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The Poets

May 31, 2011

O Captain! my Captain! (e.g. Lincoln)

Abraham Lincoln is the captain to whom Whitman's poem refers. Whitman admired Lincoln dearly, was proud of the closure and success of the Civil war, and was terribly distraught at his assassination. The poem below covers all three of these realities- in fact, it covers the corresponding emotional realities felt by the poet (e.g. the shorter lines correspond to the poet’s deep sadness of Lincoln’s assassination).

Check it out (and, just curious, would you have known it was Lincoln having not had this information):


O Captain my Captain!

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
...The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.



Of the Poem (Parameters):

Stanza: Octet (i.e. 8 lines per stanza)
Meter: The poem, though structured, lacks a specific meter
Rhyme Scheme: aabb xcxc (where ‘x’ represents unrhymed lines)

Some Notes:

The poem is essentially an extended metaphor
1). The captain represents Lincoln
2). The ship represents the Union
3). The fearful trip represents the Civil War
4). The prize sought is the preservation of the Union

Whitman also takes advantage of some poetic devices, here’s a few below ...

Line 2: The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won (alliteration)
Line 3: The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting (internal rhyme)
Line 5: But O heart! heart! heart! (repetition to convey anguish)
Lines 9 & 10: The end rhymes of these lines are oblique rhythms (bells & trills)
Line 10: … for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills (alliteration)
Lines 17 & 18: The word ‘feel’ of line 18 corresponds to the end rhymes of both 17 & 18 (still & will)
Line 20: From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won (internal rhyme)

… and there are many more.


Now I haven’t studied Whitman to the extent that many others have, but I will say that one of the more admirable aspects that I find in him is his own poetic authenticity. What I mean by this is his style of writing- he lived during a time when meter was the prevalent mode of poetic expression; notwithstanding, he chose to depart from traditional forms of poetry (the poem above is a perfect example) to achieve his own level of creativity.

This is not to say that meter is too constrictive (I personally believe there’s a freedom in meter that free versing is unable achieve); the point, rather, is it take a certain amount of audacity to break away from the norm, and our poet here seems to have done this. I admire that.

Walt Whitman*



Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of 17, he began his career as teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city. On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his subsequent career, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a "purged" and "cleansed" life. He wrote freelance journalism and visited the wounded at New York-area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war.

Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk's salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him "purses" of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, NJ, where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother's house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden.

In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

*Biography from Poets.org

May 21, 2011

A Creeley Reading

Robert Creeley, a Beat poet who founded the Black Mountain Poets, was born this day in 1926. He’s a poet that I’ve come to appreciate a great deal. I came across this video just today- pretty interesting, has a sort of Twilight zone feel to it, but shows his creative imagination at work. Happy birthday buddy ...


Robert Creeley*

Robert Creeley (1926 - 2005)

Robert Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1926. He attended Harvard University from 1943 to 1946, taking time out from 1944 to 1945 to work for the American Field Service in Burma and India. In 1946 he published his first poem, in the Harvard magazine Wake.

In 1949 he began corresponding with William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. The following year he became acquainted with the poet Charles Olson. In 1954, as rector of Black Mountain College (an experimental arts college in North Carolina), Olson invited Creeley to join the faculty and to edit the Black Mountain Review. In 1960 Creeley received a Master's Degree from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Through the Black Mountain Review and his own critical writings, Creeley helped to define an emerging counter-tradition to the literary establishment—a postwar poetry originating with Pound, Williams, and Zukofsky and expanding through the lives and works of Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Edward Dorn, and others.

*Biography from Poets.org

May 13, 2011

Sudden Light


As with certain others (philosophers, scientists, artists, etc), I like acknowledging a poet’s date of birth. There’s a certain kind of ‘thank you’ about it, a certain kind of ‘I remember and appreciate what you left behind for us’ being expressed.

Anyhow, a couple days ago (on the 12th) I posted in Facebook an acknowledgement of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's date of birth some 183 years ago. Rossetti belongs to that period in the history of art known as Pre-Raphaelite (my favorite period). In fact, he’s the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the rudimentary element of that period of art).

I came to learn that he, along with his sister Christina Rossetti, was also a prolific writer of poetry- incredible poetry! I posted a poem Rossetti wrote that, quite frankly, is one of my favorite of all time: Sudden Light. It’s a great poem about déjà vu and the recollection of love and love’s eternal restoration (at least, that’s my take on it).

