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

“And Were You Loved?”

And were you loved?

“And were you loved?”
“And did you love in return?”

I believe those are quotations from a poem by Raymond Carver, but I cannot find a copy. The words are simple, unspectacular but have that emotional “catch” that grabs at the gullet. The catch can expand like a bottomless canyon, but for me today the catch is quick to come: my mother’s death. It’s been a while.  It’s been 8 years.  It’s been since this morning; it happened yesterday; it happened decades ago.  She loved me–sometimes in a strangely childish way. Sometimes I felt that I was the mother; sometimes I felt that I was holding (metaphorically) a child who had returned from a day at school where she was laughed at or bullied. I had to comfort her. Comforting a mother or a child leads to that kind of deep emotional catch. The unexpected bump that trips you and suddenly you descend into cascades of emotion.

Yes, each person was loved. Each person had a mother, who felt and hoped and wished for something when the babe quickened. Each person was loved, even–perhaps especially–terrorists, murderers. All had someone who loved him or her.

And now…where has that love gone, that powerful force that pushes babies out of the womb and pushes people into the air? The perversion of love to the idea that, as Yeats put it, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Musée des Beaux Arts
by WH Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
1940

Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,

Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.”

I turn to poetry, as I do more frequently as I age–for almost all occasions, including the most mundane (the poetry of shopping, the poetry of driving…it’s all there). And yet….

“The Death of a Soldier”

by Wallace Stevens

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

All are soldiers, every one of us, soldiering on through life, never knowing when the expected death will come. We don’t usually think of it much when we get up and go to work; life does not seem too perilous on a simply grey January morning, yet to soldier on is, I think, to be willing to live without immediate answers. To risk each day knowing that loss can come from anyplace—from a hospital bed, down from the sky, from an intransigent worm within. To try to live without contemplating that risk, to go on going on, signing leases, paying earthly mortgages, preparing for an indefinate future that is finate indeed….

And yes, they were all loved, everyone of them.

 ‘And were you loved?’

Mole

Wyatt Prunty, 1947

For weeks he’s tunneled his intricate need
Through the root-rich, fibrous, humoral dark,
Buckling up in zagged illegibles
The cuneiforms and cursives of a blind scribe. 
 
Sleeved by soft earth, a slow reach knuckling, 
Small tributaries open from his nudge—
Mild immigrant, bland isolationist,
Berm builder edging the runneling world.
 
But now the snow, and he’s gone quietly deep,
Nuzzling through a muzzy neighborhood
Of dead-end-street, abandoned cul-de-sac,
And boltrun from a dead-leaf, roundhouse burrow.
 
May he emerge four months from this as before,
Myopic master of the possible,
Wise one who understands prudential ground,
Revisionist of all things green;
 
So when he surfaces, lumplike, bashful,
Quizzical as the flashbulb blind who wait
For color to return, he’ll nose our green-
rich air with the imperative poise of now.

First published in New Criterion. Copyright © 2006 Wyatt Prunty.

I love what Wyatt Prunty does with the mole in this poem.   When was the last time you thought of the “intricate need” of a mole?  Prunty uses sophisticated vocabulary  such as “humoral,” and “cuneiforms” to focus on the very specificity of this mole as we reach into the back corridors of our word-hoards.  If you can read this out loud or in your mind’s voice, notice the fantastic sound-effects:  “zagged illegibles,” and “berm builder” and “nuzzling through a muzzy neighborhood” and “Myopic master”.  This mole is a blind scribe, a builder, and he has political opinions:  an immigrant, he’s also an isolationist.   Wise, prudent, bashful and quizzical, he has the “imperative poise of now”.

And we have a new way of looking at a mole!  This mole seems like an elderly Frostian New England observer:  slow to speak, slow to move, and slow to write but always deliberate.  Both Prunty and the mole build bridges between our limitations and our capacities to look once again, with new vision, at something we’ve passed without thought in the past.

 

Prunty is such a great poet!  He’s always dancing with the dictionary; seeing with the microscopic and kaleidoscopic eyes of a visionary.  mole

 

“Coyote, with Mange”

coyotewithmange

We must avert our eyes; this image is too sickening.  It takes a strong poetic voice to humanize it and a magician to make it loveable.  Mark Wunderlich has written a magnificent poem about a coyote like this one.

