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The Poets

May 26, 2009

A Monk's Refrain

Hide me away, O my soul
Shut me in her sacred cell
Let vesper pray’r these speeches quell
'Till dawn bid that the silence null
'Till matin and till lauds are done
'Till hymns and chap’l songs ascend
To Jesus Christ our Lord and Friend
With Spirit and with Father one

-jwm


Of the Poem:

My initial intent was to write a poem about a Carmelite Monk (specifically Juan de la Cruz), while attempting to adhere to a metrical pattern and a rhyme scheme of some sort- so much for the meter!

This has happened to me before… I would start a poem intending at least four quatrains (with which I’m most comfortable and enjoy) and then, after a single stanza or two, an overwhelming sense of completion would set in. No matter how intense the edits, addition, subtractions, altered rhyme scheme, different imagery- in short, no matter what!- that sense of completion would become polluted. And not just mildly.

These two stanzas (now an octet) are almost as they were first written, then that sense of solidification set in, my initial intent was vanquished. So I left it as is for a while, attempted adjustments and even entirely new stanzas, but to no avail. Finally I abandoned myself to its completion, and only then did I feel ‘clean’ about it. I’m very happy with this short poem.

Who Has Seen the Wind: Rossetti Poem

Here’s a neat little poem written by Christina Rossetti. It’s called: Who has seen the wind


Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.


Of the Poem:

I think I like it because it reminds me of John 3:8:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.*

There’s no doubt in my mind at all that this verse was in her head when she wrote this. I'll have to ask her.


*KJV, which I think makes it sound better.

May 25, 2009

The Second Coming: Yeats Poem



The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?



Of the Poem:

Yeats was heavily influenced by a mysticism whose theological content derived from a hodgepodge of deep Eastern ideas. Although Yeats was certainly not a Christian, he would throughout his life employ Christian language and themes to convey this or that particular idea. In his apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming, such use is made evident.

Yeats began to work on this poem in January of 1919, during a time when the political atmosphere was highly turbulent: the first World War just ended; the Russian Revolution- to which Yeats was heatedly opposed- had begun (not to mention the festering internal divisions of Ireland’s religious and political communities).

Like the philosopher Hegel (too a mystic minded man), Yeats believed there’s a dialectical process underlying historical events, and further believed that humans have the ability to glimpse it as they all have access to a ‘common consciousness’ not unlike the ‘world soul’ of the Transcendentalists. Note how Yeats derives his poetic vision from it when he says in line 12: a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight (where the Spiritus Mundi is the common medium).

The ‘gyre’ of line 1 is probably the most important individual word in the whole poem. This is a Yeatsian term that contains abstract geometrical figures whose superimposed movements work as a scale to determine a particular historical state or time (it’s essentially his crystal ball to historical events). For more on the gyre see comments area.

The repetitious use of words in the poem seem meant to produce within the reader a sort of nervous perception of impending danger or dark times (words like ‘turning’ in line one, ‘loosed’ in 4 and 5, and, along with the title of the poem, lines 10 and 11’s ‘Second Coming’).

Lines 7 and 8 are essentially a paraphrase of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. The ‘stony sleep’ of line 19 is borrowed from William Blake’s somewhat Gnostic myth, The Book of Urizen:

But Urizen laid in a stony sleep
Unorganiz'd, rent from Eternity.
Chapter III. Verse 10

The ‘rocking cradle’ of line 20 coupled with the reference to ‘Bethlehem’ in line 22 is clearly an allusion to the nativity of Christ, which would seem to suggest that the ‘rough beat’ slouching toward that holy city is an entity holding a particular hostility with regards to Jesus and Christianity. My personal take is that the reference is toward an antichrist figure very much similar to the one mentioned in John’s first letter (this despite the many interpretations which seem to rule that conclusion out).

The poem seems to depict a period in history (Yeats’ history to be clear) where a gloomy paradigm shift is at hand; where authority in the highest spiritual sense of the word is on the verge of abrogation (and this by the manifestation of that personae whom Yeats equates with that stony figure: the Sphinx).

If ever there were a poem one could deem as dark and riddled with dreadful prophetic imagery, would it not be this one? Top ten for creepiness for sure. What does it for me is that this poem was not for Yeats a hypothetical narrative or story… no, I am utterly convinced that he expected fulfillment of it.

There’s so much that can be elaborated on here with regard to this poem (and perhaps in time I’ll come back to it). I decided to post it- along with a brief biography from Poets.org- because Yeats was one of the first poets I actively began to read, and this particular poem was one of the first that … well, I’ll say it … really creeped me out.

May 22, 2009

Does Propriety a Better Poet Make?

Does propriety a better poet make-
Where principles are as by God begot
Within recesses deep where one might take
The musing inspiration from and plot?

Or is it skill and will and wicked dye
That sink into the canvas'd page aframe-
That have aught to share but a holy cry-
Which makes a poet, though morally maim?

