Monthly Archives: October 2009

Monday’s Verse, Oct. 26, 2009

Readers,

Ms. Proulx made such a good point last week when she called the rhythm of “The Solidier”‘s last line a reversal of the iambic flow. The line with which it rhymes,

“Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”

is still strictly iambic, that is:

-` -` -` -` -`
(or, duhDUM duhDUM duhDUM duhDUM duhDUM — read it aloud, you’ll see)

but it just has a tiny, extra, feminine (unstressed) syllable tacked on to make the past participle of GIVE. Hardly noticeable. But the last line,

“In hearts at peace, under an English heaven”

Has two iambs, in HEARTS at PEACE, followed by a trisyllabic foot with no stress at all (under an), followed by two clear trochees: ENGlish HEAVen. WTF? As I think Ms. Proulx suggests, it’s just kinda odd to watch a poem so seemingly emphatic end that way. And sometimes we respond to these sorts of choices the way we respond to a decrescendo or a descending scale in music: as if the poem were laying itself down to sleep (the big sleep). We get into dangerous territory when we ascribe meaning to the metrical units themselves (what is the moral value of an anapest, over a pyrrhus?), but, especially when a poet is consciously using a formal verse pattern, those choices do seem to invite further inspection.

A return to form is just going back to what one does naturally, and for me it’s actually a return to FORM, since that’s kinda how I learned to read poetry in the first place. Yes, I know, it takes all the fun out of it. But I enjoy the willful archaism of a modern sestina, as in this example by Deborah Digges. Alert reader Lauren Richey (who works at the veterinary center mentioned in the piece) brought an article on Digges to my attention after we’d read her poem “The Wind Blows through the Doors of My Heart” in August. Here is the full article, if you’d like to read it:

http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/fall2009/features/fugitive.html

For today, though, there’s no better explanation of why the sestina choice works for this poem than what the author, Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, says in a couple paragraphs:

“It’s not a simple poem, entwining as it does so many interrelated strands: a landlord, a tenant, a parade, a wedding, a matador, the sea, an orangutan, and a rampant array of specific trees and flowers. Here is both extraordinary vulnerability and powerful uplift. The flower thief herself often seems isolated, temporary, without possessions, and traveling ancient gypsy style. Yet the poem ends with transfiguration. The stolen flowers become the flower in the woman’s hair, which grows “star white. Then she’s gone.”

It’s possible to read this luxuriant poem a number of times without noticing, or even knowing, that it’s a sestina. The sestina is a highly structured form—six verses of six lines each, then a three-line verse—in which the last word in each line follows a special pattern. The form helps her circle round the disparate elements so that each becomes a necessary part of the drama. As in all Deborah’s works, there is an intense engagement with life in this poem. It is, among other things, about living richly in the intensity of the moment.”

The sestina has been around in English since Philip Sidney in the mid-sixteenth century. It was around before that in French and Spanish. If you haven’t seen one before (and if you’ve been following this reading group, you have–Paul Muldoon is among the contemporary writers who have taken it on), just look at the circulation of line endings, and the compression that occurs in the last stanza (a tercet). Now, at long last, here’s the poem. -ed.
THE FLOWER THIEF

Who watches behind curtains her landlord counting his hundred
or so jonquils, or fingering like a scout the dogwood’s
five or six snipped branches, knows the fugitive’s
lust for the wayward tea rose bobbing above the hedges.
She’s cased all winter the sidewalk gardens. She’s gone
at dusk among forsythia and lilacs, the curb-side gutters

petal-clogged, the tulip trees’ sprung husks pouched as gutted
fish. There the streets are littered with the blossoms of a hundred
redbuds blown and drifting like confetti after the parade’s gone
by. As if she were a part of that great wedding and would
greet them at the threshold, she clips the ripest from the hedges,
and for herself a few studded golden sheaths, just a fugitive’s

provisions, enough to set in jars on the leeward sills like fugitive
fires along a bluff above the sea, the camps stone-cold, gutted
by dawn, as clueless as the next, each bud anonymous, the donor hedge
in one moon phase replete. Who’ll know the difference in a hundred
years or care she spends them all in rented rooms? The green wood
tears away. Her hands are pollen-stained and dewy, and gone

at last are any traces of remorse, any self-promised penance, gone
as the roses she once threw to an old matador whose fugitive
soul she thought she’d always love and, grown up, someday, would
come back to. Another year she’d stood before the shit-gutted
cage of an orangutan, his floor a wash of how many hundred
fuchsia blossoms he’d stripped from the hydrangea hedges

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Monday’s Verse, 10-19-09

Congratulaions to reader and founding member John Bradshaw for his “I can name that tune in 4 minutes” performance last week. Even though there were no rules, John did not “cheat.” No, this holder of a B.S. in chemical engineering and graduate degrees in engineering and law reached back to the late 80’s and a high school class with the esteemed Jo Kissling to recall the famous first lines of Rupert Brooke‘s (1887-1915) “The Soldier.” For his efforts, John will receive, most importantly, the eternal respect of all Monday’s Verse readers. Second, John will receive a New York City postcard, postmarked in Chicago, and signed by the editor of Monday’s Verse. Third, John will receive the $68 said editor owes him, postmarked from Pittsburgh, PA. Finally, John will probably receive some sort of home-baked foodstuff on or around the holidays this December.