 

“Coyote, with Mange”
Oh, Unreadable One, why
have you done this to your dumb creature?
Why have you chosen to punish the coyote
rummaging for chicken bones in the dung heap,
shucked the fur from his tail
and fashioned it into a scabby cane?
Why have you denuded his face,
tufted it, so that when he turns he looks
like a slow child unhinging his face in a smile?
The coyote shambles, crow-hops, keeps his head low,
and without fur, his now visible pizzle
is a sad red protuberance,
his hind legs the backward image
of a bandy-legged grandfather, stripped.
Why have you unhoused this wretch
from his one aesthetic virtue,
taken from him that which kept him
from burning in the sun like a man?
Why have you pushed him from his world into mine,
stopped him there and turned his ear
toward my warning shout?
Source: Poetry (March 2009)
The poem is a series of five piercing questions addressed to the “Unreadable one” who may be our vision of a God, of the crass apathy of Nature, or the untaggable sense that somehow manages things.  The poem has a Thomas Hardyesque unblenching acceptance that disaster and cruelty can strike anywhere.
Mark Wunderlich takes unflinching and realistic snapshots of animals in many of his poems and then he moves on to make the ugly endearing without sentimentalizing or moralizing or trying to serve us a platitudinous finale as a kind of dessert for entertaining the image of the coyote with mange.   Wunderlich makes me feel a deep well of compassion where I might have turned away in disgust.  He shows us the coyote as a “slow child,” a ” a “bandy-legged grandfather,” and a member of our world.  True, he only has one aesthetic virtue:  his fut that has been denuded by the mange.   The fur that protects him from the rays of the sun and keeps his “pizzle” dignified is his house.
Wunderlich has three published books all worthy of purchase.  His topics are numerous and his poems about animals
This is what poetry is for, for me:  to make me look at something in a new and significant way.  Now I see the coyote as a kinsman needing, like me, some sort of house.  I can see making a minute observation of the coyote and seeing the ways in which some outside force has failed him:  not simply the scourge of mange but the indifference of the “Unreadable one.”

Top Ten Tuesday: Places

Top Ten Tuesday

This is my first  Top Tuesday listing and because I want to see if I can pull it off without thinking about it too much, my choice is LONDON!  Nobody who knows me will be surprised.

In the order in which they appear in my muddled brain, with no idea that I am rating them, I submit:

  1.  Dickens:  Bleak House
  2. Barbara Pym:  Excellent Women
  3. Elizabeth Taylor:  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
  4. Iris Murdoch:  A Fairly Honourable Defeat
  5. Zadie Smith:  White Teeth
  6. Virginia Woolf:   Mrs. Dalloway
  7. Muriel Spark:  Memento Mori
  8. Wordsworth:  “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”
  9. Percy B. Shelley: “London in 1819”
  10. William Blake:  “London”

runner-ups would have to include Sherlock Holmes stories, George Gissing’s novels, The Waste Land, and how could I have neglected Vanity Fair?

Londoncitybigben


 

Mary Jo Salter

Saltermaryjobooks

 

 

At the end of this blog is a list of poets born during the 1950’s who have made an impression on me so that I try to buy their books and follow their careers.  Not all of them are equal in my esteem but all of them are worthy to be read, to be listened to, to ponder.   The oldest approach 66 or 67 years of age and even the youngest are in late mid-career.  Some have faltered; some have already accomplished an astounding body of work.   It’s time to begin a provisional review of their works and I look forward to a good deal of reading and catching up on some careers.

Today  (August 15) is the birthday of Mary Jo Salter—who has a magnificent body of work.  My love of her poetry began when  I found a memorable poem in The New Yorker, or The Atlantic or Poetry or The Kenyon Review and reread it.  And started looking for her name (before we had search engines).  I found her first book, Henry Purcell in Japan (when a mid-sized city had at least one book-store with an excellent poetry selection) and purchased it.    I have seven of her books now.

