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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 45)

Jane Kenyon, “Who”

Who (from Otherwise)
Jane Kenyon

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

Comment:

Admittedly, locating the Muse is difficult. Authors like Homer and Virgil seem divinely inspired. If we knew what moved them so, we might have access to divine status ourselves.

Kenyon’s speaker starts with what looks a more humble proposition. In attempting to write, in coming to language, she has to wonder who she is and what is within her. “These lines are written by an animal, an angel, a stranger sitting in my chair:” she’s at once all three and none at all. She is lowly, supernatural, and alienated from her own self. Despite the overtones of religious rhetoric, she has depicted the central puzzle of trying to be rational. One works to apprehend the truth, understand it fully, and apply it to one’s own life. Needless to say, these are three separate tasks with massive ironies lying in wait for those who think knowledge of one thing alone allows mastery over one’s own life. (1)

To be sure, the puzzle of trying to be rational leads back to the issue of divine status. If one could live “without trouble among books, and pots and pans,” one would be self-sufficient, ready to receive and use enlightenment. It almost seems only a god can truly know and use knowledge in the way we wish. It feels like the rest of us are confined to miserable ironies every time we make a pretension to knowledge. (2)

Kenyon, in the face of this, just wants to make her question clearer. “Who is it who asks me to find language for the sound a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes a stone?” The desire to convey experience to another comes from wanting to be a part of the human species. All the same, the religious image is unmistakable. It sounds like a lost sheep is spoken about here, a sheep trying to climb something it probably shouldn’t attempt. I posit she still wonders, specifically, what drives her. Who needs to feel part of humanity, who wants to describe our motions, both those sustainable and those imperfect? What does it mean to follow blindly and be satisfied, to be lost and perhaps saved?

Finally, what of an intellectual necessity? “The words which are my food” are spoken by the speaker who does not understand what she says. She’s articulated her ignorance, her attempt to have knowledge where she might collapse into belief. Ultimately, the poem’s progression turns life on its head. In order to understand the alienation one feels as a writer, one had to assume oneself a writer. This means that daily life, even with troubles regarding books and pots and pans, takes care of itself to a degree. To find the words that accurately find one a mere sheep is to find a truth that does not mean what we think it means. We are not, in a sense, mere sheep. Yet we are, because we needed those words, our own.

Notes

1) Xenophon, Memorabilia III.9.10 – “[Socrates said] kings and rulers are not those who hold the scepters, nor those elected by just anybody, nor those who obtain office by lot, nor those who have used violence, nor those who have used deceit, but those who understand how to rule.” Leaving aside the problem that Xenophon’s Socrates has completely dismissed political legitimacy in any recognizable sense, and in fact makes himself guilty of the charges by saying such a thing, we have an endorsement of a view opposite to mine by no less than Socrates. Can’t we say that true knowledge is mastery? Doesn’t knowledge enable perfect practice? The quick answer: Socrates’ rhetoric is excellent. Better than dynastic claims, currying the favor of voters, getting randomly elected, or any tyrannical attempts at rule is actually knowing what you’re doing. Knowledge is superior to the typical practice of politics, and even to a degree to law itself, when things have to get done. I don’t know that the scope of this rhetoric should be extended to individual lives without qualification.

2) There are people who have made it their mission to take poetic musings and use them as hard limits on what one is allowed to question and know. In this sense, and perhaps only this sense, are philosophy and poetry distinct.

Sappho, “Sleep, darling…”

“Sleep, darling…” (tr. Mary Barnard)
Sappho

Sleep, darling

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden 
flower

      I wouldn't
take all Croesus'
kingdom with love
thrown in, for her

Comment:

Turning to us while putting her daughter to sleep, she’s so excited about her she’s bashful, self-conscious, about it.

This is itself no small wonder. Excitement overflows, demanding rational explanation. You want to convey your joy to others. You want to convey it to yourself, because you don’t want to forget a single moment.

