Category Archives: American Literature

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt: Some Concluding Thoughts

My life, like everyone else’s in the world, has been completely upended this week. I’ve had to learn how to move all of my classes online and I’ve pretty much stayed in my house for the past week. The worst part about this has been my inability to focus on reading. But on the bright side my husband, daughter and I are safe at home and enjoying each other’s company and we are both still very lucky to have jobs. I have found my friends on Twitter, especially those in the literary community, to be particularly soothing at this time. Naveen from Seagull Books has reminded us many times that it’s the books that will save us. Just today he wrote, “Yes. We need compassion. And that old fashioned love for everyone around us. So yes. Books.” I decided to ease my anxiety by forcing myself to concentrate on what has been one of my favorite books since last spring, Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I finally finished last night.

Lives of the Poets, at nearly 1,000 pages, is an impressive survey of more than 300 English language poets spanning the last 700 years. Each of the 64 chapters, which proceed in chronological order, have brief biological sketches of poets including their places of birth and their educational backgrounds. What is astonishing about the book is the cumulative nature of poetry and how Schmidt connects poets and generations of poets together. Schmidt lays out his intentions for his survey of these poets in the second chapter:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed, may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully. To know more does not imply that we read Freud into an innocent cucumber, or Marx into a poem about daffodils, bu that we read with our ears and hear Chaucer transmuted through Spense, Sidney through Herbert, Milton through Wordsworth, Skelton through Graves, Housman through Larkin, Sappho through H.D. or Adrienne Rich.

This book has had two very personal effects on me which I will focus on in my post. First, Michael Schmidt has made me feel more grateful than I have ever been to have studied classics and have degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek. One of the most obvious threads that emerged for me in the course of reading this book is how much the English language poets have drawn on the materials, language, themes, etc. of the ancient poets. From the earliest instances we have of English language poetry through the 20th century there is a robust tradition of poets using ancient sources. Some of the ones I’ve discovered have been profound and have further enriched my study and teaching of classics.

One of my favorite discoveries in Schmidt’s book is Chapman’s poem “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense.” I have long been familiar with Chapman’s translations of Homer, but he is a brilliant poet when he is composing his own verses. “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense” is a description of the Roman poet’s feast of senses that is triggered when he see Corinna bathing naked in her garden. Chapman explains that Corinna is a pseudonym for Julia, the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, who has walked into the courtyard where she proceeds to bath, play the lute and sing, all of which Ovid observes hidden by an arbor. His first sense that is stimulated by her is his sight:

Then cast she off her robe and stood upright,
As lightning breaks out of a labouring cloud;
Or as the morning heaven casts off the night,
Or as that heaven cast off itself, and show’d
Heaven’s upper light, to which the brightest day
Is but a black and melancholy shroud;
Or as when Venus strived for sovereign sway
Of charmful beauty in young Troy’s desire,
So stood Corinna, vanishing her ‘tire.

Oftentimes poets don’t necessarily dedicate an entire poem to writing about a classical theme, but instead weave allusions to ancient myths into their poems. Another favorite discovery from Schmidt’s book is the poet The Earl of Surrey and his poem “When Raging Love” is an excellent example of this type of classical allusion:

When raging love with extreme pain
Most cruelly distrains my heart;
When that my tears, as floods of rain,
Bear witness of my woeful smart;
When sighs have wasted so my breath
That I lie at the point of death:

I call to mind the navy great
That the Greeks brought to Troy town,
And how the boysteous winds did beat
Their ships and rent their sails adown,
Till Agamemnon’s daughter’s blood
Appeased the gods that them withstood.

And how that in those ten years’ war
Full many a bloody deed was done,
And many a lord, that came full far,
There caught his bane, alas, too soon,
And many a good knight overrun,
Before the Greeks had Helen now.

Then think I thus: since such repair,
So long time war of valiant men,
Was all to win a lady fair,
Shall I not learn to suffer then,
And think my life well spent to be
Serving a worthier wight than she?

