1) Read the following poem by James Wright:
Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
2) Extricate yourself from the puddle of tears into which you have crumbled.
3) Can you think of another poem that uses a word like “therefore” as brilliantly as this one does?
On fourth of July, alone in my kitchen and the sound of distant fireworks. I drink cheap Merlot, watch the dark break and enter through the windows. I am all over the Internet, but would rather be all over someone else: a tangent. A tanager. Today, by the river I saw a scarlet tanager. Had only seen them in bird books before, and for a minute all doom lifted. my mood is so easily healed, and then so easily thrashed back against the shoal of its wounding: rocks, jetties. If there were a sea I would calm it with the palm of my hand, and walk across the waves.
But there is no sea
only its sound inside me.
Part the red Merlot! Open the wounds!
Every Easter we would watch Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the sea was jello I heard. They did that effect with jello. Oh me, Oh my… the sigh of an ancient night breaking and entering through my windows.
There is no sea, though I might wish one into being—a red sea, like the
We open. We close. A series of bivalves, of binaries. Zeros and ones painting the ceiling!
She once laughed because the sound of the word computer turned her on. Odd co-ordinates of language and sky.
I would kill to be the sound of someone’s thoughts, the color of their dreams. Part one. Part two.
It is the fourth, and the sound of the fireworks makes me think of Beethoven composing as the french approached the city of vienna, and he crossing out the name of Napoleon from the Eroica.
Do you bury your dead, Mr. Weil, or do you set them off as fire works?
The scarlet tanager was in the thickets by the river. I thought it was a cardinal at first, or some other red bird, and my eyes finally admitted it was a tanager. The first of my life, and maybe the last.
I draw the sun reversed: things at dusk. The glow of what has already faded. it’s sweet aftermath.
My Aunt Mary died on a day I was supposed to read at Yale, and I was heading back to Binghamton to hand in the grades: ninety miles an hour and tears. And I was supposed to go with a beautiful Polish woman from my church. All the way to Yale! And I thought how I would give anything to be in the living room late at night watching re-runs of Frazier, my aunt wheezing gently on the sofa, me on the floor, my head cradled in my arms. And Yale did not seem very important.
Oh but this bird? It may save my life, and if not my life, then some small part of me that is gone forever—
the sound. What sound does red make? It is color, and frequency, and it must have a sound.
I think of a young women with browned arms playing a ukulele. It is not very lyrical, or like a Scarlett tanager. I think of her often. Could she be my death? She is often morose just to try something different. No emotion has dropped like a mask to permanently fit her soft angelic face. She is singing: “There is a sea, whether you believe it or not. There is a sea Mr. Weil, Mr. Joe, my Joseph. I can not be the sea. I can be the young girl playing the ukulele! In the sun dress. Light splashes. Her finger nail polish is bright, easter egg blue.
But she is the sea, too, and the scarlet tanager, and the sound of the distant fireworks. She is Beethoven crossing out the name of the liberator turned tyrant.
I must claim my death. it is very likely a while from now—perhaps while I am down by the river. And it is dusk. And it is more than dusk. And I am scratchy, and morose. And I feel no one feeling me.
I probably should state right off the bat that I am not a philosopher by trade. If I mess up philosophical terms and definitions, feel free to correct me. I tend to have a more intuitive approach to philosophy, rather than a systematic one. Thus, I tend to explain things by analogy. I recognize the limits of this, but I hope, nonetheless, to contribute to real discussion. Also, I am skipping ahead in Grossman significantly, past the discussions with Halliday, about halfway into Summa Lyrica. I am doing this because last week I read the passage “‘I’ in the Lyric” and was excited by Grossman articulating something I have been trying to articulate for a long time.
In this passage it seems that Grossman is attacking the idea of “otherness.” I recognize that many philosophers and critics have used the term “other” to mean many different things. Everyone from Hegel, to Husserl, to Pope Benedict have used the term to describe entities that are not the subjective self. I am mostly familiar with this term through the work of Edward Said, whose vision of post-colonialism was heavily pushed by several professors at Binghamton University, where I did my undergraduate. I initially recognized the term “other” to be a handy way to say “not me.” It also seemed to capture the sense of alienation that can exist between the self and some other object/subject.
By my senior year, however, I was quite uncomfortable with the binary of self and other because it seemed to carry the connotation of an uncrossable gulf between persons. Now, there is undeniably a gulf in many senses: you cannot make a choice for me, for example. But does that mean that another person is inaccessible to us in a meaningful way? I tend not to think so. So, you can imagine my happiness when I read the following passage from Grossman:
Consciousness of self is only possible if experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address….Here we see a principle whose consequences are spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me….It is a polarity [of persons], moreover, very peculiar in itself, as it offers a type of opposition whose equivalent is encountered nowhere else outside of language. This polarity does not mean either equality of symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible. If we seek a parallel to this, we will not find it. The condition of man in language is unique.
And so the old antinomies of “I” and “the other,” of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term…. It is in a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.
In the margins I scribbled, “*** Grossman demolishes “the other” yay!!!”
In short, Grossman is positing that any concept of subject is impossible without another subject. And not only this, but this relationship is defined by a reversible I-You, not the static self-other. Admittedly, many powerful people have tried to break this I-You. I believe it was Buber who talked about I-it dialogue (in which, I think, there can be no echo, no reversibility) as opposed to I-Thou dialogue.
I guess at the end of the day, my quibble is not with the word “other” but rather with the idea that persons are opposed in such a way that they are fundamentally alienated beings. I just don’t buy that. We are relational beings, with things that inter-est (literally, it is between) us both. This relationship could not exist unless there were some fundamental assumption about that “other” person (namely, they are a person, like us). This belief, whether we admit it or not, is a fundamental assumption with every form of discourse.