Maybe that’s why the image ultimately presented is hopelessly inadequate. No one would consider trading their children if they could help it. Trying to think through a hierarchy of goods, with “having a child” at the top, leads to having nothing to compare. All Sappho can do is introduce another set of circumstances involving giddy excitement, like winning the lottery (“Croesus’ kingdom with love thrown in”).

Sappho compares Cleis to a “golden flower,” mixing the height of convention with the heights of nature. Wealth, beauty, and growth can only hint at how Cleis stands to her mother. Her uniqueness is her most precious aspect; an assumed unreality of the “golden flower” hints at it. Croesus famously asked if he was the happiest of men, on account of his wealth and empire. His happiness stands as generic as Sappho’s purposefully throwaway phrase, “with love thrown in.” There’s no love like nursing this small daughter. To be perfectly clear, there’s no love, no happiness, otherwise.

Robert Creeley, “The Language”

The Language (from Poetry)
Robert Creeley

Locate I
love you
some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

I
love you

again,

then what
is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.

Comment:

I love you, from nowhere. We’re trying to locate it, bite it, watch out for ourselves (“take care”). Maybe it is coming from a beloved who loves us back. We’ll eventually find the nose, between “teeth and eyes,” what’s central to a face. And maybe something more sensual will ensue (“bite”), and the paradox of our desire, “so much so little,” will remain an abstract problem for a short while.

However, I love you, strictly speaking, came from nowhere. While Creeley captures the tense giddiness of loving and being loved, he’s not doing it to celebrate that which can celebrate itself well enough. What about those of us who, alone, are trying to love? We unfortunate souls start by finding our nose. (1) The smell of another means they exist for us in some concrete way, not possessed but not entirely distant from us. Our longing is our nutrition, and yet too much longing is no love at all. Real love respects, as “you want so much so little.” There’s no insistence, no power game, no craziness. Just hope and a lot of self-doubt.

“Words say everything” – that’s just it, that’s the problem. We consider love beyond mere syllables. Two who love each other don’t need words. They have everything. Speech and action couldn’t be further apart. One is merely imaginary, the other seems to be the reality of the situation. One can almost feel this question underlying the first half of the poem: does love only exist when two people share it?

In beginning the second half, I love you again comes from nowhere. This second time confronts the doubt, the emptiness. Somehow, I know I’m in love. I know I can enjoy it, be hurt, be patient, let go. Greater virtue may be exercised in the service of loneliness than for another person. Love, in truth, is potential: “then what is emptiness for. To fill, fill.” It is an emptiness, the same thing causing doubt and fear in those who do love and are loved back. It is a language, shared by those who are loved and those longing alike. Through it, I can hear things – sometimes, things coming only from myself – and I understand the needs conveyed. Only with those needs in mind do I have a mouth. Love gives the capacity to voice love, and strange as it sounds to say, to actually love.

Notes

1. “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” – one can say there is no nose being sought. Rather, “I love you” emerged directly from somewhere in the teeth, somewhere in the eyes. But what more does one hope to find within teeth and eyes? “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” can speak to the combination that is a face.

Emily Dickinson, “A Bird came down the Walk” (328)

A Bird came down the Walk (328)
Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Comment:

Human and animal souls correspond, perhaps too closely. The bird is encountered much like another person would be, coming down the walk. In what he regards as his privacy, he does something grotesque and horrible. He finishes his meal with the nearest drink, then shows either fear or politeness to a passing bug. So far, this bird sounds like a better dining companion than most people. We can relate to him, at least.

Of course, now that he’s done his meal, he glances rapidly around, his eyes acting like “frightened Beads.” Is he aware he’s being watched? Or is he really bored with this date?

