Monthly Archives: May 2014

May 26, 2014 The Oven Bird & The Red Wheelbarrow

Well, Monday was a holiday, and yesterday was a helliday, so here we are still claiming that this is May 26th’s poem of the week.

Lauren asked 2 straightforward and fundamental questions last week. Let’s attack question 2 so that this message doesn’t get too long.

Why did Larry Levis break the line after “Someday, weeks” and not after the word “thinner?” Here’s the poem in its entirety, for reference:

GOSSIP IN THE VILLAGE

 

 

I told no one, but the snows came, anyway.

They weren’t even serious about it, at first.

Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,

Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.

 

The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening.

And there, through a thin dress once, I touched

A body so alive & eager I thought it must be

Someone else’s soul. And though I was mistaken,

 

And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows

In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,

Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks

 

From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,

Will have to be no fate. I will feel suddenly hungry.

 

The morning will be bright, & wrong.

So one answer is, we don’t exactly know. I’m not trying to be glib, just something to keep in mind. Writing poems is about making choices–a boggling possibility of limitless choices.

Another answer is that the way a poem looks matters. Line breaks get a little tricky in free verse, absolutely. But remember I asked what kind of poem this is? It’s a sonnet. And yes, he’s screwing with the form a little, from a traditional point of view. So, no end rhyme that I could see. No strict meter. Some traditional sonnets end with 2 tercets, some with a rhyming couplet, and here he’s used neither. BUT. He is keeping basically within the parameters by using what I’d maybe call an “innocuous” line length. Lauren read the punctuation and capitalization and natural sentence rhythm of line 11, and it drew her attention. For me, the fact that most of the lines here are of the same length visually had the opposite effect–my eyes passed right over that. If the line broke at thinner, then line 12 would be quite long indeed, matching “And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows.” And though I can’t explain why that shouldn’t happen, maybe Levis didn’t want it to happen.

Levis is using enjambment, which is where a poet breaks a line within the natural rhythmic flow of a phrase, or sentence, or what have you, rather than only when it ends, pauses, rhymes, or concludes a specific section of meaning. And yeah, Arwen’s reply points out that technique in general terms, when she asks whether Muldoon’s translation of “Myself and Pangur” doesn’t answer Lauren’s question. I’m glad Arwen made that comment, since I wouldn’t even have thought of that illustration. And here it is that I’ll ask if anyone wants to stand up for Flower’s translation, since I will not. Robin Flowers uses what sound to me like really brutal stops and rhymes in his translation. He has to shoehorn in awkward syntax in order to manage the job. “So in peace our task we ply?” “‘Tis a like task we are at?” I’m not saying it’s bad, and it probably gets the job done, in terms of making quite a direct and literal translation. But Muldoon’s writing a modern poem, and he’s gonna have fun with it–he’s added the “Georgics” just out of his sense of play and allusion, where the medieval text just mentions latin. But to me, it reads like a modern poem, in a modern conversational rhythm. Both translators there make really different choices about line break.

Levis is writing a very “modern” sonnet, too, where the meaning is never quite clear. The snow is talking? Who is talking? What village? Fate and no fate? Some deep, intimate remembrance, that has no clear connection to the “topic,” surfaces? His choice of the line break mid-sentence, just mixes things up further, as what might have seemed a coherent thought, or at least a coherent syntactical unit, now drapes across 2 stanzas. So generally, we can see a technique, and we can say a little about how the technique (the choice) is appropriate to the type of poem Levis is writing, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get a specific answer as to why there, in this poem. After all, he could have split the line before, and not after, “weeks,” and everything I’ve said above would still be the case, and we’d be no closer to knowing why right there was the final decision. Admittedly, with Shakespeare’s sonnets, this investigation is easier–and Shakespeare used his line endings not only for rhyme and meter, but for meaning: his ending couplets typically wrap up or point out the theme of the sonnet, or make some kind of point (willing to be corrected on that claim by those more familiar with all his sonnets).

For my money, no one did modern syntax with strict rhyme better than Robert Frost. No one speaks like his poems, exactly, but he succeeds at making the poems talk plainly. His near-exact contemporary, William Carlos Williams, was highly experimental and his free verse work does draw attention to its shape and the line breaks. Compare the 2 below, and see if we can answer the same question for these familiar pieces. To paraphrase Beckett, I could go on; I’ll not go on. -ed.

