Category Archives: Poetry

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

Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poetry of Charles Baudelaire

Beverly Bie Brahic is not only a talented poet, but she is also a gifted translator.  Her latest work, a series of Baudelaire’s poems selected and translated for this edition entitled Invitation to the Voyage, was chosen from the wide array of the French poet’s oeuvre.  Brahic describes her experience choosing, organizing and translating  of Baudelaire’s work in the introduction to this volume: “When I began to translate Baudelaire, it was as an exercise in reading, visceral, as translation always is. The sensuous poems—dreams of escape to an impossible, often tropical, elsewhere, visions of voluptuousness—drew me first for their descriptive and perceptual richness. But the sensual Baudelaire needs the bitter, compassionate, desolate Baudelaire…”

“I adore you like the starry night sky…” is a favorite from the collection and best illustrates Baudelaire’s tension between the passionate and the bitter:

I adore you like the starry night sky,
O vase of sorrows, taciturn beauty,
And love you all the more as you flee me,
As you appear, oh how ironically,
Rich jewel of my dreams, to increase the waste
Between my arms and the immense blue space.

I rise to the attack, mount the assault,
Like a choir of maggots after a vault,
And cherish, beast cruel and implacable,
Even the coldness that makes you more beautiful.

The beautiful coldness, the taciturn beauty—Baudelaire’s jarring descriptions are still perfect in Brahic’s translation.

My favorite in the collection is a poem entitled “The Cat” not only because of the juxtaposition of the sensual and the bitter but because of the unexpected twist in the poem. The title is almost deceptive:

Come, my fine cat, to my amorous heart;
Keep your claws sheathed,
And let me sink into your eyes that dart
Sparks of metal and agate mixed.

When my fingers can stroke at their leisure
Your head and your elastic
Back, and my hand gets drunk on the pleasure
Of your body electric,

It is my wife I conjure up. Her gaze,
Amiable beast, like yours,
Deep and cold as a spear, penetrates me,

And from her toes to her ebony hair,
A dangerous perfume, a subtle air,
Swims around her brown body.

And the most wonderful thing about the collection is that the prose poems and short essays are paired with the appropriate poems thematically. In “Invitation to the Voyage” he writes,

You now the fevers that assail us in our cold wretchedness, our nostalgia for the country we don’t know, the anguish of curiosity? There’s a land that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, tranquil and honest, where the imagination has constructed and decorated a western China, where life is soft and sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. We must go there to live, we must go there to die!

Yes this is where we must go to breathe, dream and while away the hours in an infinity of sensations. A musician has composed an Invitation to the Waltz; who will compose an Invitation to the Voyage, that we may offer it to the woman we love, the sister-elect?

Whether one is familiar with Baudelaire or not this is a lovely volume to have sitting on one’s shelves.  The poems also come with the original French facing the translation and since this published by Seagull Books the cover is a work of art.

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Filed under French Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

Homeo-Pharmacopeia’s Adagia: Geoffrey Hill’s Pindarics

Pindar, an Ancient Greek lyric poet from Thebes, wrote a series of epinikia, odes to commemorate athletic victories in the Olympic, Nemean, Pythian and Isthmian games.  His poems are notoriously difficult to translate and understand because they are highly allusive, switch abruptly between topics, and contain compound adjectives that he makes up.  It is no wonder that Geoffrey Hill, whose poetry is also highly allusive and difficult to read, uses the lyric poet as a model for his series of poems entitled Pindarics.   The traditional Ancient Greek ode has a triadic structure with each triad composed of a strophe, antistrophe and epode.  Hill adopts this triad structure to fit his own purposes by composing a series of 34 poems, each with three stanzas; the first and second stanzas of each poem have nine lines and the final stanzas each have five lines.

