Arpeggios of Autumn: Happy Birthday, Counselor Stevens

Today marks the  137th birthday of Wallace Stevens.   I cannot claim that I understand his work, but I am swooped into his colorful aesthetic world of gorgeous peacocks and bananas and colorful language and sound-effects.   He’s a poet of jollity and melancholy.  He’s a poet of range and arrangement.  He’s a poet of euphony and cachinnations.  He’s a poet of sensuous and sensual arousings and carousings.

I cannot explicate the pleasures of Stevens for you if you do not get them at once.   Imagine you are in an exciting art museum full of canvases splashed with color amidst some that are solemn and thoughtfully grey and cerebral.  That is Stevens.  You may not understand it  all, but it’s exciting especially if you allow yourself to enjoy the experience.   And in the museum there is a zoo of colorful animals living an active life of grooming and bellowing and making mating displays.  rousseaupainting

Here’s a taste of Stevens:  “Tinsel in February,” “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” “Tom-tom, c’est moi,”  “apostrophes are forbidden on the funicular,” “Old pantaloons, duenna of the spring!,”,”In the Clear Season of Grapes,” “Soupe Aux Perles:  Health-o, when ginger and fromage bewitch”, “Dezembrum,” A sunny day’d complete Poussiniana,” “Jot these milky matters down,” “The plum survives its poems,” “The moonlight / Fubbed the girandoles,” “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” “Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns.”

Yes, it is not great to take things out of context but these brief snippets of Stevens will, I hope, convince you that entering his glittery and giddy world can be a pleasure.

Classics Club Spin Game

  • roulettewheel

I like the random.  Somewhat.  I am going to vow to follow these rules as set forth by the Classics Club at http://www.theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com

 

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by December 1, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)

 

Monday, October 3:  And it’s number 1!  I’ll read The Late George Apley by John Marquand

Here is my list:

  1.  John P. Marquand:  The Late George Apley
  2. Barbara Pym:  Some Tame Gazelle
  3. Somerset Maugham:  Of Human Bondage
  4. John Galsworthy:  The Man of Property
  5. Anthony Trollope:  Autobiography
  6. Elizabeth Taylor:  The Soul of Kindness
  7. Thomas Mann:  Death in Venice
  8. Thomas Hardy:  Desperate Remedies
  9. Henry James:  Daisy Miller
  10. Sinclair Lewis:  The Job:  An American Novel
  11. Edith Wharton: The Bunner Sisters
  12. Clemence Dane:  Regiment of Women
  13. Sarah Orne Jewett:  The Country of the Pointed Firs
  14. Betty Smith:  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  15. Herman Melville:  Benito Cereno
  16. Iris Murdoch:  The Nice and the Good
  17. Anthony Hecht:  Complete Poetry
  18. Elizabeth Bishop:  Complete Poems
  19. Katherine Mansfield:  Short Stories (Complete)
  20. Shakespeare:  King Lear

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Father Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins, like other poets, is a master of making a “joyful noise” from a tormented spirit (see Tennyson, In Memoriam, for example). Surrounded by various kinds of rejections and dejections, he was able to deal out “that being indoors” with splendid poetry that hardly seems stylistically Victorian.

Hopkins used dialect, archaic words, coined words, portmanteau words in his poems and they can astonish by their strangeness and their rightness. His heavy use of alliteration, repetition, rhyme, assonance and other poetry devices please me enormously.

One need not be religious to appreciate God and Christ and religious imagery in literature. The cultural and aesthetic ideals of religion are at their best when showcased in great art, in my opinion. It’s easy to love the artistic and humane achievement of poems such as this: “The achieve of, the mastery of” the language is exciting and compelling. I’d like to shout out an holla of gratitude to Robert Bridges, who arranged for the posthumous publication of most of Hopkins’s poetry. Very little had been published in his lifetime. This is what “Language poetry” should be, as opposed to the opaque and almost unreadable, to me, poetry of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E= poets. What Hopkins does with the English language is breathtaking. And, like a nostalgic Thomas Hardy, “wishing it might be so” (of the religious superstitions of his youth) Hopkins almost makes me with it might be so that the “just man justices” and “keeps all his goings graces.”kingfishers

Nostalgia

nostalgiawomen-war-workers-wwi-5
In my last post I described the beauty of “strangeness” and how it can capture the imagination with its oddity. Most poems are strange ballets. Another category of poem that I appreciate (and more and more with age) is what I’d call the poetry of nostalgia. So many great poems are infused with a kind of quiet, melancholy sense of nostalgia—just a whiff of ruefulness or a lingering scent of longing for a past—a past idealized, perhaps, but a past that seems better, more innocent than what we know now. The nostalgic poem can be rendered stupid by too much sentimentality—“How Dear to My Heart Is the Old Oaken Bucket,” has a rather cheap and paltry sentimentality.Oscar Wilde says that “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” James Joyce says that “Sentimentality is unearned emotion.” The great WB Yeats writes that , “Rhetoric is fooling others. Sentimentality is fooling yourself.” Flannery O’Connor warns that ““To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness”.