Our speaker steps forth at this point. She feels like she’s in danger; she does not want to lose or aggravate this bird. Cautiously, she offers a crumb to him, and he flies away. Dickinson devotes a stanza and a half to the departure:

And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Not an abrupt, scared motion, but an unrolling of feathers, a rowing softly home. It is as if the bird was made for this moment; it journeys with an elegance we aspire to have when we travel. The anthropomorphizing brings out the felt, primal unity. As we row to an unknown land that is our ultimate home, the bird also rows. Only, there is this difference. However the bird travels is peculiar to it. It does not disturb nature in the slightest, whether nature is related to the chaos prior to Creation (“Ocean / Too silver for a seam”) or seamless, perfectly adapted change (“Butterflies… leap, plashless”).

Recognition of the correspondence almost yields a primal unity. However, it may not be the most important thing to say we’re alienated from the bird or the Nature of which it is part. What struck me on a first reading was how we can so easily anthropomorphize the bird’s actions to make too much sense, as if the bird were going through a morning routine much like ours. Just as easily, we could deny that the bird’s actions make any real sense, that even if it is going through a morning routine, it is nothing but appetite and whim. In the latter case, how different is the bird from any of us? One does not really want to compare human and animal souls. At best, “rational” only describes “animal.” The bird knows that much better than we do, and accordingly leaves.

Ted Kooser, “The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise”

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise (from danagioia.net)
Ted Kooser

The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards of cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.

Comment:

Many and relentless are the blind. They fill elevators “with a great white porcupine of canes,” perhaps provoking defensiveness from us. One could think them a “noisy crowd,” storming everywhere, giving only temporary respite to those who see.

Kooser conflates the singularity of a blind person with a wondrous, nearly terrible-sounding plurality. One blind person surprises, stopping cars, making mass transit awkward. The first sentence of this poem concerns a blind person pushing into our space. In the second sentence, she uses public things, much like we do, striking down our speech.

We don’t really see. Our conventional notions work for us and they work for the disabled. But they work so differently for the disabled that anyone with half a brain should wonder how they succeed. Our everyday, our normalcy, assumes moral purpose in surviving, being independent, making society work for us. The blind achieve that and much, much more – it’s the difference between a saint and an agnostic. The difference between us and them is qualitative, not quantitative.

One is many, one is the flood. Everything we think must change. Our higher goals, again, tend to assume a specific notion of well-being. They are a luxury for those who have had something so indispensable to most of us taken away. Somehow, our ambitions need to account for how incredible it can be to simply survive. Not to say that higher goals are a waste – they’re certainly not – but that a proper appreciation of the human spirit should pervade everything we do. Kooser says the blind “always” surprise us, and I think he means that we can choose to do something with our reaction or not. We are truly blind, but perhaps able to receive sight from those only blind in their eyes.

Billy Collins, “Winter”

Winter (from Poetry)
Billy Collins

A little heat in the iron radiator,
the dog breathing at the foot of the bed,

and the windows shut tight,
encrusted with hexagons of frost.

I can barely hear the geese
complaining in the vast sky,

flying over the living and the dead,
schools and prisons, and the whitened fields.

Comment:

The world is breath and structure. Breath within (“heat in the iron radiator”), next to (“at the foot of the bed”), against (“windows… encrusted with hexagons”). On that last point, breath forms structure upon structure. The cold weights breath, making it felt, visible.

We are presented this speculation by one tightly pulling covers over himself. Only remotely does he hear geese, who attempt to fly beyond the cold, perhaps beyond what he now feels. It might be thought a futile attempt, not least because of the evident ironies. But the geese represent more than an escape to warmth. Together, they are free, as they fly over “schools and prisons.” On the one hand, they move through an unreal realm, “over the living and the dead.” On the other, they bear witness to a blanketed world, to the cocoon in which our speaker resides.

D. Nurkse, “Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes”

With thanks to Benjamin Roman; read his commentary on the same poem

Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes (from Poetry)
D. Nurkse

Ignorance will carry me through the last days,
the blistering cities, over briny rivers
swarming with jellyfish, as once my father
carried me from the car up the tacked carpet
to the white bed, and if I woke, I never knew it.