Simon Collings, in the PN Review Issue 240 has written a wonderful essay about the themes of love and sex in Hill’s Pindarics.  But even as far as specific allusions to people, personal or otherwise, it is a guessing game when it comes to unpacking and dissecting Hills poetry. In the past two weeks I have especially lingered over Pindarics 7 and 13 in which he discusses one of his favorite topics, poets and poetry.  In Pindaric 7 he begins with:

Rub two distichs together, wise not to
bet against fire. A view to fail,
repump a washed-up beach ball, palp a god,
cross vows with a convenience metaphor.
All is invention; I am spoiled for choice.
Assign me Pindar’s job-lot born to sing
modernities traduced or what you will;
homeo-pharmacopeia’s adagia
spilled upon none that reads. Your votes Ile dig—

“All is invention; I am spoiled for choice” are especially striking here. Hill has centuries of poetic forms from which to borrow, and his use of lyric triads could be his attempt to “repump a washed-up beach ball.”  And the last part of the stanza specifically mentions Hill’s view of himself as a modern Pindar but instead of singing about athletic victories his topics are “modernities traduced or what you will.” The last two lines are also a more subtle nod to Pindar as Hill makes his own compound word: “homeo-pharmacopeia,” a special homeopathic book with remedies that serve as a type of “adagia,” The adagia is a book of proverbs compiled by Erasmus. But Hill’s wisdom via this adagia is,  in typical self-deprecating fashion, “spilled upon none that reads,” ie. only those who read—really read and understand his arcane verses.

Pindaric 13 is also filled with allusions to poets and poetry.  In the first stanza he writes:

How reconciled, then, Ovid, by such time
as in Voronezh he was no man’s fool?

Hill’s specific subject here is the exiled Roman poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea town of Tomis in 8 A.D. . This was done personally by the Emperor Augustus himself.  We are given very few details about what Ovid did and he only tells us it was due to a carmen (a poem) and an error (a mistake). He is absolutely wretched in exile and writes two works about it: Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto. He dies in 17 or 18 A.D. while still in exile.

But, as is typical with Hill, there is another subtle reference to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who also suffered exile at the hands of the Soviet government and Stalin in particular. Tristia, literally meaning “sad things, sorrows, lamentations” is also the title for Mandelstam’s collection which he wrote in self-imposed exile while in the Crimea in the early 1920’s. The dire and desperate personal consequences of war and revolution drove him to this region of Russia which was more isolated from civil war. His time away from the north inspired him to produce these poems that are filled with images of separation, loss, darkness and exile. It is chilling that the poems also serve as a glimpse into the poet’s future which will include arrest, torture, and forced exiles to the Urals and Voronezh. He must have known, deep down in his soul, that his first, temporary, voluntary exile was a harbinger of tribulations to come in later years.

Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebook, to which Hill specifically refers, is a collection of eighty nine verses that the Russian poet wrote while he was exiled to the city of Voronezh. During the early 1930’s Mandelstam wrote and published poetry that mocked and criticized Stalin and so it is no surprise that he was arrested and sent into exile. During part of his exile he was allowed to live in Voronezh which was a bit more civilized as far as Russian exiles were concerned. He lives is a crowded boarding house that he describes as a “coffin” in the first poem. He and his wife have no privacy and they hear every movement and sound of their neighbors. In the third poem of the first Notebook he begs Voronezh to have mercy on him and “restore” him but throughout these poems we get the sense that he feels hemmed in, claustrophobic and hopeless.

Hill’s second stanza in Pindaric 13 becomes more bleak:

What Ces describes—duration of real pain
spikes with its radicals the roots of thought.
Hebrew mates word and thing, the acting word,
the basic punning language though not all
punsters are poets nor would wish to be.
The absolute’s absolution is itself
Presence of the intrinsic saved for death
politic power was one uncivil term.
How strange you have to be to stay faithful.

The “Ces” in the first line is Cesare Pavese to whom the Pindarics are addressed.  Pavese, an Italian poet who was also subjected to self-imposed exile during the Fascist regime in Italy, committed suicide at the age of 42 after another failed love affair.  Ces is also mentioned in Pindaric 1 and in the same stanza Hill refers to himself as an “exile among books.” Ovid, Pavese and Mandelstam had to all navigate the vicissitudes of tyranny and choose to stay faithful to their poetry and their art or to risk the ire of  “politic power.”