I believe acknowledging this is important; I believe it frees us in important ways. We are not gripped with the anxiety that we are the only self, among alien others that we hope are selves (but are not sure). No, we are in a relationship, and therefore, discourse is possible. The solipsistic idea of discourse with an alien other denies its own terms of possibility.
It also frees us from the desire to become one with the other, I think. When we are gripped with that anxiety, like a person drowning, we grasp desperately; we are in the pit of loneliness. This, of course, is impossible and futile (and the basis of co-dependency). However, if we recognize that we are persons who are able to engage in discourse because the relationship already exists, we are much more free to explore the capacities of that relationship.
OK…so, what’s the connection with poetry? Good question. This ended up more of a rant. I do think there is something to be said about the position we speak from as poets (and artists in general). For Grossman, the lyric, the speaking mode of the subject who is “overheard,” is based in a community of discourse (not to imply other communities could be “other”). There is no sovereign speaker. We all take on some mantle (Grossman connects this with the idea of inspiration).
Incidentally, the ideas in this post might have some interesting connection with Adam’s first post on Keat’s disputed Ode. How is address to the urn possible if the urn is not a person? Is address different than discourse?
Hopefully this all adds up to something…As always, feel free to tweak, commend, denounce in the comment section. I probably need it.
A missing Pleiades in the viewable cluster of stars cannot deny us motion though we cannot master its name: there is something you are not telling me standing at the standing stone detained neither by chicken wire nor the upright megalith we imagine pulsing and in so thinking feel the earth beneath us breathe: looking at anyone on the strip mall concourse I can imagine pausing in front of a mirror to let down his pony tale with his my hands pulling down her blouse to our waist but the thirst from being 25¢ short for the vending machine and the dull anxiety of strangers coming to speak with me is my own: the land around the standing stone half browning grass half greening turf folds into itself for miles and I don’t know what season it is.
consider me these hips this
alphabet an echo this symbol
in the hallway surely this tongue
could spin a wow-weaved man
could spin a place to rest to rest
Lucille Clifton once said, somewhere, that things are better said in threes. She once said that she’d thought of several word options before speaking the one she most fancied. She once said that poetry is about questions, connections. Lucille Clifton said many things outside of poems that felt like poems, and many of us who were blessed to sit in front of her and hear her speak remembers these words. Once, she told us to know beyond the obvious. It’s not difficult to see these little lit bits inside of her poems:
my knees recall the pockets
worn into the stone floor,
my hands, tracing against
the wall their original name, remember
the cold brush of brick, and the smell
of the brick powdery and wet
and the light finding its way in
through the high bars. (from “far memory”)
The lines that open this post are from five friends—Laura Hartmark, Adam Fitzgerald, Anne Rashid, Carrie McGath, and Alexander Long—& are taken from Lucille Clifton’s poems and/or are offered in response to her passing. I am, as many of us are, hurting and healed, mournful and roaring, feeling a little drunk on Lucille Clifton’s words that have been filling my ears all night and day. There was once a time that I thought her words were too sparse; then there was a time the words ravaged; then a time when the words delighted in their conciseness; then there was a time that i wanted to just stare at the non-punctuation. Then, there was my heart feeling blessed.
On this, the first day of the Tiger 2010, I discover that Lucille Clifton was a fire rat: “ imaginative, charming, and truly generous to the person you love. . . Born under this sign, you should be happy in sales or as a writer, critic, or publicist.” This space is here, as are others, for you to say, to read, to listen, to appreciate knowing that we each had an opportunity to make the acquaintance of someone who changed so much of what poetry does and how it comes to do it.
The uploaded photograph is courtesy of Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
Wandering the shadowless aisles of the supermarket a couple of days ago, I passed a colorful phalanx of plastic-shielded, heart-shaped cakes. Realizing that Valentine’s Day was nigh, that other people would be putting forkfuls of these hearts into their mouths in the hours that followed, and that a good many of these displayed hearts would be thrown into the dumpster out behind the store, naturally, I thought of love poetry.
My partner of the past three years recently introduced me to a volume of poems entitled This is My Beloved. I have no idea where she got it, but four minutes of first-rate Internet research informed me that Knopf first published this little tome in 1943, that the author, Walter Benton, was an Austrian-born Russian immigrant who worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, and that Benton published two books of poems in the 1940s.
This history aside, in my beloved’s copy of This is My Beloved, a 1963 edition of this first book, which is presented in diary form, there is an inscription: “In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and the sharing of pleaseures (sic). For in the dew of little things the beast finds its morning and is refreshed. Happy Valentine’s Day – 1963.”
The writer’s rather cliché, poetical diction is spiced up with the tragicomedy of the misspelling, the strangeness of the phrase “in the dew of little things,” and the fact that the word “beast,” in rushed cursive, is quite probably meant to be read as the word “heart.” This inscription alone is a marvelous artifact, and the book itself seems somewhat complicated as a Valentine’s Day gift because it traces a relationship gone bad—the narrator of the poems falls in love with a woman who ultimately does not love him back, leaving him to declare at the narrative’s close, on “November 25”: “I am lost on an island somewhere between two rivers. / Blind buildings are all around me— / and the earth is covered with flat stones. And over me, the low / dark roof—the harbor’s lifted morass and the belchings of many chimneys.”
“Lifted morass” and “belchings” in mind, let us declare: this Valentine’s Day we agree not to give each other heart-shaped agents of indigestion, but instead, strange, complicated originalities of utterance and legitimate attempts at sharing our, um, truest feelings. What does Jack Gilbert say in “The Great Fires”? “Love allows us to walk / in the sweet music of our particular heart”? Now, that sounds very nice. Let’s get to it.