Sentimentality is an easy bathos which can serve as a kind of emotional antechamber to a more knowing, more transcendent love of beauty. When I was about nine years old I kept rereading the passage in Little Women where young Beth dies. Alcott writes that “Beth, who keeps the house is always kind and gentle” and sets up the young female reader who is typically racked with guilt because she is not automatically “always kind and gentle” as the superlative Beth. Beth’s death scene is indeed a kitschy theatre of pathetic fallacy. Many years later it all seems like alien corn to me, but I think that the place of sentimental poetry is to get a person invested in words and their invocation of emotion.

John Keats rightly says, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us”. The old oaken bucket and Beth’s death and Kilmer’s trees want to bludgeon us. And they serve their purpose if they bludgeon us into emotional or intellectual receptivity of more subtle poetry.

The poetry of nostalgia gives us a glimpse of a past. This past was, perhaps, one that seemed unredeemable at the time. It takes us back to a time and a place that, even if we never knew it, now swim into our ken as if a real memory.

I like this poem by the remarkable Philip Larkin:

MCMXIV
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.
Philip Larkin

Larkin conjures up a past world in which children named Albert or Bertha play innocently in the brilliant sun of August not yet aware of the impending Guns of August. His tone is nostalgic but I read a good deal of irony infusing the nostalgia. These men are about to go to the deaths. They don’t know if they are on a lark or in the dark. Nature, silent, does not embrace them. Larkin mentions the servants in their tiny rooms and the poem almost necessarily becomes a critique of the past just as it remains nostalgic.

As a title, “MCMXIV” conjures up war memorials and the kinds of mostly solemn occasions in which Roman Numerals are used (I know my Roman numerals because movies like to “sign themselves” with their dates).

Like all great poems, it opens up questions instead of resolving them. Is the speaker imagining a memory? Glancing at a photograph? Trying to share sentiments that are not ruled by a subject and a predicate—in one sentence that goes on for 32 lines?

Strange Ballet

strangeballet

 

Some of the greatest poems, like hugely magnificent oil paintings or like elaborate classical symphonies, are not easy to comprehend. Poems like Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” or his “Intimations” Ode or the psychological work Browning does in poems like “Fra Lippo Lippi” or “Andrea del Sarto” are not the matter of a ten-minute read. What you can do, however, if you’d like more great poetry in your life is look upon the great long lyrical poems or the sweeping narrative poems as new friendships. Slowly, gradually, with regular visits, the poem will unfold its aesthetic splendors and its wisdom. Soon it will touch you. Perhaps you begin by appreciating just one phrase—“the still sad music of humanity”. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” “I have measured out my life in coffee-spoons.” “Death is the mother of beauty”. “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”. “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” “I could say elves to him, but it’s not elves exactly”.

I never much liked Beethoven’s cerebral late quartets when I was young; I preferred the rousing symphonies. I didn’t really see the point of Mark Rothko for years. I had to sit in sundry galleries and be with Rothko’s work for a long time before I could say that I had the fumbling beginnings of an “I’ve got it” moment that has made me want to sit with him again. And I love Beethoven’s late quartets now and cannot imagine how I failed to appreciate the deep comprehension of humanity within them.

I don’t require all the art in the world to be magisterial and profound. Poetry has delights comparable to light music or to a simple sketch. The hook for me can be an odd or intriguing image; a strange group of words that conjures up a response. Some great poems can be like an amuse-bouche, a sonatina giocosa, a sketch of a toucan or a small water-color of a purple fish. I especially enjoy the kinds of poems that I call “strange ballets.” These are poems with a bizarre verbal choreography. Poems that go herkimer-jerkimer. Poems that address the glory of the Triscuit rather than the Trinity. Poems that make sudden lurches, jetés, glissades, a pas de chat, a moonwalk, a dos-a-dos.

Some of the “strange ballets” I love include Gene Kelly in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and Fred Astaire doing “Shine on My Shoes.” Similarly, a strange ballet of a poem is riveting if well-executed. It deserves your attention even if it’s just a glance.

