstasy provided by the world of matter. Maybe joy can be explained physiologically. So what? It's still joy. It still feels good.

No, by definition, joy and ecstasy are more than feeling vaguely good. The issue gets into psychological territory that's difficult to articulate. It's hard to be logical about rapture, which is probably the reason that so many find it an avenue to religiosity.

The natural, material world leads Hopkins to Jesus. If it leads you to the Lord of Happy Barley, so what? The fact remains that nature--in this case autumn--can (should?) provide an explosion of intense sensuous delight if one is honestly looking. Witnessing.

One time when I was naively enthusing about southern Ohio hills, my more cynical college roommate argued that nature was full of mosquitoes and predation, and I needed to wake up to that. Well, yes. And there's the charming story of some politician's wife who remarked, "Nature is so pretty--what a shame it has to be outdoors."

But if one does not see and hear and smell nature's majesty as well as its quieter splendors, along with its pain and murders, one is needlessly eliminating a major source of both the calming and the dramatic varieties of joy. Humans seem to like Either-Or, Black-and-White in a world that's full of grey shades of contradiction. Why not rise to the grey occasion in which we find ourselves?

So I encourage everyone to read all of Hopkins' nature poetry with such things in mind. Nature, among other forces, led Hopkins to Catholicism (he converted and became a Jesuit priest). At least once in awhile, the same scenes can also lead to Happy Barley. Wallow in it. Call it magic.

(The photos are from a spot on a dirt road near Rt. 12 and the village of Jonesville in south-central Michigan).

Hurrahing in Harvest by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Oct 12, 2011

"Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall" by Anne Sexton

Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall by Anne Sexton : The Poetry Foundation

The Campus on the Hill by W. D. Snodgrass : The Poetry Foundation

Recently I visited once again the University of Indiana in Bloomington, one of my very top choices for most beautiful campus and most pleasant college town in the United States. Almost every campus building is grandly made of local limestone, so there’s an architectural harmony that I’ve found unusual in large state universities. In the midst of those acres of lofty academic structures is a small woods. 

For a large school, the campus is well-defined relative to the town. A half-mile of shops, restaurants and bars connects the university to the town square, its courthouse dominating from on high. (Majestic courthouses seem to be an Indiana tradition).

To this outsider, the strained town-gown relationships portrayed in  Breaking Away, the famous bicycling movie, are not immediately apparent, but what non-resident knows that real scoop?

As I walked around, I felt like photographing every stone and student. All those stories . . . .  Then there's my tendency toward sentimentality about campuses and the college life in general; it led me once again to look for new poems that were related to scenes I'd witnessed. I couldn’t have gotten luckier, thanks again to Poetry Foundation. What a luxury, to wander so easily and casually through all kinds of verse and commentary.

At least for now, I love Anne Sexton’s “Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall.” If it weren’t so new to me, I’d say it’s as powerful and important as W.D. Snodgrass’s “Campus on the Hill,” posted here September 9, 2010. We'll see how Sexton's poem holds up, with its haunting interplay of different voices.

"The Campus on the Hill" by W. D. Snodgrass. What Is College?

 Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall by Anne Sexton : The Poetry Foundation

The Campus on the Hill by W. D. Snodgrass : The Poetry Foundation

If anyone wants to revisit the discussion of the college experience, I'm all ears.

By the way, I've just learned that yesterday's poet, Dean Young, earned his MFA at Indiana. 


Oct 11, 2011

"Son of Fog" by Dean Young: Is Fog a Gas?

You science people, is fog a gas? Are you sure?  In Tipton, Indiana, you can refill your tank at the Sherrill place, a combination diner and filling station. But in both pit stops and poetry, watch out for double meanings.

In Dean Young's fine and perhaps startling poem about fog, you'll find, among other lines, these winners:

Like dead flies on the sill of an abandoned   
nursery, we too are seeds in the rattle   
of mortality. A foglike baby god   
picks it up, shakes it, laughs insanely   
then goes back to playing with her feet.
    Or this, toward the end: 
   What a mess. We stand at the edge
    of a drop that doesn't answer back,
   fog our only friend although it's hell  
    on shrimpboats. 

        But don't take my word for it; read it all.

Son of Fog by Dean Young : Poetry Magazine


Oct 4, 2011

Jean Valentine, W.S. Merwin: Bees in Poems and Show, Don't Tell

Go, Tigers!

Moreover, in my latest chats with bees, they have seemed healthy and busy, unlike that alarming experience a month ago (September 6, 2011).  Naturally that's led me to look again for poems involving bees.

One of the most common maxims about writing poetry (and fiction, for that matter) is, "Show, Don't Tell." Don't summarize, generalize or preach to readers; create an experience and let readers draw their own conclusions.

I've been thinking about that in relation to these two rather different poems by long-established American poets Jean Valentine and W.S. Merwin  (Merwin was U.S. Poet Laureate until Phillip Levine took over recently). I'm interested in your responses, whether or not they are specifically connected to the issue of Show, Don't Tell.

Bees by Jean Valentine : The Poetry Foundation

The River of Bees by W. S. Merwin : The Poetry Foundation

Lovers' Lane