Therefore I never will repent,
but pains contented still endure:
For like as when, rough winter spent,
The pleasant spring straight draws in ure,
So after raging storms of care
Joyful at length may be my fare.

And one more example of poets using classics, and another favorite discovery from Schmidt, is the Australian poet A.D. Hope. This is an example of a poet using a myth as a springboard in order to expand the voice of a character that we don’t hear from in the original, ancient sources. In his poem “The Return of Persephone” Hope gives us this myth from Persephone’s point-of-view:

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

The second side effect of reading Schmidt’s book—something that I honestly didn’t think would ever happen—is that I’ve actually begin to appreciate and enjoy American poetry. The only American poetry I had read at any length are those assigned to me in my classes at school and university. But I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, e.e. Cummings, Laura Riding, John Berryman, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and Frank O’Hara, just to name a few. Schmidt has single-handedly managed to give me a new understanding of the poets of my own country while putting them in the larger context of the history of English language poetry.

Finally, it has taken me months to read Lives of the Poets, not because it is a difficult text. In fact, as one can tell from the quote I shared at the beginning of the post, Schmidt’s writing is engaging and his sense of humor comes through quite often. But I kept pausing to read more of the poems he mentions and I have ordered an obscene amount of poetry in the last several months. So a bit of a warning if you read this book—you will be tempted to buy loads of poetry books. But can one ever really have too much poetry, especially in these trying times?

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Filed under American Literature, British Literature, Poetry

Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

Robert Hass has been another American poet that I’ve discovered from literary Twitter.  My favorite poem in his collection Time and Materials is entitled “The World as Will and Representation.” In this longer poem, which is typical of the longer ones in the book,  Hass tells a very personal story.  He is thinking back to when he was a ten-year-old boy and his family’s morning routine during which time his father would give his mother a drug called antabuse which was supposed to prevent her from drinking.  “It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,/A Social world, in which the men got up/And went to work, leaving the women with the children.”  The boy’s father would ground the medication very fine into a powder and put it in his mother’s glass of water was so that she couldn’t spit the pills out.   The poet lingers on the vivid details of crushing the pills, handing her the glass and watching her drink.

The ending is incredibly powerful. The boy’s father leaves for work and the child is left alone with his mother:

“Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage in the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.

The passage to which Robert Hass is referring occurs in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II when Aeneas is telling the story of how he escaped Troy with his father and son.  Aeneas’s father, Anchises, is paralyzed so he must carry him on his shoulders and hold his young son, Iulus, by the hand.  But, but, Aeneas also has a wife, Creusa (2.705-710 translation is my own):

I will carry you on my shoulders, your weight will not burden me.
As things happend around us, we will either be in danger together
or we will both reach safety. And let little Iulus walk beside me
and my wife follow behind.

After Aeneas successfully convinces his father to escape Troy, he tells the rest of the family servants to meet him outside the city at a Temple to Ceres. Aeneas also hands his household gods to his father for safekeeping. Aeneas then sums up their escape (II.721-725, translation is my own):

Having spoken these things, I covered my broad shoulders
with the pelt of a golden lion and lowered my neck
for the impending burden. Little Iulus took hold of my
right hand and followed his father by taking large steps;
my wife walks behind.

That last line in the Latin is striking: pone subit coniunx (the wife walks behind). Aeneas, busy with his father and son, loses Creusa as Troy is burning and he never sees her again. She is one of the characters in the Aeneid that is sacrificed because of Aeneas’s future in Italy where he is destined to marry another woman in a political alliance. Creusa, I think, also foreshadows Dido’s tragic fate.

In his poem, Ross describes the details of Aeneas, the Father, taking care of his father and young son, but he doesn’t specifically mention the detail of the hero’s wife. Creusa does linger in the background of Hass’s poem in the figure of the boy’s mother, “penitent and biddable.” Creusa, like the poet’s mother, is also a victim of “justice and power” and “the order of things.” Hass’s poem brings up so many questions: why was the boy’s mother drinking in the first place? What were the other circumstances of the family? And, most importantly, did this woman also, pone subit, walk behind?