Salter is very good at travel verse,  comic verse and domestic verse.  I love her series about being pregnant in Japan (by the way, I have no idea if they are spoken by narrators or reflect her own experience), about visiting Iceland, and about  domestic life  with children.   She writes beautifully about some of the disaster spots of our world—Hiroshima, Chernobyl,  TWA 800 near Long Island,  and shipwrecks and other catastrophes that become tourist destinations.  If there is a flaw to her comic verse, it is the understandable tendency to be a bit arch (perhaps she’s waving to another baby of August 15, Julia Child, a Goddess of Domestic Archery).

I like Salter’s preference for strong form, allusion, and grounding her poems in specific times and places.   Each one is a story—from a minor glance at a spouse’s fondness for Myrna Loy to a ping-pong table: “unsporty, unoutdoorsy / and sseriously unlikely / to reform out habits much”  in a section called “Light-weights”.

Salter’s scope is extensive:  from birth to death, from parenthood to divorce, from brownie troops to tombstones, from Netsuke to breakfast.  Her poetry never disappoints me AND in many cases has given me words to live by.

Let’s get more specific:  “Dead Letters”  refers to somebody who receives letters addressed to her recently deceased mother.  The poem begins with a comic concept:  that of course the dead will continue to receive Junk Mail; that the Publisher’s Clearing House will continue to dangle the promise of millions, that “a host of worthy causes vies for your attention”, the misery of cleaning out the closets of the dead; the ruminations about the process of death, the steady excoriating  march of chemotherapy, memories of splendid times, and then learning to live with the reality of death and knowing that we, too, are next on the list of dead-letter senders.   The end of the poem is, perhaps, the most deeply piercing:  the poet reflects on a philodendron  her mother had given her:

“And yet it intertwines

Forever, I perceive, your life and mine,”

and

“You too were one to note

Life’s artful correspondences:”

“Dead Letters” and “Elegies for Etsuko” have helped to guide me through my own losses and mourning:  Salter has the gift to put into words that we can grab onto and use in the messy business of collecting a warm living person into a series of memories that keep on refining themselves with the years.

“Elegies for Etsuko” is a long poem about the suicide of a young friend at age twenty-eight.  In 9 segments which range from a villanelle to free verse to elegant quatrains, Salter very specifically circles around memories of a good friend and the way memories are transformed by death and even more specifically rarefied by suicide.

In the volume “A Kiss in Space,” the poem “Alternating Currents” alternates between the worlds of Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, A. Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes and his own Watson.  Every stanza is a tour de force and the words “alternating currents” have many denotations and connotations.   The poem is a tribute to and an expansion on the idea of a “drop of water” which is what Annie Sullivan uses to get the attention of the young  Helen Keller .

Salter writes about the “craft of authorship:”

so let them, on my tangling lines,

call the overloaded switchboard

for souls they’re linked to, all at once:

Keller and Sullivan, Conan Doyle

and Watson, Bell and Watson, the two

two-watt Watsons….

 

“Alternating Currents’ is a magisterial miracle of verse and while it is all Salter, it also partakes of the long  poems of Anthony Hecht, such as “Venetian Vespers” and “See Naples and Die”.  (By the way, I think that Salter  follows the line of Hecht in brilliancy and sheen and the ability to juggle, Hamlet-like, wit and death in the same speech).

 

 

The six poems that make up the “Icelandic Almanac” section of Salter’s volume, Sunday Skaters, are magnificent.  Could they be a tribute to Auden’s and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland?  Absolutely; Salter mentions them both in other places. And does the Nora here end up being the subject of an elegy in a later book?  Always concerned with the intersections of art, beauty (both natural and hand-created), and memory, Salter asks:

Why has Iceland no Tiepolo?

World’s most ambitious clouds, and no

Portraitist to do them justice;

The answer might be that life gets in the way of art:

A local woman explains that:

“When you have to watch your footing, you don’t look up;

 

when the weather’s treacherous, and life’s a stguffle,

neither the clouds nor the land is beautiful.”

 

 

Part of the pleasure of Salter is her allusiveness and her scope:

“For I will consider my kitten, Herb” and “Brief Candle”.