Are both- scribing their words- Poetry's heir
So that neither virtue nor vice opposed
Might blemish all their written pages fair-
Where enmity of claim aren't presupposed?

Or will poetry's Muse come choose her heirs
Dividing with stained sickle wheat from tares?

May 21, 2009

William Butler Yeats*


William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1865, the son of a well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats. He spent his childhood in County Sligo, where his parents were raised, and in London. He returned to Dublin at the age of fifteen to continue his education and study painting, but quickly discovered he preferred poetry. Born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class, Yeats became involved with the Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland during the Victorian period, which sought to promote the spirit of Ireland's native heritage. Though Yeats never learned Gaelic himself, his writing at the turn of the century drew extensively from sources in Irish mythology and folklore. Also a potent influence on his poetry was the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, whom he met in 1889, a woman equally famous for her passionate nationalist politics and her beauty. Though she married another man in 1903 and grew apart from Yeats (and Yeats himself was eventually married to another woman, Georgie Hyde Lees), she remained a powerful figure in his poetry.

Yeats was deeply involved in politics in Ireland, and in the twenties, despite Irish independence from England, his verse reflected a pessimism about the political situation in his country and the rest of Europe, paralleling the increasing conservativism of his American counterparts in London, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His work after 1910 was strongly influenced by Pound, becoming more modern in its concision and imagery, but Yeats never abandoned his strict adherence to traditional verse forms. He had a life-long interest in mysticism and the occult, which was off-putting to some readers, but he remained uninhibited in advancing his idiosyncratic philosophy, and his poetry continued to grow stronger as he grew older. Appointed a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, he is remembered as an important cultural leader, as a major playwright (he was one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and as one of the very greatest poets—in any language—of the century. W. B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 and died in 1939 at the age of 73.


*Biography from Poets.org

May 18, 2009

Christina Rossetti: Insight from a Friend

"Have you seen her brother's painting of the Annunciation? Young Christina was his model for Mary. Her expression in the painting is beyond description, but somehow I think it is an expression that she must have worn often for I hear it in her poems."


Thank you, Mr. Doug P. Baker. You're right: Beyond Description ...

May 17, 2009

In an Artist's Studio: Rossetti Poem


One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel; -- every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyfull as the light;
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.


Of the Poem:

This happens to be the very first one of Christina Rossetti’s poems that I came to read. While reading it, what first came to mind was the kind of insatiable passion that consumes a person so much so that the object of their desire is reflected in everything they see, hear, or do.

Next was my thought of Plato, who believed that the beautiful objects we behold in our existence are no more than mere reflections or copies of a higher Beauty- a Beauty whose eternal idea and form transcend the temporal and spacial beauties we see in this all too human realm.

Although Christina's poetic use of an artist's studio is quite natural (considering her background with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), that very first impression mentioned above was not that it represented a particular artist, or a woman, or even art itself ... rather, it seemed to represent an obsession of passion, and not necessarily in the negative sense of obsession. Turns out that initial thought might not have been far off from the poet's intention.

Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was one of the leading artists of the Brotherhood and had a many young ladies to model for his works. One in particular was Elizabeth Siddal- a somewhat tall, slender, beautiful girl with 'copper' color hair. He was immediately taken by her. And after a short period of modeling for him, he dropped almost all of his other models, and stopped her from modeling for fellow artists. She became very quickly his sole consuming subject- not only in his drawings and paintings, but his poems too.

Unfortunately, Siddal's story is a sad one. Already prone to melancholy and illness, the still birth of her daughter only served to exasperate her problems. After becoming pregnant again, Siddal overdoses on laudanum. It's unclear whether or not this was an accident.

In 1863, a year after her death, Dante produced Beata-Beatrix (the painting above), where his beloved 'Lizzy' bore representation of a praying Beatrice. There's no question that the bulk of Dante's works of art centered on Elizabeth Siddal, that there was within him an insatiable desire to know her beauty and represent it in those works. Obviously I don't know the finer details of their relationship, but I'd like to imagine a time that they were immutably in love, so that even when apart they were together. Edith Piaf's song, Tu Es Partout, contains lyrics to the like:

Tu es partout car tu es dans mon coeur
Tu es partout car tu es mon bonheur
Toutes les choses qui sont autour de moi
Meme la vie ne represente que toi
Des fois je reve que je suis dans tes bras
Et qu'a l'oreille tu me parles tout bas
Tu dis des choses qui font fermer les yeux
Et moi je trouve ca merveilleux

English Translation:

You are everywhere because you are in my heart
You are everywhere because you are my happiness
Everything that is around me
Even life does not represent you
Sometimes I dream that I am in your arms
And you speak softly in my ear
You tell me things that make me close my eyes
And I find that marvelous


I imagine that this is the point of Rossetti's poem (that is, provided it's devoid of sarcasm) ...