I’m going to post a poem that is neither profound, nor great. It’s not brilliant. But it amuses. It’s playful and it’s strange.

==============
Earthy Anecdote (1923)
Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.
Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
because of the firecat.
Or until they swerved
in a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.
The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
to the right, to the left,
And
Bristled in the way.
Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
And slept.

By Wallace Stevens

I enjoy the images and the language here. Why is this an “anecdote”? What is a “firecat” anyhow? Why “Oklahoma”? What kind of buck?” Is there but one firecat or do the bucks encounter a firecat wherever they go? Why “earthy?”
Asking such questions of the poem amuses me, but the most important thing is the image: the swerving, the circular lines, the majestic colors of a poem that never mentions color. This poem is indeed a fine and inventive amuse-bouche.

“In the Vicinity of the Crank-House”

ANTHONYTHWAITE

 

I am becoming a connoisseur of walking sticks
Comparing my own stout stump with the slender ferrule,
The harsh metal wand, or the pair of hospital crutches.

Not lameness or amputation, thank God, simply old age
And a condition known as “degenerative spine” –
Something between a moral menace and a washed-out weakling.

In the vicinity of the crank-house the maimed swing by
As I make my own slow way between sets of traffic lights,
Grinning a greeting grimly in complicitous courtesy.

My first was something much lighter, with a silver band,
But I had to leave that behind as my back shrank.
Sometimes I journey uphill muttering to myself

That bit of Christina Rossetti in a stertorous way.
There are worse ways of being a connoisseur
Than quoting Christina Rossetti, and comparing walking sticks.

 

–Anthony Thwaite

I enjoy this poem for its lack of overt poetry-ness.  Instead, Thwaite stealthily opens up the universe of a poem by giving us a guide:  the walking-stick certainly stands as both image and metaphor.  Also the crank-house stands at an uncertain place as an uncertain kind of place.   I’ve known quite a few crank-houses; I even live in one.

I love the way Thwaite uses the phrase “journey uphill” as a segue into Christina Rossetti and her poem, “Uphill”.  Using a walking-stick, expounding upon Christina Rossetti brings us to the neighborhood of mortality.

When my friend was dying I would bring her lap-top to her bed and we would search for a good steady stable decorative walking-stick.   She (and I) too became connoisseurs of walking sticks.  Her walking stick would be wooden and stout, with Celtic Victoriana engraved throughout.  The handle would be brass and long and depict an animal–an animal with a smooth and long proboscis.  An elephant or a nickel-plated horse or a chrome-coated jaguar.  Perhaps a duck or a dog.  A crook-handled stick would not offer enough support.  And mount-badges!

“Grinning a greeting grimly in complicitous courtesy” I would find another page of walking sticks to covet.  Thwaite’s superb poem brings me straight back to the time when it seemed possible to appease the menace of cancer by ordering a bespoke walking-stick from abroad.  From Cornwall, specifically.

 

walkingsticks

Cento

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A Cento is a  poetic form in which all of the lines are taken from other poems. For example, I can make up a rather silly and meaningless one by grabbing a volume of poetry at hand:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
Man superannuates the horse;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Dissolve me into ecstasies
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
Spitting–from lips once sanctified by hers.
Say not the struggle naught availeth.”

That’s a matter of opening pages of “Lives of the Poets” more or less at random and grabbing a line without thought to meaning, to grammar, to sense. You see Whitman follow Pope and Coleridge segue into Browning into Clough.

It takes true merit to come up with a clever and meaningful Cento and contemporary poet RS Gwynn has done so using Wallace Stevens, Pope, Keats, Hopkins, Frost, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Yeats, Robinson, Eliot, and others.  What distinguishes  his “Cento” is that is makes sense as a reverie on time passing and human ageing, and death.   Well-known lines out of context remind me of the fragmentation of life and how easily connections can be broken.  New connections are not as strong as the old ones simply because they are new.  roygbiv***************************

Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses the Norton Anthology of Poetry.

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
And somewhat of a sad perplexity.
Here take my picture, though I bid farewell;
In a dark time the eye begins to see

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall–
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet bird sang.
What but design of darkness to appall?
An aged man is but a paltry thing.

If I should die, think only this of me:
Crass casualty obstructs the sun and rain
When I have fears that I may cease to be,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain

And hear the spectral singing of the moon
And strictly meditate the thankless muse.
The world is too much with us, late and soon
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.
Again he raised the jug up to the light:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Downward to darkness on extended wings,
Break, break, break on thy cold gray stones, O Sea,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
–RS Gwynn