So this seemed like as good a time as any to revisit the original. For the uninitiated, this is a very, very famous poem; we were all likely to have been assigned it at some point during high school. It’s short, let’s read it first:

THE SOLDIER

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

There are so many things to say about his poem. First, and most obviously, it’s a sonnet. But it’s a fun mixture of the Italian sonnet rhyme scheme (someone please jump in and explain), and the English sonnet rhyme scheme (someone please jump in and explain). How this blend affects the poem’s meaning is anyone’s guess (read: I’m not positing a thesis at the moment, but there surely are some…). And I’m not shying away from the term “meaning”–we could almost use “message”–here, because it seems rather clear, right? There are only 14 lines here, and yet the word “England” appears 4 times, and the word “English” twice. Why the repetition? And the other vocabulary: flowers, love, rivers, heart, dreams, happy, laughter, gentleness, heaven… is this a love poem?

It’s not an idle question. When I say this poem is very famous, we should also be aware that it’s famously criticized for being naive, imperialist, and jingoistic. I mean, its title is THE SOLDIER–is the juxtaposition between subject and tone jarring? From the contemporary POV, Brooke’s work has not held up as well as that of his fellow WWI poets, Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen among them. The comparison is only somewhat unfair because Brooke died while the war was more or less in its infancy (on a Greek island, of blood poisoning), and before the horrors of trench warfare and shell shock really aroused the attention of the reading public (someone please fact-check me on this). This was a decisive time in English letters, and from our perspective it seems like Brooke stands on the far side of an aesthetic rift. It should come as no surprise that “The Soldier” was published shortly after his death, and that British military recruiters made convenient use of its popularity.

A biographical note: Rupert Brooke was one of that rare breed, the gentleman scholar-soldier. He was born into modest luxury and attended Cambridge. He later traveled and taught himself languages, submitting the odd “letter from abroad” to London newspapers. He certainly hung out with the right crowd: Virgina Woolf boasted of skinny-dipping with him, and WB Yeats referred to him as the handsomest young man in all of England. He gained some renown for his stately, Georgian verse before the outbreak of WWI. It is probably significant that, unlike the above-mentioned poets, Rupert Brooke served active duty in the Royal Navy during WWI, but did not see heavy combat. He was buried by his shipmates under a stone cairn, and his gravesite can still be seen on the island of Skyros.

-ed.

Oct 12, 2009

William Safire died September 27th. He was an anatomist of language, known mostly for his exacting criticism of vocabulary and usage in the New York Times “On Language” column; known equally well for his staunchly conservative political views. Every once in a while we’d get a peek at the soul of a poet behind his gatekeeper’s stance: Agnew’s alliterative phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” is credited to his days as a Nixon White House speechwriter. But now here’s an oddity also credited to those days: the draft of a speech he wrote in case Apollo 11 astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong were unable to return to their capsule, or to earth, in July 1969.

Today, a poetry trivia challenge: What famous 20th-century poem does Safire clearly allude to here?* There will be a prize for the first correct answer, but I regret to say the prize has yet to be determined. Please “reply to all,” both for entertainment purposes, and for transparency.

-ed.

*Note: It’s possible that there’s more than one correct answer. I am, after all, only one man.






To: H. R. Haldeman

From: Bill Safire

July 18, 1969.

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:

The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.

AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:

A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

Oct 5, 2009 The Dog Has Run Off Again

I read this poem on the refrigerator at a dinner party last night. It’s funny, I’d been desultorily rummaging in my head for something I could print in honor of Jackson, one of my all-time favorite dogs. And trying to honor a new member’s request that we read some Mary Oliver. The host, who had taped it to the fridge in memory of her late pet, told me Mary Oliver wrote it! And so I got to browse the web today and learn that in fact, poems about nature, and particularly animals, are Mary Oliver’s most especial bailiwick. Her unique POV, though… it makes sense that one of her volumes is titled “What Do We Know.” -ed.





               The Dog Has Run Off Again

                 and I should start shouting his name
                  and clapping my hands,
                  but it has been raining all night
                 and the narrow creek has risen
                  is a tawny turbulence is rushing along
                  over the mossy stones
                  is surging forward
                  with a sweet loopy music
                  and therefore I don’t want to entangle it
                  with my own voice
                 calling summoning
                  my little dog to hurry back
                  look the sunlight and shadows are chasing each other
                  listen how the wind swirls & leaps & dives up & down
                  who am I to summon his hard and happy body
                  his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal
                  through the dark leaves
                  to come back to walk by my side, obedient.