Comment:

The line between our being good or bad is razor thin. The same conventionality which molds and preserves also traps and manipulates, pushing us to fatal ends. It’s hard for anyone who gives a damn not to be consumed by rage. The people who have transformed our world for the better have almost always been told they’re wrong every step of the way, denied just treatment, precisely because they were right.

If one must deal with what feels like a relentless lack of respect, one needs a sort of ignorance. It’s an ignorance that might be the heart of faith, a childlike innocence seeking refuge in simply being. But it has overtones of knowledge of ignorance. To try and reason about the whole – why is the world ending? What did/can I do? – is to attempt creating a cosmology and understanding its significance precisely. To avoid that trap is not childlike faith. It’s a maturity about what human intelligence can and cannot achieve.

That, I think,  addresses why we’re reading this poem. One might wonder about its setting. Blistering cities, briny rivers: there’s a Biblical flood with overtones of global warming, i.e. it is entirely man-made. Death and justice are firmly linked in this rendering. That, I have learned, is questionable. Linking death and justice is an event in Greek thought about religion. It occurs at least in Homer, Hesiod, and Plato. Homer might be the best example: the gods in the Iliad reside in a world without law, as only their machinations and their taking bribes rule it. Those same gods worry about being honored and the achievements of man surpassing their own. Regarding man, there is fear of death, but no strict connection between death, justice, and an afterlife. The gods do not govern a moral order. Any sort of glory will do for enjoying this life and being remembered later. Odysseus’ achievement in the Odyssey is to bring knowledge and fear of Hades to people who do not know him. He creates a connection between death and justice, bringing about morality as we understand it.

Yes, there is something horribly conventional about automatically connecting death with how one will be remembered, or what life might be like in an unknown realm. Yet there’s something natural about it, too. What’s natural is understanding that, to some degree, whatever judges our life does stand outside of us. We’ll watch the world end, knowing it is and isn’t the product of a million different injustices. Our judgment can only go so far when cities boil and rivers rise. We can remember being treated with love, carried in what seems now too structured, too pure (“tacked,” “white”). We were happy once, though, and in placing hope beyond, we hope at this moment to be graceful.

Robert Hass, “To a Reader”

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To a Reader
Robert Hass

I’ve watched memory wound you.
I felt nothing but envy.
Having slept in wet meadows,
I was not through desiring.
Imagine January and the beach,
a bleached sky, gulls. And
look seaward: what is not there
is there, isn’t it, the huge
bird of the first light
arched above first waters
beyond our touching or intention
or the reasonable shore.

Comment:

Don’t know how long I’ve thought of my scribbles as messages in bottles. It’s hard to come to terms with what truly underlies a certain disappointment, a certain longing, but Hass has done an admirable job in this poem.

The first four lines situate our speaker in what looks like a broken relationship. “I’ve watched memory wound you. / I felt nothing but envy” reads like the all-too-personal drama which can’t be understood from outside the relationship, much less within it. There’s nothing but envy, the thought that someone is doing well without you while you can’t do without them. To a degree, watching them hurt is all that’s left of love. Hass adds a curious wrinkle to this portrait: “Having slept in wet meadows / I was not through desiring.” The speaker is homeless, rootless, lost in nature. But that indicates something is natural about his being soaked in desire, in what might seem initially his artificial and awful expectations.

Imperatives lead the way to the speaker’s realization. First, “imagine January and the beach, a bleached sky, gulls.” The scene is stark; winter does not necessarily herald the beginning of spring. Instead of growth or joy, the feeling is that of a drained sky populated by scavengers. Yet we also recognize a beauty in this scene. That brings about the second imperative: “And look seaward: what is not there is there, isn’t it, the huge bird of the first light arched above first waters…”

The two imperatives are really one. Going elsewhere and looking, trying to see beyond one’s own pain, is a matter of survival. It’s easy to romanticize the power of stepping forth in this small way. “The huge bird of the first light arched above first waters” vaguely recalls Creation, a world born from divine love. We might be tempted to say the speaker has realized his place in the cosmos and is humbled. It’s not quite that simple, though. He knows himself to be resentful, but the outstanding question is why he was petty and angry in the first place.