Does “Madama Butterfly” from “Libretto”  become more poignant from the earlier “Elegies for Etsuko”?  Who doesn’t live with “Persons from Porlock?”   It’s also fun to know that when somebody like Barbara Stanwyck or Renoir or Debussy comes up, we will have a new way of seeing old faces.

I’ve saved a particular group of poems for special consideration:  When Salter writes about figures from the past, as in “Alternating Currents” she transforms them for us—and always for the better.  “Voice of America (Joseph Brodsky) and “Lost Originals” (William Blake) are superb.  “Crusoe’s Footprint” leads us to the footprints of Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and the Robinson poems by Weldon Kees.  “Two American Lives” looks at “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson” and “Frost at Midnight” (an allusion to Coleridge) about Robert Frost.  Salter writes elegantly about Amy Clampitt in “Unbroken Music”.

Finally Salter has done a magnificent translation of the Old English “The Seafarer”.

I have been stingy with my quotations because I am fearful of violating copyright law.  But I will give you an example of a poem that is already on the Internets:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43421

“Two Pigeons” is a closely observed look at the behavior of a most pedestrian pair of birds.  It’s worth reading because it makes us look at pigeons differently and it asks us to look more closely, to notice more precisely:

“but when they resume

their places, the shift

is one only a painter

 

or a barber (prodding a chin

back into position)

would be likely to notice.”

 

Salter is both witty and wise; she is unpretentiously and deep.  She is a painter and a barber.   She does not expect her readers to have a Ph.D. or an M.F.A. or a master’s in metrical prosody.  She is a poet for our days, for every day.  Welcome her into your life; read a poem or two!   The theme of my own life is that art is my only defense against utter hopelessness.  Salter’s work has been around my house for over 30 years.    She will make your life better, quite simply:  and how many people can offer that?

 

******************

 

Rita Dove, Paul Muldoon, Dana Gioia, Linda Gregorson, Annie Finch, Edward Hirsch, Mary Jo Salter, Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Fulton, Harryette Mullen, Jo Shapcott, James Richardson, Helen Dunmore, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Mark Doty, Medbh McGuckian, Rosanna Warren, Bruce Bond, Mary Ruefle, Henri Cole, Dean Young, Amy Gerstler, Robert Wrigley,  Cynthia Zarin, Lucie Brock-Broido, Tony Hoagland, Alan Shapiro, J. Allyn Rosser, Tim Seibles, Leithauser—Hailey and Brad (no relation);  Franz Wright, Ian Duhig, Brenda Hillman, Thylias Moss, James Longenbach, Dorianne Laux, and those I cannot recollect just at this moment.

 

 

 

Read It, Sam…Then Read It Again!

Readitsam

My Reader’s Block, a delightful blog, is sponsoring a rereading challenge for the year 2016.    Even though it is late in the year, I aim to the level of “Living in the Past”–rereading 16 or more books.  I have a lot of gaps in my reading, but rereading is almost always a soothing anodyne and antidote to those bodice-rippers praised too fulsomely by the New York Times Book Review.

So here I go:

Reread 1:  PNIN by Vladimir Nabokov.

I can’t get over the wonderfulness of the squirrels.

There are 13 encounters of various kinds with squirrels in PNIN by Nabokov. Pnin is a Russian emigre who has fled from communism and has ended up as an adjunct professor in the USA. Most people make fun of him as an “elderly” (although he is in his early 50’s) absent minded professor. He is very genial and willing to laugh at himself. But in case you think that the man is a joke, as most of the people around him do, consider the themes of deracination and WWII. Pnin has lost his first love and family members to concentration camps. He is extremely generous and the book is filled with the contrast between the casual joking or cruelty of other people towards the bald man and the reality of his life: one lived with generosity towards others, one of sacrifice and loss, one of kindness to all.

 PNIN also is a linguistic tour de force. If you like puns and word play, Nabokov is in top form here. PNIN was written around the same time as Lolita, and he seems to be the anti-Humbert Humbert. In all ways that Humbert is evil, Pnin is kind.