The Oven Bird

 

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

glazed with rain

water

 

beside the white

chickens

May 19, 2014 all things Pangur Ban

Dear readers,

you geniuses with your genius comments have placed me in a quandary. A QUANDARY, Liz Lemon! Respond to Pangur Ban/Yeats anecdote, or respond to a trenchant line break question?
I will approach this chronologically. And since Lauren really did ask 2 questions, both of which merit some discussion, let me leave that for next week (I have my thoughts on the WordPress/blog option, and we’ve talked about it before, but I should probably do some research first).
As for Pangur, well, I love cats, and I love poetry, and I love the BC colleagues, so let’s have a little incunabular marginalia fest today. My internet machine tells me that the poem Arwen speaks of was written in Irish (a vernacular for the writer, one assumes), in a German monastery, in the 8th Century. I only have a couple snippets of it, but they go:
Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan:
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg,
mu memna céin im saincheirdd.

Caraimse fos (ferr cach clu)
oc mu lebran, leir ingnu;
ni foirmtech frimm Pangur Bán:
caraid cesin a maccdán.
 
 
My favorite translation is, of course, by Muldoon. Below, I will print it alongside (or above) one by another famous translator, Robin Flower. You tell me which one lives on your page. The poems are long-ish, but I’d say this piece is basically just for fun, so they are stanzas that run by quickly, like a mouse, or, quicker, a cat. One thing I also love about Muldoon is that he self-mythologizes by using “call-backs” in his poetry, sometimes within a single book, sometimes across books. He’s always got a linked sequence in his books of poems, and the son-of-a-gun sometimes even links themes and rhyme schemes across the books, just to show that he can–and maybe for other reasons, too. I guess Muldoon liked this little monk poem as much as Arwen, because he named his cat Pangur Ban. In the haiku sequence “Hopewell Haiku,” (1998), he produced these 3 pieces across several pages, as the whole poem grows in emotional intensity:
VI
Our wild cat, Pangur
spent last night under the hood
of my old banger
XXXVII
The bold Pangur Ban
draws and quarters wood thrush
by the garbage can
XLVIII
From under the shed
a stench that’s beyond belief.
Pangur Ban is dead.
It’s funny–to read the haikus, and then to read Muldoon’s translation of a poem that, after all, is about a cat that’s been dead for millennia… it seems so much more personal, more heartfelt. But then Muldoon can’t translate a poem without making it his own. Perhaps Arwen or another wants to take apart some of these lines, below. -ed

Myself and Pangur

Myself and Pangur, my white cat,
have much the same calling, in that
much as Pangur goes after mice
I go hunting for the precise

word. He and I are much the same
in that I’m gladly “lost to fame”
when on the Georgics, say, I’m bent
while he seems perfectly content

with his lot. Life in the cloister
can’t possibly lose it’s luster
so long as there’s some crucial point
with which he might by leaps and bounds

yet grapple, into which yet sink
our teeth. The bold Pangur will think
through mouse snagging much as I muse
on something naggingly abstruse,

then fix his clear, unflinching eye
on our lime-white cell wall, while I
focus, insofar as I can,
on the limits of what a man

may know. Something of his rapture
at his most recent mouse capture
I share when I, too, get to grips
with what has given me the slip.

And so we while away our whiles,
never cramping each other’s styles
but practicing the noble arts
that so lift and lighten our hearts,

Pangur going in for the kill,
with all his customary skill
while I sharp-witted, swift, and sure
shed light on what had seemed obscure.

trans. Paul Muldoon
Pangur Ban
(Anon.)
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

trans. Robin Flower

May 12, 2014

Dear Readers,

 
I want to apologize for my absence last week. I was busy transporting homemade meatballs across state lines (for entirely moral purposes, I assure you). Meatball transportation lends itself less easily to poetic reverie than you’d think.
 
I found this poem in a magazine; it reminded me of both Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, in just a phrasing or 2. I like all the ampersands and the form of it (anyone wanna take a stab there? Come on, there are no answers too easy on MV!).
 
Larry Levis lived from 1946-1996, which means he died way too young. Like D.A. Powell, he’s from California’s central valley, and the landscape remained important to his writing. I’ve noticed while looking up some of our various contemporary writers on the poetry foundation website that Diane Wakoski is a wonderfully clear analyst of others’ writing. She wrote of Levis that his work “is best when the poems are short and are shaped by his imagist instincts or his gestures towards surrealism. He is a master of the brief moment of recognition where the personal is embedded in the generic . . .” I would imagine she’d approve of today’s reading. -ed.
 
 
GOSSIP IN THE VILLAGE
 
 
I told no one, but the snows came, anyway.
They weren’t even serious about it, at first.
Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,
Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.
 
The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening.
And there, through a thin dress once, I touched
A body so alive & eager I thought it must be
Someone else’s soul. And though I was mistaken,
 
And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows
In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,
Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks
 
From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,
Will have to be no fate. I will feel suddenly hungry.
 
The morning will be bright, & wrong.