(image by David Shapiro ©2010)
A coyote is sweetness itself compared to a professor—
and a professor is selfless compared to a poet—
even the meanest sculptor is not as stupid as a University—
a wild animal is gentle and tame compared to a critic—
a bobcat is meek and mild compared to any Intellectual—
the zoo containing all is a garden compared to a Department
no architecture is as fragile as friendship as vicious as love
No stepmother is as horrible as the one you are stuck with
No poem looks as good as the one you will find out is nothing
when a mother calls you up you are lucky When a teacher
calls you up you must always take out the revolver
when you see a sick raccoon look more closely and it is your art and your friend
language poets have been seen roaming near cities
when a NY poet fights boundaries become magazines
when a poet needs a job no one else can find one
if you ever need advice ask a bobcat not a Mentor
when you need support and money all humans disappear
the old poets need no prizes they have stolen them already
the young poets need something that the bobcats have teeth
when you need some more hope read Kafka in the morning
when you’re dying for champagne read Proust in the evening
when you want to put yr hand thru a window open the window first (Ron P)
The best advice is the one you give to yourself already
Here we are in the early days of Black History Month, churning steadily towards Women’s History Month, & chugging heartily towards National Poetry month; it is 2010. We are ending the Year of the Ox, charging headlong to the Tiger’s year; Valentine’s Day will, for some of us, be (wonderfully) subsumed by Chinese New Year. It is 2010 and Brooklyn has finally gotten its “blizzard”. Years ago, when I lived in Binghamton, I thought the fog was lovely, the snow was lovely, all of that weatherly white was lovely. Until I stepped from the dense white of fog, the soft fur of white snow, into a town filled with a severe whiteness. It wasn’t so much the faces as the attitudes. Twice a year, when I head to Vermont to teach, I am reminded of those clouded white faces of Binghamton, faces like flowers, closed to perceived darkness & waiting for the bright white light of sun to open to, towards, to lean into. Sometimes I didn’t care. Sometimes I wrote a poem. Sometimes I went to the gym and put on my headphones and ellipticalled my thighs off. It is 2010, and it is, once again, Black History Month. I’m teaching a class called African American Literature; I’m learning about various faces in Black Female African American arts thanks to the lovely Facebook updates of Valerie Jean Bailey. I am happy. The Poetry Society of America has plastered the faces of 21 Caucasian, one Japanese German American, and one Chicano poets as children all over their website. The lack of inclusion of faces of color has made some folks unhappy. I look at the photos and think of those white cartons of milk and faces of missing children. What’s so genuinely lovely about a child’s face? What would the posting of a Black child’s face tell us about the Poetry Society of America? What does the posting of a child’s face—as tribute—tell us about how the PSA views poetry, poetics? I understand the clear articulation of race in the nonarticulation of race. I get it. And I’m bored to death by it. It’s Black History Month. It’s 2010. We’re in the shortest month of the Western calendar; this month is shared with, oh Groundhog’s Day, 100th day of school day, Charles Dickens’ Day, Thomas Edison’s birthday, President’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. Did you know that Pluto was discovered in February? Well, you’re missing something to celebrate in February, in which you can also celebrate George Washington’s birthday. Yes, February is a month of celebration, so let’s celebrate something. I’m celebrating poets who have charged my mind, spirit, heart. Black poets? Sure. Caucasian poets? Sure. Vietnamese poets? Sure. Flamboyantly heterosexual poets? You betcha. Poets who refuse to check a gender box? Sure. Cablasian poets. Of course. What can each of us do to celebrate the child face that promised poetry, the adult face that licked poetry? Me? I’m reading, I’m typing, I’m teaching. I’m looking for graceful raw energy, that makes me happy. I’m looking for the funky disposition of an innocent finger that makes me happy. I’ve a lot to say about the faces of poetry’s future, but I’ve more to say about Arisa White’s Disposition For Shininess, which has been whooping waves into my brain for eight and a half fucking months; and I’ve curry simmering on the stove, curry turning my silver spoons yellow; I can’t get the cayenne out of fingertips, and I’m rummaging in my brain for a childhood photo of me that I’d share. The weather outside is frightful; salt is chomping into the asphalt; a kid wants to clear my stoop for a few measly bucks, and my laptop is burning a pattern in my thigh. I’m going to re-listen to this child read Herb Scott’s poem “The Grocer’s Children“, & some of more of Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children & pretend I’m in Chicago helping little Omar celebrate his second birthday with a snow cake.
Let’s begin with a recording of Ode on a Grecian Urn recited by Richard Howard, which was taken on 2/12/2010 through my iPhone.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.
A very helpful article over at Wikipedia includes the following information about the mass of critical scrutiny, controversy and defense the Great Poem has caused:
The thought as enounced in the first stanza is the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfect; and this is true and beautiful; but its amplification in the poem is unprogressive, monotonous, and scattered … which gives an effect of poverty in spite of the beauty. The last stanza enters stumbling upon a pun, but its concluding lines are very fine, and make a sort of recovery with their forcible directness.
Bridges believed that the final lines redeemed an otherwise bad poem. Arthur Quiller-Couch responded with a contrary view and claimed that the lines were “a vague observation – to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit most pardonable in one so young and ardent.” The debate expanded when I. A. Richards, an English literary critic who analysed Keats’s poems in 1929, relied on the final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to discuss “pseudo-statements” in poetry:
On the one hand there are very many people who, if they read any poetry at all, try to take all its statements seriously – and find them silly … This may seem an absurd mistake but, alas! it is none the less common. On the other hand there are those who succeed too well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …,’ as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings, and proceed into a complete stalemate of muddle-mindedness as a result of their linguistic naivety.
Poet and critic T. S. Eliot, in his 1929 “Dante” essay, responded to Richards:
I am at first included to agree … But on re-reading the whole Ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.
In 1930, John Middleton Murry gave a history of these responses “to show the astonishing variety of opinion which exists at this day concerning the culmination of a poem whose beauty has been acknowledged for many years. Whether such another cause, and such another example, of critical diversity exists, I cannot say; if it does, it is unknown to me. My own opinion concerning the value of those two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. Eliot’s.”
