Archive for the ‘Poetry’ category

The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, by Paul Mariani

May 15, 2016

In middle-age hoping to twig from
What we are not what we might be next, a question 
The South seems never to raise.
–Auden, “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno”

Biographies these days challenge the forearms. While pleading for the subject to kick the bucket already, you keep yourself awake in late-night reading bouts, desperate to finish before drowsiness drops the volume onto your nose with ensuing sparks.

So, the reader is grateful for a life that gets it done in 411 pages of text. But still, of course, the reader has whimsies of his own and is impossible to please. Too much is left out! What did Stevens think of Yeats, or Hardy, or Auden? Why did he bull ahead with his blank verse lines, loosening the line only a bit, but never as Eliot did, to melt into prose? How did he handle the apparent rejection of Harmonium when he finally let it loose on the world, publishing for the first time at age forty-three?

There’s no original research shown. The author seems to have flipped through the published Letters, the smaller collections of letters with José Rodriguez Feo and with the poet’s wife Elsie, and the oral biography by Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World. (It is said that there are many letters that Stevens’s only child and literary executor, his daughter, Holly, never let see the light of day, but she has been gone for over twenty years now and should not be able to veto from the grave.) Finally, there are the poems themselves. In any literary biography, there is going to be some analysis of the work product. Mariani makes the curious choice to weave the poetry itself into the narrative. It’s somewhat pleasing if the reader is very familiar with the poems already. Otherwise, it must be very tedious. It would be adventurous to recommend this book to anyone unfamiliar with Stevens’s poetry.

Putting Stevens in our contemporary context would have been useful. One of the finest poems from Ideas of Order cannot be mentioned in polite society these days (and scarcely so when published). He had bourgeois ways of speaking and liked to drink with the boys–too much so, as the author shows, not only on the famous trips to Florida with Judge Arthur Powell, but at literary dinners, too. Do those who care about poetry these days think less of him for all that? They may and likely do, but we are not told.

This is thirty years after the much more ambitious and detailed biography by Joan Richardson. It is good to have a shorter life to read, but more work could have been done to press out the whey and firm things up. The author doesn’t attempt to defend or explain his choices. There is no introduction. The last two pages are an afterword of sorts, though not separate from the main text.

There are not many photographs. Those that are included are not new. In fairness, let us admit that there may not be many to choose from, but it’s too bad that the cover photo is the very same one used on the Library of America’s Collected Poetry and Prose. The photo is not so classic that the choice cannot be ascribed to laziness.

Still, if one admires the poetry of Stevens very much, it is an excuse to dip back in again, if one needs such impetus!

 

A Fisherman's Paradise - Long Key Fishing Camp (Library of Congress)

A Fisherman’s Paradise – Long Key Fishing Camp (Library of Congress)

Advertisements

Homer’s Iliad, translation by Alexander Pope

November 5, 2015

Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.
Add the receding traction of its slats
Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.
Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.

Then of a stadium when many boards are raised
And many faces change to one vast face.
So, where there were so many masks,
Now one Greek mask glittered from strip to ridge.
–Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red

It is long past time for an especially daring Regissieur to mount a production of Wagner’s Ring in the style of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films. In that way, the influence of Wagner on Tolkien, as seen by Jackson, comes back to the source material.

Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad is something like that. The weighty preposition of Milton’s epic must have inspired the next century’s poet. He brooded a bit and borrowed the Miltonic style, in couplets this time, to translate Homer. There is no attempt to be too Greek; Roman names are generally, if not always, used. We have Jupiter/Jove and Juno, Venus and Mars, Minerva and Neptune, Apollo, and so on, as well as their nicknames for variety (Cytherea, Saturnia, Pallas). This Penguin edition is massive because it contains Pope’s own commentary on each Book, often with long quotations from prior commentators. In all, it’s something like a Handelian opera; very pleasant and tuneful, and never too insistent.