 

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Filed under American Literature, Classics, Poetry, Vergil

We all know how to talk, we just don’t know when: Language and Poetry

Last night I was reading Robert Kelly’s lovely new poem, Reasons to Resist, which he describes in the subtitle as “a motet.”  From the Latin word movere, “to move” a motet is a beautiful, unique style, I thought, for a longer poem which fittingly captures his ideas of music as well as language.  The one line I keep repeatedly coming back to is: We all know how to talk/ we just don’t know when.

I’ve been chasing this thread of language, words, and ways of communicating throughout the vast amounts of poetry I have been absorbing lately.

Jan Zwicky, in her incredible collection entitle Wittgenstein’s Elegies, imagines language as an ancient city, difficult to navigate, that demands effort:

Our language is an ancient city, maze of interlocking
streets and squares. To know it we must
walk it, crawl through sewers, feel our way
by night along the walls. Most answers squat
before us, humble questions. Where they tower,
not the single-minded cleavage of broad-avenued
baroque, but subtler mysteries
reach heavenward, anonymous: the master-builders.

And Alex Caldiero, whose poetry I’ve been obsessed with lately thanks to a blog post from Scott Abbott, reminds us that silence is also telling form of communication.  Silence is as powerful and extreme as shouting. From his collection Poetry is Wanted Here:

How we sound together
tells
more about who we are
than all the dialogs
of our lives
but
we settle for the uneasy
silence humans
mistakenly think
they have in common
w/ the beasts.

And from Caldiero’s collection Various Atmospheres:

We could try
to teach each other
our private wordings,
but with what words?

Or we could seek
a common denominator
in the number of our bones
or in the stances we take.

And then again
we could keep
the ancient solemn vow
of silence.

Italian poet Eugenio Montale contemplates words that betray our true feelings but agrees that silence reveals a deeper truth (tr. J. Galassi). From his collection Cuttlefish Bones:

You, my words, betray in vain the secret
sting, the gale in the heart that howls.
The deeper truth is that of a man who is silent
The song that sobs is a song of peace.

And German poet Helmut Heissenbüttel reminds us, in his poem Subjunctive about the complex grammatical structures that complicate language and communication (tr. Michael Hamburger):

up to the middle of the half
less than too little
least of all
as though as though
probably probably
took upon himself did not take upon
himself
undecided provisionally provisional

And, finally, a poem from Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, whose collection entitled the great enigma is extraordinary. His poem is about words on paper, written communication. Which can also turn into a form of silence. This poem, Lament, is translated by Robin Fulton:

He said aside his pen.
It rests still on the table.
It rests still in the empty room.
He laid aside his pen.

Too much that can neither be written nor keep silent!
He is paralyzed b something happening far away
although the wonderful traveling bag throbs like a heart.

Outside it is early summer.
Whistlings from the greenery—men or birds?
And cheery trees in bloom embrace the trucks that have come home.

Weeks go by.
Night comes slowly.
The moths settle on the windowpane:
small pale telegrams from the world.

 

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Filed under American Literature, German Literature, Poetry

Odi et Amo: Half-Light, The collected poems of Frank Bidart

I have been voraciously reading an incredible amount of excellent poetry lately.  I’ve been sharing some of my favorite passages on Twitter, but I thought I would do a short series on the blog of my favorite collections.  Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, Collected Poems, which includes work spanning the years 1965-2016 was recommended to me by two of my favorite literary Twitter accounts.  It is one of those few collections of poetry that one can read from cover to cover in a few sittings.  I devoured it over the course of this past week.  My favorite parts of this volume are his series of poems based on Catullus 85 as well as his longer, Hour of the Night, series of poems.

It is always difficult for me to teacher Catullus Carmen 85 because, as his shortest poem—a mere two lines—the temptation is for students to translate it quickly and move on.  But there are so many layers to this deceptively simple poem (translation is my own):

I hate you and I love you.