Cleanth Brooks defended the lines from critics in 1947 and argued:
We shall not feel that the generalization, unqualified and to be taken literally, is meant to march out of its context to compete with the scientific and philosophical generalizations which dominate our world. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare’s ‘Ripeness is all.’ It is a speech ‘in character’ and supported by a dramatic context. To conclude thus may seem to weight the principle of dramatic propriety with more than it can bear. This would not be fair to the complexity of the problem of truth in art nor fair to Keats’s little parable. Granted; and yet the principle of dramatic propriety may take us further than would first appear. Respect for it may at least insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature.
M. H. Abrams responded to Brooks’s view in 1957:
I entirely agree, then, with Professor Brooks in his explication of the Ode, that ‘Beauty is truth’ … is to be considered as a speech ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate’ to the Urn. I am uneasy, however, about his final reference to ‘the world-view …’ For the poem as a whole is equally an utterance by a dramatically presented speaker, and none of its statements is proffered for our endorsement as a philosophical generalization of unlimited scope. They are all, therefore, to be apprehended as histrionic elements which are ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate,’ for their inherent interest as stages in the evolution of an artistically ordered … experience of a credible human being.
Wishing to update the debate, last week I sent the following email out to poets and critics to weigh in on the matter:
Arguably the most controversial poem of 20th century literary critical debate has been Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Since Robert Bridges, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot engaged the poem critically, poets and critics have taken all possible sides: defending its ending, dismissing it, even ignoring the rhetorical closing all together as an unimportant point. What I wanted to know, simply: What is your take on the ending of Keats’ famous ode? Do you find it successful or unsuccessful?
Below are their responses of how this Whole Business of Truth and Beauty struck them. I encourage you, reader, to leave your own comment—and let the conversation continue. Next week, I hope to bring in some other quotes, from Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, share some other reactions from contemporary poets and critics, and attempt to formulate my own opinion on the matter.
POETS, CRITICS AND READERS RESPONSES
I’ve certainly heard—and many times—critical statements to the effect that a given work of art failed because it had presented a scene or object or person as too beautiful (perfect, shapely, harmonious), thereby violating our consensus about the actual nature of experience, which we should acknowledge as being flawed, unshapely and dissonant. And that a proper understanding of beauty should insist on the inclusion of aspects of reality not traditionally considered pleasing or attractive. In short, it’s the aesthetic of “Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty.” Given that, I wouldn’t be inclined to dismiss the Urn’s statement as silly, so absurd as to ruin a great poem. To me the puzzling thing is that, in the poem, such a statement should be attributed to the Grecian Urn. Puzzling because it doesn’t strike me that what we are told about this marble vessel of great beauty (in the traditional sense) accounts for the statement it makes. So for me an important critical project around this poem should be to explain why an aesthetic stance at odds with the “character” of this object should be pronounced in its voice. The tone of the conclusion suggests that the poem’s observer and speaker does not, himself, share the view expressed by the Urn. The speaker condescends, perhaps with a certain amused tolerance, to the statement being made. So perhaps an aesthetics of imperfection and dissonance isn’t at all what the Urn is urging. Yes, perhaps that’s it: we’re meant to understand that the Urn is so far out of contact with reality it doesn’t even guess that the world is ever less than perfect, shapely, and harmonious. It thinks the Beautiful representation of reality is unfailingly True. An object made of marble, its only “task” is to continue to exist as it is and display the relief sculptures on its surface. A non-functional artwork exempted from the painful struggle of fleshly existence might indeed believe the world was lovely throughout, as lovely as the scenes represented on its surface. That’s all it knows; and all it needs to know. We, the human observers, will need to know more. We aren’t going to be allowed to remain in the unflawed cosmos of the Urn. Sad, but there is a consolation. We are not frozen in immobility. We can live and move and breathe, and even kiss our beloveds; though of course we know that to love inscribes us in the order of time, and therefore consigns us, eventually, to the order of mortality—the extinction of ourselves as perceiving, thinking subjects. The Urn will still be there, unchanged, immobile, beautiful, impervious to time and to love. I assume Keats wants us to admire the Urn, but he also shows us why we don’t want to be it.
To borrow a lovely phrase from Ian Stewart, who was writing on physics (in WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY, Basic Books, 2007), “beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.”
Yet not all truth is beautiful; some is obviously quite ugly.
A poem should not hate itself for wanting to be beautiful.
Jessica Palmer suggests that disorder is the new beauty – but allows that it could be also dereliction.
As for Eliot, we may counterpose the spirit of Kenneth Koch: One beauty conceals another. One truth may conceal another, too.
I have no anxiety whatsoever about the poem’s closing lines or whether they have, or ought to have, any truth-value.
As for beauty, as many have said, it’s in the language of the beholder.
Plainly a lot hinges on who speaks the last two lines, and whether one or two speakers. I feel most comfortable with the idea that Keats knew exactly what he was about when he created “beauty is truth, truth beauty” as something both true and beautiful, and yet circular and inadequate. (This reading suggests, though it does not absolutely depend on, the idea that the urn says just these five words, leaving “that is all … need to know” being addressed by the speaker to the urn. The absolute circularity of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” so aptly mirrors that of the urn, whose depicted story has neither a start nor an end, that I incline to this reading. However, the last line and a half also expresses and continues a strong sense of circularity, so I wouldn’t be dismayed if MS evidence showed incontrovertibly that the urn speaks both final lines). Either way, the inadequacy and yet loveliness of the idea that truth and beauty are one and the same – which creates a triteness that is presumably what Eliot disliked – seems to me to be what Keats is talking about all through the poem. The paradox is that the human mind is incapable of absorbing the idea of eternity, but also unable not to be “teased” by it: the urn is a friend to man through the comfort of its unchangingness, and yet the old age of this generation and woe of the next are not to be cured by its message, although assuaged.