Here are a few favorite passages. This is Juno’s seduction of Jupiter in Book XIV, which begins as the goddess beautifies herself as well as she can, even calling on Venus to give up her almighty girdle, which no male can resist:

Touch’d with her secret key, the doors unfold:
Self-clos’d behind her shut the valves of gold.
Here first she bathes; and round her body pours
Soft oils of fragrance, and ambrosial show’rs:
The winds perfum’d, the balmy gale convey
Thro’ heav’n, thro’ earth, and all the aërial way:
Spirit divine! whose exhalation greets
The sense of Gods with more than mortal sweets.
Thus while she breath’d of heav’n, with decent pride
Her artful hands the radiant tresses ty’d;
Part on her head in shining ringlets roll’d,
Part o’er her shoulders wav’d like melted gold.
Around her next a heav’nly mantle flow’d,
That rich with Pallas’ labour’d colours glow’d;
Large clasps of gold the foldings gather’d round,
A golden zone her swelling bosom bound.
Far-beaming pendants tremble in her ear,
Each gemm illumin’d with a triple star.
Then o’er her head she casts a veil more white
Then new fal’n snow, and dazling as the light.
Last her fair feet celestial sandals grace.
Thus issuing radiant, with majestic pace,
Forth from the dome th’ imperial Goddess moves,
And calls the Mother of the Smiles and Loves.
How long (to Venus thus apart she cry’d)
Shall human strifes celestial minds divide?
Ah yet, will Venus aid Saturnia‘s joy,
And set aside the cause of Greece and Troy?
Let heav’n’s dread empress (Cytherea said)
Speak her request, and deem her will obey’d.
Then grant me (said the Queen) those conqu’ring charms,
That pow’r, which mortals and immortals warms,
That love, which melts mankind in fierce desires,
And burns the sons of heav’n with sacred fires!

(XIV 195-228)

A fair test of any translation of the Iliad is how the many fights come off–is it just one damn thing after another, or is there enough variety to keep the reader awake? Pope passes this test, as in this telling of one of Hector’s many kills:

As when a lion, rushing from his den,
Amidst the plain of some wide-water’d fen,
(Where num’rous oxen, as at ease they feed,
At large expatiate o’er the ranker mead;)
Leaps on the herds before the herdsman’s eyes;
The trembling herdsman far to distance flies:
Some lordly bull (the rest dispers’d and fled)
He singles out; arrests, and lays him dead.
Thus from the rage of Jove-like Hector flew
All Greece in heaps; but one he seiz’d, and slew.

(XV, 760-769)

In the next book:

In equal arms two sons of Nestor stand,
And two bold brothers of the Lycian band:
By great AntilochusAtymnius dies,
Pierc’d in the flank, lamented youth! he lies.
Kind Maris, bleeding in his brother’s wound,
Defends his breathless carcase on the ground;
Furious he flies, his murd’rer to engage,
But godlike Thrasimed prevents his rage,
Between his arm and shoulder aims a blow;
His arm falls spouting on the dust below:
He sinks, with endless darkness cover’d o’er,
And vents his soul effus’d with gushing gore.

(XVI, 376-387)

Throughout, Jupiter ensures that the Greeks’ victory is never in doubt, but doesn’t come too soon. His messenger, Iris the rainbow (“the many-colour’d maid”), carries his commands to earth:

Now storms the victor at the Trojan wall;
Surveys the tow’rs, and meditates their fall.
But Jove descending shook th’ Idaean hills,
And down their summits pour’d a hundred rills:
Th’ unkindled light’ning in his hand he took,
And thus the many-colour’d maid bespoke.
Iris, with haste thy golden wings display,
To god-like Hector this our word convey.
While Agamemnon wastes the ranks around,
Fights in the front, and bathes with blood the ground,
Bid him give way; but issue forth commands,
And trust the war to less important hands:
But when, or wounded by the spear, or dart,
That chief shall mount his chariot, and depart:
Then Jove shall string his arm, and fire his breast,
Then to her ships shall flying Greece be press’d,
Till to the main the burning sun descend,
And sacred night her awful shade extend.