You may be wondering why I feel this way.

I have no idea.

But that’s how I feel.

And I. am. tortured.

 

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Bidart’s brilliant strategy for interpreting this poem is to compose a series of his own two line verses that each focus on a different aspect of the original.

The first version, Catullus: Odi et Amo is:

I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even

wants the fly while writhing.

The et in italics is subtle yet striking.  And the image of a fish writhing on the fly—why would the creature still want the very thing that is killing him?

Bidart’s second version is Catullus: Excrucior which shifts focus to the end of Catullus’s Carmen-–that all powerful Latin word, excrucior,  which literally means to be crucified:

I hate and—love.  The sleepless body hammering a nail nails

itself, hanging crucified.

The entire first phrase is italicized in this iteration, and the addition of pause with the em dash adds additional emphasis to these different emotions.. Finally, the images of the nails emphasize the “crucifixion.”

Bidart’s trilogy of poems ends with Catullus: Id Faciam, which brings us back to the middle of Catullus poem.  He has no idea why he feels such conflicting emotions:

What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds

the nail that now is driven into itself, why.

The addition of the relative pronoun is unique in the final poem; the person who is causing such conflicting emotions lingers in the background.  But there is also the hint of self-inflicted torment, the hand that nails its own nail.  All three versions are slightly different, but bring to our attention various pieces of the original. At the same time they all fit perfectly into Bidart’s work as a whole through the theme of desire.

There is a bonus interview with Bidart at the end of this edition in which he describes his series of The Hours of the Night poems:

The myth behind the series of poems is the Egyptian “Book of Gates,” which is inscribed on the sarcophagus of Seti I.  Each night during the twelve hours of the night the sun must pass through twelve territories of the underworld before it can rise again at dawn. Each hour is marked by a new gate, the threshold to a new territory.

Each poem in the series is an hour we must pass through before the sun can rise again.

The collection contains four Hours of the Night stories and a fifth was published this past summer in The Paris Review.  My favorite is the Second Hour of the Night for which Bidart uses as inspiration Ovid’s story of Myrrha from the Metamorphoses.  Once again, Bidart’s focus is on desire and how much control we have or don’t have over this powerful emotion.

Ganymede; Apollo and

Hyacinthus; Pygmalion; Adonis avenged upon

Venus; the apples that Atalanta found irresistible, —

fate embedded in the lineaments of desire

(desire itself helplessly surrounded by what cannot be

eluded, what

even the gods call GIVEN,—)

In addition to italics, words and phrases in all caps are typical of Bidart’s entire collection.  As he continues the story of Myrrha, Bidart emphasizes the pity and helplessness of this young girl who falls in love with her own father.  Like Ovid, Sade and Yourcenar who also write very delicately about matters of incest, Bidart’s character is young and sheltered; she loves what she knows and what is familiar and she wants nothing else:

four steps forward then

one back, then three

back, then four forward—

…but you have lied about your

solace, for hidden, threaded

within repetition is the moment when each step

backward is a step

downward, when what you move toward moves toward

you lifting painfully his cloak to reveal his

wound, saying, “love answers need...”

The gods—well, all those except the Furies—abandon Myrrha.  She prays in the end not to be alive and not to be dead—she can’t even face others in the afterlife.  As a result she is turned into the Myrrh tree:

Aphrodisiac. Embalmers’ oil. “insistence of

sex, faint insistent sweetness of the dead undead.)

Sacred anointment oil: with wine an

anodyne. Precious earth-

fruit, gift fit for the birth and death of

prophets:—no sweet thing without

the trace of what is bitter

within its opposite:—

…MYRRH, sweet-smelling

bitter resin.

These last lines are a chilling echo of the contrasting emotions we feel from the Odi et Amo poems.