Beauty is Truth
An epitaph in tone
One can see it inscribed on a deathmark
A funereal inscription
On a tombstone
On an urn filled with ashes
Ashes to ashes, and all that good stuff that never ends
Another circular instance
Keats was always dying
Keats never was not
Like Stein’s a rose is a rose
As a hope, as a denial
Would be that all were circular always
Like all poetry is
Or makes it up as if it were
A = B, and in case we didn’t get the point, B = A? I prefer to give Keats more credit. I don’t read “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as a transcendental, let alone philosophical or mathematical, equation. The statement is addressed to someone, namely those of us who admire the urn but don’t entirely understand it. To me it’s about negative capability. Nothing wrong with knowledge, but we don’t need to know everything, and if we’re not able to entertain half-knowledge, we’ll miss out. Beauty is a kind of truth, and can be appreciated as such, without understanding. The converse proposition is that truth, even when not visually or feelingly beautiful, still has the beauty of being true. This isn’t immediately obvious from the second half of the verse in question, maybe I’m reading too much in two words, but I would argue that Keats’s beholders of unheard melodies and his Lovers who cannot kiss enjoy the beauty of those melodies and that love not because of Platonic ideals but because the melodies and love exist, they’re true. Ergo, truth is a kind of beauty.
I thought I’d share some Mayer sonnets, as Valentine’s day is almost upon us. Love nor the sonnet is standard in Mayer’s world, and she highlights the possibilities/ multiplicities of poetics and of love. After all, desire doesn’t always follow a neat and tidy pattern.
So long honey, don’t ever come around again, I’m sick of you
& of your friends, you take up all my time & I don’t write
Poems cause I spend all my time wanting to fuck you & then
You put the apple onto the grilled cheese, I tie you up
Save me from your respective beauties, keep them home
Thanks for all the rock & roll music, if such a
Thing can be said. Who are those guys? The B-52’s?
That’s what Ethie told me. Can I believe her?
You wanna get married? You tie me up with
Garter belts & less than Heidegger & Kierkegaard the fact
That as we know the poem is not the thought so a slap
Might notice that Uranus suspected a comet? Let me know
He kicks her fallen hat & they are not grownup
Any more than a vase of flowers is, painted, so what?
INCIDENTS REPORT SONNET
Woke up from dream on
July 9 1965, dream was erotic
(can’t remember what was in it),
I think the woman was attempting
to sit on her chair while
lifting the man’s wallet
but then on the boatride my hand
got caught in the elevator door
by the firecracker tossed in
by a child who was a woman as missing
as the coffee money, anyway I
lost balance and, falling, woke up
jerking off through the chair,
another chair, was still falling
on my foot, sorry.
INCANDESCENT WAR POEM SONNET
Even before I saw the chambered nautilus
I wanted to sail not in the us navy
Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter
At the same time his letter, the view of you
By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes
I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not
Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an
Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty
With your long eventual hair, is love king?
What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that
I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck
You have to get young Americans some ice cream
In the artificial light in which she woke
I’m don’t consider myself a comfortable elegist (is anyone?), but reading of Alexander McQueen’s death this morning forces me to take up the mantle. I’m not a huge fashion-buff, but I made the walk past the McQueen store on 14th Street a highlight of my daily commute when I worked in Chelsea. His clothes seemed to me wild and well-tailored in the English way. His suits would have fit beautifully in this show at the V&A in London a few years back; he’s one of the only contemporary designers who would have fit, I think; and I mean fit while also doing his own, completely contemporary thing. That show, by the way, was a revelation.
So, Mr McQueen, we are sad that you are not with us anymore. Here is a tribute, from the inimitable Stevie Nicks as she gets done up for a Rolling Stone photo shoot.
I want to begin praising If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova, translated by Steven Seymour (her husband, her muse! how romantic, how intrinsic!) released last month from Knopf, her first collection published in English. These one hundred poems go so far so terrifically fast (almost all under ten lines) that Pavlova seems to intentionally strive to increase poetry’s audience and relevance—this is, after all, Love in the Time of Tweets and Text Messages—with brevity and bravura; meditations for our culture’s dwindling (and, mostly, already shallow) attention spans. This Valentine’s day, send an entire poem to your dearest—take number 14 for example: the lengthy course of a relationship in eighty characters:
No love? Let us make it!
Done. Next? Let us make
care, tenderness, courage,
jealousy, glut, lies.
Now I want to follow Simone’s lead and leave you with a letter, from James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara, found in a charming pocket-sized edition from Turtle Point Press edited by William Corbett. Schuyler writes O’Hara with advice on what poems to include in the manuscript of Meditations in an Emergency, and in the process gives him the kind of generous encouragement we all need from time to time.
New York, New York
The old crank would like to see “in,” 3 Penny, Now I am quietly waiting, and There I could Never be a Boy.
Can you really leave out Debussy, which I love?
And there’s Les Etiquettes Jaunes, The Starts are tighter (with or without its last stanza, if its last stanza bothers you), and I like Morning very much.
Personally, I like My hearts a-flutter better than the one called Spleen.
And we don’t want to be unfair to “He can rest.” Do we now? Of course we don’t.
Well, give my love to the sky children. We’ll have good times talking about all this.
But mercy, don’t think the straight bolts you shoot from your crystal bow are tipped with marshmallow! They’re unbending yew fletched with eagle feather. (That means, don’t be silly and mistake sincerity and inspiration for sentimentality and goopiness.)
Je t’adore, fils du Baltimore, mon oriol, oiseaux sauvage!
PS I fainted twice and then ascended into the sky (just to the left of the UN Building) when I got to the lines in “There I could never” about “as if I were Endymion. . .”