(XI, 235-252)

Notice Pope’s use of English and very Miltonic sounds in the passage above, as shown below in bold:

Now storms the victor at the Trojan wall;
Surveys the tow’rs, and meditates their fall.
But Jove descending shook th’ Idaean hills,
And down their summits pour’d a hundred rills:
Th’ unkindled light’ning in his hand he took,
And thus the many-colour’d maid bespoke.
Iris, with haste thy golden wings display,
To god-like Hector this our word convey.
While Agamemnon wastes the ranks around,
Fights in the front, and bathes with blood the ground,
Bid him give way; but issue forth commands,
And trust the war to less important hands:
But when, or wounded by the spear, or dart,
That chief shall mount his chariot, and depart:
Then Jove shall string his arm, and fire his breast,
Then to her ships shall flying Greece be press’d,
Till to the main the burning sun descend,
And sacred night her awful shade extend.

(Something should be said here about the rhymed couplet, so very Eighteenth Century. Pope is magisterial indeed. Once the ear hears what’s going on, the form does not intrude. The rhymes almost always work out. There is at least one instance of world/hurled, which elsewhere might be painful, but is hard to blame in this book, given the topic. That important English word world is notoriously hard to rhyme.)

While Achilles is on his way to Troy to find Hector and destroy him, the river Scamander itself appeals to him:

O first of mortals! (for the Gods are thine)
In valour matchless, and in force divine!
If Jove have giv’n thee every Trojan head,
‘Tis not on me thy rage should heap the dead.
See! my choak’d streams no more their course can keep,
Nor roll their wonted tribute to the deep.
Turn then, impetuous! from our injur’d flood;
Content, thy slaughters could amaze a God.
In human form confess’d before his eyes
The river thus; and thus the Chief replies.
O sacred stream! thy word we shall obey;
But not till Troy the destin’d vengeance pay,
Not till within her tow’rs the perjur’d train
Shall pant, and tremble at our arms again;
Not till proud Hector, guardian of her wall,
Or stain this lance, or see Achilles fall.

(XXI, 231-246)

Perhaps it is the structure of this edition, with Pope’s one-paragraph summary (“Argument”) at the head of each Book, and then lengthy notes (“Observations”) following, but the massiveness of the story is unavoidable. This Iliad is a kind of library of storytelling.

 

Quaker Guns at Manassas

Quaker Guns at Manassas

Some Things Are Unspeakable

April 4, 2010

What are you supposed to say about being? Heidegger gave half a book to the subject. The phenomenon is a way of getting at it, if you must import your terms from Greek, and so it went, from Heidegger to Husserl to Edith Stein and Wojtyla. Whether phenomenology will take hold as way of explaining Christian thought or was only a fillip of the last pontificate, we will see.

It’s not much that English speakers want to write books about, rather than just keeping your head down and getting on with things. If one is going to consider being as more than just the time that the light switch is on, there must be something to say.

Taking up the Kantian challenge, “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Stevens found that metaphor had to do, and so said in twelve lines what wasn’t quite said in a shelf of continental philosophy.

OF MERE BEING

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

–Wallace Stevens

Seventy Years On

September 1, 2009

Reading this poem would be one way to mark the day.

The new English immigrant to the United States had left a mess behind him. With Yeats gone, the younger man picked up the variable three-footed line of another occasional poem, “Easter 1916,” and applied a more elaborate rhyme scheme. The ending of the penultimate stanza gave him trouble later, however, and he altered it to suit his distaste for easy magic words, but we all seem to like better the first version, written before the month was out.

One old Irishman to another

March 23, 2009

Swift’s epitaph at St. Patrick’s is in Latin. Yeats rendered it in English:

Swift has sailed into his rest.
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller.
He served human liberty.

I ponder these words much these days.