Love means something can be lost. It means there are things at stake, that things may not work out. It means there are expectations and longings, and there always have been expectations and longings. “What is not there is there, isn’t it” is the speaker talking to his particular audience, trying to show her what he sees. I don’t think he’s doing this for the sake of attempting to repair a broken relationship. It didn’t work out not because “it wasn’t meant to be,” but precisely because it could have been. Our seemingly petty pains come from a very real sense of loss, from our attempting to create a better world for ourselves and others.

Thus a gull in the early morning, when the water is calm, appears momentous. We hurt and try and create for difficult reasons. We let go because difficulties can become insurmountable. To let go doesn’t always have to be angry, obsessed with the justice of one’s cause. When you realize we’re each trying to create something for ourselves, the world is a blank slate with something bittersweet and hopeful about it. A desire flies away, beyond touch, beyond any specific intent, beyond our reason but glimpsed by our reason, to be possibly understood later.

Robert Creeley, “Water Music”

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Water Music (from poets.org)
Robert Creeley

The words are a beautiful music.
The words bounce like in water.

Water music,
loud in the clearing

off the boats,
birds, leaves.

They look for a place
to sit and eat—

no meaning,
no point.

Comment:

The words are a beautiful music. This is not a matter of debate or speculation. It is a statement of being.

But that which is – those which are – also move. Words bounce, and their motion cannot be described so directly. They bounce “like in water.”

Creeley combines the form of words with the image of their movement. “Water music.” Words are music, they are a medium. That means they do not just move, but contain motion itself. In their movement, they are “loud in the clearing,” ricocheting off boats, birds, leaves. But “loud in the clearing?” Loud in nothing? That’s the clue words are substantial, allowing boats to float, witnessing the flight of birds, weighting the falling of leaves.

It is a curious substantiality, to be sure. All of life is comprehended, and none of it. The motion of words does not quite square with words holding motion within themselves. As words have form, they materialize, not unlike the noises of the insects near the lake. “They look for a place to sit and eat” – words, with a life of their own, want to be a part of our world just as we are. This means, quite literally, they have no meaning, no point. Nothing is eternally set for them. “Water music” points to dance, if it is not dance itself.

Emily Dickinson, “Count not that far that can be had” (1074)

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“Count not that far that can be had” (1074)
Emily Dickinson

Count not that far that can be had,
Though sunset lie between —
Nor that adjacent, that beside,
Is further than the sun.

Comment:

Given an imperative, “count not,” we wonder: Is this advice? A warning?

“Count not that far that can be had” – there is a “far” that can be had? Dickinson clarifies in her peculiar way. Between the “far” and “us,” sunset lies between. Whatever “far” we can possess has something to do with night. I suspect she’s talking about love. The stars are beautiful, distant, uncountable. But in a way, we can have them. We possess them by beholding them.

The first two lines, on my reading, bring together hopes, loves, and heartbreak. “Count not” is a warning. Something about love has to stay mysterious; in the most ardent longing, there is an element of moderation. The poem hints that this might have to do with our beholding the stars. We possess them at the same time we do not possess them. Just as we love, we make them what they are because we see, not touch.

So what if we want to touch? What about the “adjacent,” the “beside?” Dickinson contrasts these with “far” through her use of “that:” “that far,” “that adjacent,” “that beside.” That far can be had, can be possessed. Why is what is “adjacent,” “beside,” further than the sun?  (I am reading the last two lines as “Nor that adjacent, that beside, [which] is further than the sun.”)

I guess that could be read as a simple warning against sensuality as fulfillment, but that’s not true. The first two lines introduced a very sensual love. The issue, again, is counting. Try to count what is earthly, what is right next to you, and you’ll find yourself going crazy. It’s not the amount of distance that’s the problem, it’s the fact of any distance. The funny thing is that we try to count that which we don’t really want to count. Our end is something else, to be sure.

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