My Dear Theo,
I am writing to you rather reluctantly because, for a good many reasons, I have kept silent for such a long time. To some extent you have become a stranger to me, and I to you perhaps more than you think. It is probably better for us not to go on like that. It is probable that I would not have written to you even now, were it not that I feel obliged, compelled, to do so – because, be it noted, you yourself have compelled me to. I heard in Etten that you had sent 50 francs for me. Well, I have accepted them. With reluctance, of course, with a feeling of some despondency, of course, but I have reached a sort of impasse, am in trouble, what else can I do? And so I am writing to thank you. As you may know, I am back in the Borinage. Father said he would prefer me to stay somewhere near Etten, but I refused and I believe I was right to do so. To the family, I have, willy-nilly, become a more or less objectionable and shady sort of character, at any rate a bad lot. How then could I then be of any use to anyone? And so I am inclined to think the best and most sensible solution all round would be for me to go away and to keep my distance, to cease to be, as it were. What the moulting season is for birds – the time when they lose their feathers – setbacks, misfortune and hard times are for us human beings. You can cling on to the moulting season, you can also emerge from it reborn, but it must not be done in public. The thing is far from amusing, not very exhilarating, and so one should take care to keep out of the way. Well, so be it. Now, though it is a fairly hopeless task to regain the trust of an entire family, one which has perhaps never been wholly weaned from prejudice and other equally honourable and respectable qualities, I am not entirely without hope that, bit by bit, slowly but surely, the good relationship between one and all may be restored. In the first place I should be glad to see this good relationship – to put it no more strongly than that – restored at least between Father and me, and further, I set great store by seeing it restored between the two of us. A good relationship is infinitely preferable to a misunderstanding. Now I must trouble you with certain abstract matters, hoping that you will listen to them patiently. I am a man of passions, capable of and given to doing more or less outrageous things for which I sometimes feel a little sorry. Every so often I say or do something too hastily, when it would have been better to have shown a little more patience. Other people also act rashly at times, I think. This being the case, what can be done about it? Should I consider myself a dangerous person, unfit for anything? I think not. Rather, every means should be tried to put these very passions to good effect. To mention just one by way of an example, I have a more or less irresistible passion for books and the constant need to improve my mind, to study if you like, just as I have a need to eat bread. You will understand that. When I lived in other surroundings, surroundings full of pictures and works of art, I conceived a violent, almost fanatical passion for those surroundings, as you know. And I do not regret that, and even now, far from home, I often feel homesick for the land of pictures You may remember that I knew very well (and it may be that I know it still) what Rembrandt was or what Millet was or Jules Dupré or Delacroix or Millais or Matthijs Maris. Well, today I am no longer in those surroundings, yet they say that what is known as the soul never dies but lives on for ever, continuing to seek for ever and again. So instead of succumbing to my homesickness I told myself: your land, your fatherland, is all around. So instead of giving in to despair I chose active melancholy, in so far as I was capable of activity, in other words I chose the kind of melancholy that hopes, that strives and that seeks, in preference to the melancholy that despairs numbly and in distress. I accordingly made a more or less serious study of the books within my reach, such as the Bible and Michelet’s La révolution Française, and then last winter Shakespeare and a little Victor Hugo and Dickens and Beecher Stowe and recently Æschylus and then various less classical writers, a few great minor masters. You know, don’t you, that Fabritius and Bida are counted among the minor masters? Now anyone who becomes absorbed in all this is sometimes considered outrageous, `shocking,’ sinning more or less unwillingly against certain forms and customs and proprieties. It is a pity that people take that amiss. You know, for example, that I have often neglected my appearance. I admit it, and I also admit that it is `shocking.’ But look here, lack of money and poverty have something to do with it too, as well as a profound disillusionment, and besides, it is sometimes a good way of ensuring the solitude you need, of concentrating more or less on whatever study you are immersed in. One essential study is that of medicine. There is scarcely anybody who does not try to acquire some knowledge of it, who does not at least try to grasp what it is about (and you see, I still know absolutely nothing about it). And all these things absorb you, preoccupy you, set you dreaming, musing and thinking. Now for the past five years or so, I don’t know how long exactly, I have been more or less without permanent employment, wandering from pillar to post. You will say, ever since such and such a time you have been going downhill, you have been feeble, you have done nothing. Is that entirely true? What is true is that I have at times earned my own crust of bread, and at other times a friend has given it to me out of the goodness of his heart. I have lived whatever way I could, for better or for worse, taking things just as they came. It is true that I have forfeited the trust of various people, it is true that my financial affairs are in a sorry state, it is true that the future looks rather bleak, it is true that I might have done better, it is true that I have wasted time when it comes to earning a living, it is true that my studies are in a fairly lamentable and appalling state, and that my needs are greater, infinitely greater than my resources. But does that mean going downhill and doing nothing? You might say, but why didn’t you go through with university, continue as they wanted you to? To that I can only reply that it was too expensive, and besides, the future then looked no better than it does now, along the path I am now taking. And I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it – keep going, keep going come what may. But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought. You should know that it is the same with evangelists as it is with artists. There is an old academic school, often odious and tyrannical, the `abomination of desolation’, in short, men who dress, as it were, in a suit of steel armour, a cuirass, of prejudice and convention. When they are in charge, it is they who hand out the jobs and try, with much red tape, to keep them for their proteges and to exclude the man with an open mind. Their God is like the God of Shakespeare’s drunken Falstaff, “the inside of a church.” Indeed, by a strange coincidence, some evangelical (???) gentlemen have the same view of matters spiritual as that drunkard (which might surprise them somewhat were they capable of human emotion). But there is little fear that their blindness will ever turn into insight. This is a bad state of affairs for anyone who differs from them and protests with heart and soul and all the indignation he can muster. For my part, I hold those academicians who are not like these academicians in high esteem, but the decent ones are thinner on the ground than you might think. Now, one of the reasons why I have no regular job, and why I have not had a regular job for years, is quite simply that my ideas differ from those of the gentlemen who hand out the jobs