May 16, 2009

Perseus (by Robert Hayden)

I had to post this poem by Robert Hayden- absolutely incredible, the imagery accomplished in a mere 14 lines! If anyone reads this, you've got to let me know what you think.


Perseus

Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass
of serpents torpidly astir
burned into the mirroring shield--
a scathing image dire
as hated truth the mind accepts at last
and festers on.
I struck. The shield flashed bare.

Yet even as I lifted up the head
and started from that place
of gazing silences and terrored stone,
I thirsted to destroy.
None could have passed me then--
no garland-bearing girl, no priest
or staring boy--and lived.



The first time I read this poem I was completely pulled outside of myself by awe. What Robert Hayden accomplishes within a mere 14 (incomplete) lines of poetry is something that is seldom seen. It astonishes the imagination that a whole story, a whole world and realm can be conveyed by so simple a thing as a poem.

In fact, what completely did it for me, the thing that pushed over in me that which was merely in tilt, was John Milton's description of the Garden of Eden. There were no extravagant words employed, and as far as I can remember, Milton almost never even mentioned the Garden. But within 8 lines, and by means of images taken from mythology, Milton expresses what in other words would simply require pages to attain.

Here are those 8 lines below (again, what do you think):


Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and the inspired
Castalian spring, might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive...

Paradise Lost, Book IV 268 - 275

Pre-Raphaelite Poet: Christina Rossetti*


Christina Rossetti (1830 - 1894)

Christina Rossetti was born in London, one of four children of Italian parents. Her father was the poet Gabriele Rossetti; her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti also became a poet and a painter. Rossetti's first poems were written in 1842 and printed in the private press of her grandfather. In 1850, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne, she contributed seven poems to the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, which had been founded by her brother William Michael and his friends.

Rossetti is best known for her ballads and her mystic religious lyrics. Her poetry is marked by symbolism and intense feeling. Rossetti's best-known work, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862. The collection established Rossetti as a significant voice in Victorian poetry. The Prince's Progress and Other Poems, appeared in 1866 followed by Sing-Song, a collection of verse for children, in 1872 (with illustrations by Arthur Hughes).

By the 1880s, recurrent bouts of Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder, made Rossetti an invalid, and ended her attempts to work as a governess. While the illness restricted her social life, she continued to write poems. Among her later works are A Pageant and Other Poems (1881), and The Face of the Deep (1892). Rossetti also wrote religious prose works, such as Seek and Find (1879), Called To Be Saints (1881) and The Face of the Deep (1892). In 1891, Rossetti developed cancer, of which she died in London on December 29, 1894. Rossetti's brother, William Michael, edited her collected works in 1904, but the Complete Poems were not published before 1979.

Christina Rossetti is increasingly being reconsidered a major Victorian poet. She has been compared to Emily Dickinson but the similarity is more in the choice of spiritual topics than in poetic approach, Rossetti's poetry being one of intense feelings, her technique refined within the forms established in her time.


*Biography from Poets.org

May 12, 2009

City Naiad

No, she's not me (whose heart is vain)
She's happy where no glades are seen
Whose glades are city-lights and rain
And puddles in the streets unclean

The vagabonds there seem her kin
Who sleep on papers by the mall
In alleys soaked in piss and gin
That shifty crowds don't see at all

She glides ethereal like God
On sullen ground where many’ve died
And seeks about the slum-filled quad
The sacred pools where many've cried

And here within my cozy life
Where heat and food and rest are clean
I think their life just rosy strife
And God forbid the rain as mean

But not so with her honest eyes
That sees by truth those somber sights
Whose tears reflect the raining skies
And all those amber city-lights

-jwm

May 11, 2009

City Naiad (Picture)


click the picture for closer view

May 09, 2009

Italian Quatrain

I see the rolling thunderous approach
As loam emanates from cemented ground;
I see synapsing clouds devoid of sound,
And am jubilantly without reproach.

-jwm


Of the Poem:

Friends and I hiked Mount Sherman last June. The night prior to the hike, when we arrived at the hotel, there on the horizon was a cloud that resembled what I might imagine the aftermath of a nuclear blast to be. It was beautiful (picture above). The following week while it rained I was studying Epictetus (a Stoic philosopher), and read:

"Remember God. Invoke him for your aid and protector, as sailors do Castor and Pollux, in a storm. For what storm is greater than that which arises from these perilous semblances, contending to overturn our reason? Indeed, what is the storm itself, but a semblance? For do but take away the fear of death, and let there be as many thunders and lightnings as you please, you will find that to the reason all is serenity and calm..."

The idea for, and imagery of, the above quatrain emerged from these two events. It's because Epictetus was a Roman citizen that I decided to render this quatrain Italian. I know it's just a stanza, but it's riddled with the perfect amount of Stoic symbolism.

As of April 9th, 2010