Here’s that poem- I’ll try to break down the stanzas individually below, let me know what you think.


Sudden Light

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,--
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?




Of the Poem (Poetic Parameters & Commentary)

Stanza: Quintet (i.e. consisting of five lines)
Meter: Mixed (see side notes)
Rhyme Scheme: ababa (the first, third, and fifth lines being interlinked with the same lines of the following stanzas)


Some Side Notes

The meter of the first stanza, which is mimicked by the ones that follow, is mixed (that is, six syllables in line 1; eight syllables in lines 2 and 3; four in line 4; and ten in line 5). Here’s what it looks like:

I have been here before (trimeter)
But when or how I cannot tell (tetrameter
)
I know the grass beyond the door (tetrameter
)
The sweet keen smell (dimeter
)
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore (pentameter)


I gotta say, I love love love the internal rhymes of the pentameters:

-The sighing sound, the lights around the shore
-Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore
-And day and night yield one delight once more


A Brief Commentary

About the Title

Why Sudden Light? Well, when one reads the poem it becomes quite clear that the poet is talking about déjà vu. What’s interesting is that (and I’m relatively certain of this) the French term wasn’t coined until Emile Boirac, a French psychic researcher, published his book in 1883, The Psychology of the Future. It’s highly unlikely that Rossetti, who died the year before, ever came across the technical term or the phrase.

Still, the phenomenon of déjà vu is something that humans have experienced from the get go. For Rossetti to dub it (albeit, poetically) sudden light makes perfect sense to me. (I wonder, however, if the term déjà vu had been in circulation during Rossetti’s time, would he have titled his poem differently?)

Stanza One

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.


The poet immediately immerses us in the world of sensation: the grass beyond the door (sight and perhaps smell), the sweet keen smell (smell with a reference to taste), the sighing sound (hearing), the lights around the shore (sight, and perhaps hearing and smelling the shore as well). All these very tangible elements pull him directly into an experience he knows he had before, but has difficulty articulating.

Stanza Two

You have been mine before,--
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore.


This stanza speaks of the catalyst of the déjà vu. The poet knows just (line 8) when it occurred: at the flight of a bird (that swallow's soar) and the look of his lover’s neck (your neck turn'd); a revelation immediately gives way (some veil did fall) and he suddenly realizes that this moment has occurred before (of yore).

Stanza Three

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?


This is the more philosophical of the stanzas. In it the poet marvels that time, despite its transient nature (its eddying flight) and despite the reality of death (line 14)- that time would restore not only life itself, but also the very love of life once lived! Absolutely beautiful. I find it quite amazing that so much expression can be articulated in so little space (not to mention in poetic meter).

It never ceases to amaze me how utterly gifted we humans can be despite our particular dilapidations. Sometimes I’m so ashamed of the things we do that it makes me sick to my stomach. But then there are those moments, those sublime moments, when we excel and achieve what’s best in us. I promise you, I long for the day when that is the norm.

Every time I read a poem like the one Rossetti wrote here, I’m reminded of one of the most beautiful and truest quotes ever:

“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering - these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love - these are what we stay alive for.”

Dead Poet’s Society

May 08, 2011

Amen, and amen …

I was delighted to find that the poem I submitted to Poets Rally W43 was among several other incredible poems chosen. During that time I met a lot of exceedingly gifted poets, read some incredible works, and became freshly inspired. Here’s a list of those who also won that particular award (the awards were selected from the submissions of week 41 and 42- congratulations guys).




Bless the World

Rally, poets! - bless the world
With words the Muse might have you use:
All have won by doing so-
By doing so … you never lose.

-jwm

May 05, 2011

Day 1


Day 1

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

The deep was formless void, and dim-
A grim and dreadful state-
But hov’ring was the Spirit’s life
Upon the darkness great!

Then there within the aqueous,
By His command and might,
A word went forth that changed my soul:
He said, Let there be light.

That luminance was truth aglow
Within the void of I
Dispersing the iniquities
That held me in awry.

Until then I had little known
That God was dwelling here,
But light and truth were showing me
That He was drawing near.

Then He who deemed the light as good
Removed it from the dark-
And just to keep the message clear
Made their distinction stark!

He dubbed one Day, the other Night
(or Saintliness, and Sin),
And gave me freedom to decide
To lose or choose to win.

-jwm

As of April 9th, 2010