So what does this all mean for Hill himself? He has a self-imposed exile of sorts when, after his first marriage falls apart, he moves to the United States.  But I think this is too literal an interpretation for his poetry.  I suspect that Hill felt himself to be an outsider of sorts, someone who lingered on the fringes of mainstream poetry and he, like his fellow poets, had no intention of changing himself to fit a preconceived idea of what a writer or artist ought to be.  A line from Pindar  Pythian IV.247-8 comes to mind (trans. my own):  “It is too long of a path for me to follow the usual road; I only have a brief amount of time, and I know a shorter path . In poetic technique, I am a guide for many other poets.”

 

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry

A Shelter for Bells: Select Writings of Hans Jürgen von der Wense

Hans Jürgen von der Wense (1894-1966) was a German composer, poet, aphorist, encyclopedist, avid walker and naturalist. When he died, he left behind in his small apartment in Göttingen over 300 folders containing about 30,000 pages of his letters, poems, photographs and diaries. Wense had intended to write an All-Book which that would be an encyclopedia, arranged alphabetically by keyword, of his aphorisms, translations and interpretations of more than 100 cultures and languages.  He was also working on his Wanderbuch, which would include the lengthy observations and surveys of the landscapes he explored on his impressive daily walks.

A Shelter for Bells is the first time that Wense’s writings have been published in English. The selection offered here by Epidote Press (which is a limited printing of 500 copies), and translated by Kristofor Minta and Herbert Pföstl, is divided into six chapters with broad themes: On Weather and Wandering, On Landscape and Place, On the Celestial, On the Hidden Properties of Things, On Knowing and Being, and On Writing and Language.  But even within each chapter specific ideas forming the themes that were occupying Wense’s mind come forward.  In the chapter On Weather and Wandering,for instance, it is clear that Wense views his daily walks as prayer or meditations; he is keenly affected  by everything he observes in nature around him. The editors alternate between longer passages that appear to be from Wense’s diary and shorter observations, poems or aphorisms that could be from diaries or letters or snippets of poems.   None of the translations are dated or identified so these are my guesses:

Spring: seventeen degrees Celsius. In the cirrus, a burning ring extended around the sun. Crystal, Crystal! I lingered in my bay and beheld it. I went to the heath. A mighty wilderness. Birch and oak. Larks reveled above the moors. Small, black-dappled channels interrupted by naughty frogs. Wide clearings with the lost scent of anemones. Behind it always, the all-silencing sea. I cam to a noisy meadow with shrubs, and each one swayed a white, dew-spittled web, and in each web sat a sleeping spider.

And in the shorter entries, usually just two or three on a page,  Wense is equally as philosophical about his interactions with nature:

I would like best to thrown all books to the side and go out into the wind and there find it all again, the enharmonic changes and tonal cadences of light, the entire landscape a shepherd’s song: Madrigal

I want to walk tomorrow. Wandering is praying. I want to become a human being pure as starlight.

Only that will remain which has the sky as its measure.

Wense’s obsession with walking, however, causes him pain and illness.  He also spends a lot of time in solitude and both the physical ailments and loneliness are oftentimes mentioned throughout the six chapters.

My favorite selections are those included in On Knowing and Being and On Writing and Language.   A page in one of these sections contains only one, powerful sentence:  “The ultimate message is silence,” which struck me in a very personal way.   These chapters are full of equally brief, poignant, thought-provoking aphorisms.  His ideas on poetry are a particular standout:

True Poems have meaning, but not results, for poetry is modulation, and nothing is more poetic than mistaking.

Poems are spells, impenetrable like every core. Poems are prophecies, overheard voices.

Poems are the clouds above language.