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Don’t Talk So Much: Convalescent Conversations by Laura Riding

I started reading the wonderful poetry of Laura Riding after I discovered her in Michael Schimidt’s book Lives of the Poets.  And I realized that I had two of her prose books published by Ugly Duckling Presse sitting on my bookshelves.  Convalescent Conversations was first published in 1936 by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, under her pseudonym Madeleine Vara.  It is a short novel with two central characters, Eleanor and Adam, recovering from unspecified illnesses, in the same nursing home.  They are both in their 30’s, single, and from the same social class.  When their nurse wheels them both out onto the same veranda every day for some fresh air, they find lots of things to talk about.

Riding’s  experimental piece of writing is described as having no real plot, which, I think, best showcases the brilliance of her talent.  Her characters are charming, humorous, fussy, and philosophical so there is no need for a traditional plot.  We don’t miss it.   The only real twist, if we can even call it that, is when Eleanor and Adam seem to be developing romantic feelings for one another, even though they vehemently resist this idea.  Their conversations range in topics from politics, to marriage, to sex, to religion, to language.  Eleanor seems to be the guiding force of the first eight chapters.  Riding gives her the most interesting and profound pieces of the dialogue.   When discussing the topic of beauty, for instance, Adam asks, “But have women a secret—a real secret?” to which Eleanor responds with a humorous and astute argument:

Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all.

The dialogue also veers into very serious topics, which read like a Platonic dialogue, in which Adam is the one who brings up conventional wisdom and Eleanor plays the role of the true philosopher like Socrates and disputes these conventional ideas.  Riding sometimes even sets up the text to look like a Socratic dialogue with characters’ names inserted into the text.  In their discussion on religion Eleanor starts with, “I don’t have ideas or pictures about God. God to me is a name—a name for all the most important things that nobody can define, and not the right name.”  Adam responds, “You mean things like truth and goodness and reality?”  Which question brings forth from Eleanor one of her longer arguments:

Yes, things like that—all the impressive ideas that people don’t believe in privately, but only in groups. Or perhaps privately they believe in them a little. Then you throw a lot of people together and they believe in such things in a big way. That’s what churches are for: you get people together and add up all the fractions of belief or interest that each one has in things which don’t bother them very much in their daily lives—and the answer is ‘God’. But no single person has more than a fraction of interest, and so the combined feeling isn’t very strong—only louder; like when a schoolmaster gets the whole class to recite a poem because no single boy recites it with much enthusiasm. He gets more volume from the class as a whole, but not more enthusiasm.

In the last few chapters, a new invalid is introduced into the mix, a Mrs. Lyley who quickly realizes that Eleanor and Adam have developed feelings for one another.  She too, has astute and philosophical observations about life and relationships that she shares with her younger friends: “But don’t you believe that when two people are thrown together and find themselves in sympathy they owe it to—well, to each other—not to draw apart again? I mean, it’s like finding something nice in the street that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone—it’d be sinful to kick it aside and pass on. Like a rose: you’d take it home and put it in water. I know I would.”

Mrs. Lyley invites Eleanor and Adam to finish their convalescence at her country home, but with the condition that they must fall in love with one another.  Eleanor is especially resistant to the whole idea and overthinks this generous proposal.  Adam finally steps in with the right arguments to convince her to take up Mrs. Lyley’s offer.  He suggests they hold hands and call one another ‘darling’ and brings up the topic of love:

Eleanor: Have I ever said I loved you?

Adam: No, but I love you. And I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me.

Eleanor: Well, I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me. So that makes just the conversational deadlock you pride yourself this isn’t.

Adam: Oh, but it isn’t a deadlock. If I say I won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, and you say you won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, that’s not a conversational deadlock, but an identical expression of an identical hope. And the chances are that the weather will be fine, and that we’ll go out together. Or stay indoors together if it’s not fine.

Eleanor: Don’t talk so much.

The other Riding book I have yet to read, which is also part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, is entitled Experts are Puzzled, which, after sampling her prose, I am also very much looking forward to reading.

My friend Tony has also written a wonderful review of this book at his blog: https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/convalescent-conversations-madeleine-vara-laura-riding/

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