The book can be read easily in one sitting, as I did yesterday as soon as it arrived in the post. Or it can be a nice coffee table or bedside book that one dips into every once in a while. This wonderful collection has given me enough of a taste for Wense’s writing to want more.  I am especially hoping that his letters and poems will be translated into English.  Or my daughter is starting high school in the fall and is going to learn German…

One of the photos included in the book. This is a picture of one of Wense’s notebooks.

 

 

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Filed under German Literature, Letters, Poetry

Poem as…:The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill intended the Book of Baruch to be published posthumously and he worked on this collection of poems right up until his death in 2016.  The book contains a sequence of 270 numbered poems with no titles.  It is the most erudite, difficult and engrossing volume of poetry I have ever read, which statement I do not make lightly.  Even though it is a fairly slim volume it has taken me about two weeks to read and absorb Hill’s thoughts, reflections, aphorisms and cultural references.   I have spent hours chasing down references to various politicians, poets, artists, and even rappers that Hill writes about.  These were all of the things occupying his mind as he nears the end of his life.

In the poem numbered 190 he describes this collection which evolves and grows every day as his own time gets shorter: “This, it is becoming clear, is more a daybook than ever The Daybooks were: il mestiere di vivere that secures its own private consistory and guards the door, admitting neither rich nor poor to the designs and details of poetry which are the very devil to portray without favour or fear.”  This short verse is typical of Hill’s reference to other poets or works of art.  The Job or Work of Living is the title of Italian author Cesare Pavese’s Diary in which the author recorded notes about his thoughts and feelings on a variety of subject between 1935-1950. Hill forces his reader to think deeply about the various connections he is making between different forms of poetry.

Hill composes poems involving a dizzying number of poets from Milton to Hopkins to Celan to Desnos and many others he admires: “Some deep poets are like divers with the bends.”  He also has no patience for false poets, those he calls poetasters: “Those who poetaste are not like novices at the piste, learning how to coordinate brain, knee, writs.  To me, they present themselves as a despised caste, breeding on, off, their own waste; ignorant as to why wreaths of myrlte and laurel invest Milton’s bust.”

Many of Hill’s best verses, especially toward the end of the collection, are his “Poem as…” thoughts.  Some are short yet so profound it feels like a punch in the gut (or the knee):

The poem begins as a small tight maelstrom somewhat at knee-height, not quite touching your shins.

Poem as posthumous running sore.

Poem as equity release—whatever that is.

Poem as no less an authority on history than whom.

Poem as Samson dozing post coitus with coiffure of unshorn hair.

Poem as neuro-linguistic programme with close attachments to the absurd.

And one of my favorites:

Poem to restart pumping system for self-esteem sewage and rage of heart.

And Hill’s expertise and talent with metaphor especially come through on his longer verses about poetry.  Once gain he forces the reader to look at objects and concepts and poems in a completely novel way:

Poem as scimitar-curve, shear along sheer, a ‘Tribal’ class destroyer, veteran of the North Cape run, bearing down on a submarine that has struck and already gone from the scene, leaving sea-rubble wretchedly a-swim, thickslicked in oil.

And:

In poetry, ignorance can sometimes work things to the good, as a form of muse-inducing narcolepsy in which, entranced, you retain evidence of the tombs among which you have danced: mots, etes-vous des mythes et pareils aux myrtes des morts?

Finally, I have to say a word about Hill’s sense of humor which, as far as I can tell, has not been discussed very much.  He is especially adept at turning his biting sarcasm at current affairs:

Foghorn Leghorn and Roadrunner are a particular kind of winner. While their winning is not gaining anything, neither can happy idiocy every fail. All is back on track ready for the next reel, for you ‘bit of a laugh’ philosophe.

Rid us—somebody—God—of callous ignorant administrators, lords of public want, sinecurists of their own failures, bearers of no brunt, inimical to dissent.

And poets, and poetasters, are not above his ridicule either:

Most poets are less capable than those who at airports x-ray our tits and our boots and happily leave us to scrabble.

A dear, kind friend has sent me Hill’s Broken Hierarchies as well as some of his essays and other writings.  I will be occupied (or obsessed) will Hill for a long time to come.

 

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