to individuals who think as they do. It is not just a question of my appearance, which is what they have sanctimoniously reproached me with. It goes deeper, I do assure you. I am telling you all this not to complain, not to make excuses for matters in which I may perhaps have been somewhat at fault, but simply to tell you the following: during your final visit last summer when we were walking together near that abandoned mineshaft which they call “La Sorcière,” you reminded me of another walk we once took at another time near the old canal and the mill at Rijswijk, and, you said, we used to agree about many things, but, you added, “You have changed since then, you are no longer the same.” Well, that is not entirely true. What has changed is that my life then was less difficult and my future seemingly less gloomy, but as far as my inner self, my way of looking at things and of thinking is concerned, that has not changed. But if there has indeed been a change, then it is that I think, believe and love more seriously now what I thought, believed and loved even then. So you would be mistaken should you continue to think that I have become less keen on, say, Rembrandt, Millet, or Delacroix or whoever or whatever, for the reverse is the case, but there are many different things worth believing and loving, you see – there is something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare, something of Correggio or of Sarto in Michelet and something of Delacroix in Victor Hugo, and there is also something of Rembrandt in the Gospel or, if you prefer, something of the Gospel in Rembrandt, it comes to much the same thing, provided you understand it properly, do not try to distort it and bear in mind that the elements of the comparisons are not intended to detract in any way from the merits of the original individuals. And in Bunyan there is something of M. Maris or of Millet, a reality that, in a manner of speaking, is more real than reality itself, something hitherto unknown that, if only you can read it, will tell you untold things. And in Beecher Stowe there is something of Ary Scheffer. Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures, perhaps you will also grant that the love of books is as sacred as that of Rembrandt, indeed, I believe that the two complement each other. I very much admire the portrait of a man by Fabritius that we stood looking at for a long time in the gallery in Haarlem one day when we took another walk together. Admittedly, I am as fond of Dickens’s `Richard Cartone’ [Sydney Carton] in his Paris & Londres in 1793 [A Tale of Two Cities], and I could point to other particularly gripping characters in other books with a more or less striking resemblance. And I think that Kent, a character in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” is as noble and distinguished a man as that figure by Th. de Keyser, though Kent and King Lear are reputed to have lived much earlier. Let me stop there, but my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy. But one must learn to read, just as one must learn to see and learn to live. So please don’t think that I am renouncing anything, I am reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and though I have changed, I am the same, and what preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth? That is what keeps preying on my mind, you see, and then one feels imprisoned by poverty, barred from taking part in this or that project and all sorts of necessities are out of one’s reach. As a result one cannot rid oneself of melancholy, one feels emptiness where there might have been friendship and sublime and genuine affection, and one feels dreadful disappointment gnawing at one’s spiritual energy, fate seems to stand in the way of affection or one feels a wave of disgust welling up inside. And then one says “How long, my God!” Well, that’s how it is, can you tell what goes on within by looking at what happens without? There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that passers-by can see is a little smoke coming out of the chimney, and they walk on. All right, then, what is to be done, should one tend that inward fire, turn to oneself for strength, wait patiently – yet with how much impatience! – wait, I say, for the moment when someone who wants to comes and sits down beside one’s fire and perhaps stays on? Let him who believes in God await the moment that will sooner or later arrive. Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all! But, you will say, what a dreadful person you are, with your impossible religious notions and idiotic scruples. If my ideas are impossible or idiotic then I would like nothing better than to be rid of them. But this is roughly the way I see things. In Le Philosophe sous les Toits by Souvestre you can read what a man of the people, a simple craftsman, pitiful if you will, thinks of his country: “Tu n’as peut-être jamais pensé à ce que c’est la patrie, reprit-il, en me posant une main sur l’épaule; c’est tout ce qui t’entoure, tout ce qui t’a élevé et nourri, tout ce que tu as aimé. Cette campagne que tu vois, ces maisons, ces arbres, ces jeunes filles qui passent là en riant, c’est la patrie! Les lois qui te protègent, le pain qui paye ton travail, les paroles que tu échanges, la joie et la tristesse qui te viennent des hommes et des choses parmi lesquels tu vis, c’est la patrie! La petite chambre où tu as autrefois vu ta mère, les souvenirs qu’elle t’a laissés, la terre où elle repose, c’est la patrie! Tu la vois, tu la respires partout! Figure toi, tes affections et tes besoins, tes souvenirs et ta reconnaissance, réunis tout ça sous un seul nom et ce nom sera la patrie.” [You may never have thought what your country really is, he continued, placing his hand on my shoulder; it is everything around you, everything that has raised and nourished you, everything that you have loved. This countryside that you see; these houses, these trees, these young girls laughing as they pass, that is your country! The laws that protect you, the bread that rewards your labour, the words you speak, the joy and sorrow that come from the people and things in whose midst you live, that is your country! The little room where you used in days gone by to see your mother, the memories she left you, the earth in which she rests, that is your country! You see it, you breathe it, everywhere! Imagine your rights and your duties, your affections and your needs, your memories and your gratitude, gather all that together under a single name, and that name will be your country.] In the same way I think that everything that is really good and beautiful, the inner, moral, spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works, comes from God, and everything that is bad and evil in the works of men and in men is not from God, and God does not approve of it. But I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more. That will lead to God, that will lead to an unshakeable faith. To take an example: one man will love Rembrandt, genuinely, and that man will surely know that there is a God, he will really believe it. Another will make a thorough study of the French Revolution – he will not be an unbeliever, he will see that there is a supreme authority that manifests itself in great affairs. Yet another has recently attended a free course of lectures at the great university of sorrow and has heeded the things he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears, and has reflected upon them. He too will come to believe in the end and will perhaps have learned more than he can tell. Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God in them. One man has written or said it in a book, another in a painting. Just read the Bible and the Gospel, that will start you thinking, thinking about many things, thinking about everything, well then, think about many things, think about everything, that will lift your thoughts above the humdrum despite yourself. We know how to read, so let us read! Now then, you may well have bouts of being a little absent-minded, a little dreamy, indeed there are some who become too absent-minded, a little too dreamy. That may indeed have happened with me, but all in all that is my own fault, maybe there as a reason for it, perhaps I was lost in thought for one reason or another, anxious, worried, but one gets over that in the end. The dreamer sometimes falls into the doldrums, but is said to emerge from them again. And the absent-minded person also makes up for it with bouts of perspicacity. Sometimes he is a person whose right to exist has a justification that is not always immediately obvious to you, or more usually, you may absent-mindedly allow it to slip from your mind. Someone who has been wandering about for a long time, tossed to and fro on a stormy sea, will in the end reach his destination. Someone who has seemed to be good for nothing, unable to fill any job, any appointment, will find one in the end and, energetic and capable, will prove himself quite different from what he seemed at first. I am writing somewhat at random, writing whatever flows from my pen. I should be very happy if you could see in me something more than a kind of fainéant [idler]. For there is a great difference between one idler and another idler. There is someone who is an idler out of laziness and lack of character, owing to the baseness of his nature. If you like, you may take me for one of those. Then there is the other kind of idler, the idler despite himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action who does nothing because his hands are tied, because he is, so to speak, imprisoned somewhere, because he lacks what he needs to be productive, because disastrous circumstances have brought him forcibly to this end. Such a one does not always know what he can do, but he nevertheless instinctively feels, I am good for something! My existence is not without reason! I know that I could be a quite a different person! How can I be of use, how can I be of service? There is something inside me, but what can it be? He is quite another idler. If you like you may take me for one of those. A caged bird in spring knows perfectly well that there is some way in which he should be able to serve. He is well aware that there is something to be done, but he is unable to do it. What is it? He cannot quite remember, but then he gets a vague inkling and he says to himself, “The others are building their nests and hatching their young and bringing them up,” and then he bangs his head against the bars of the cage. But the cage does not give way and the bird is maddened by pain. “What a idler,” says another bird passing by – what an idler. Yet the prisoner lives and does not die. There are no outward signs of what is going on inside him; he is doing well, he is quite cheerful in the sunshine. But then the season of the great migration arrives, an attack of melancholy. He has everything he needs, say the children who tend him in his cage – but he looks out, at the heavy thundery sky, and in his heart of hearts he rebels against his fate. I am caged, I am caged and you say I need nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh! please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds! A kind of idler of a person resembles that kind of idler of a bird. And people are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage. I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls. Is all this illusion, imagination? I don’t think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity? Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives. Moreover, the prison is sometimes called prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance of one thing or another, suspicion, false modesty. But to change the subject – if I have come down in the world, you have in a different way come up in it. And if I have forfeited sympathy, you have gained it. I am glad of that, I say that it in all sincerity, and it will always give me pleasure. If you lacked seriousness or consideration, I would be fearful that it might not last, but since I think that you are very serious and very considerate, I tend to believe it will! But if you could see me as something other than a idler of the bad sort, I should be very happy. For the rest, if I can ever do anything for you, be of some use to you, know that I am at your disposal. Now that I have accepted what you have given me, you are, should I be able to render you some service, in a position to ask me. It would make me happy, and I should take it a sign of trust. We have moved rather far apart and may in certain respects have perhaps different views, but some time, some day, one of us may be of service to the other. For now I shake your hand, thanking you once again for having been so good to me. If, one of these days, you feel like writing, my address is, chez Ch. Decrucq, Rue du Pavillon 8, Cuesmes, near Mons, and know that it will do me good to hear from you.
“Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Miss Romano’s fourth grade class was gathered on the rough green carpeting listening to a small blonde girl with a turned up nose recite from memory “I Hate Homework” by Shel Silverstein.
The year was 1993. The place was Floris Elementary in Northern Virginia. I was dressed entirely in black.
As the little cherub was finishing, “Homework oh homework you’re last on my list. / I simply don’t see why you even exist,” I stood up, indicating my readiness to Romano with the stoicism of a samurai readying for battle. The cherub finished. The class applauded mechanically and hushed.
“Yes, Sarah? You’re ready?”
“Yes,” I said to Romano, that pedagogical twerp, “I am ready.”
I made my way through the clustered crowd of quiet cross-legged tots. As I stood before them, I took an audibly deep breath, almost a pained hysterical sigh. Then, I began.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visiter,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’”
Was anyone ever so young?
Well, yes. I was nine years old and had memorized my first bit of poetry for Miss Romano’s recitation assignment. (I only did the first five stanzas—to do the entire thing would have been, well, freakish.)
Meanwhile, the context was this: My parents were in the middle of their divorce. They were in and out of the courtroom, it seemed, on a constant rotation for one thing or another, and I would miss, that year, 48 days of school due to severe anxiety that made me, literally, sick to my stomach. So, not only was I hardly ever present for Miss Romano’s class—when I was, I was reciting morose verse to my highly impressionable classmates. Miss Romano didn’t seem pleased.
Back then, everything and everyone around me was shifting. The room I lived in would change in a few months. People, a house, and belongings would be lost. But I could live a while in those first stanzas of “The Raven,” and Poe, unchanging, was with me and would—with “each silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”—always be.
Since then, I’ve memorized a number of other poems, from Wyatt to Hopkins to Berryman to Marie Howe. And just last week, I memorized another poem in which, like “The Raven,” a dark bird plays a large role: Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” an appropriate inauguration into my 25th year.
While I was working on memorizing the ode (The best approach for memorizing lengthy poems, I think, is doing one stanza in the morning and one stanza at night), I was also—probably like many others these days—rereading Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. In it, Franny is reading a book, which, at her twerpy boyfriend’s request, she struggles to describe:
“‘I don’t know. It’s peculiar. I mean it’s primarily a religious book. In a way, I suppose you could say it’s terribly fanatical, but in a way it isn’t. I mean it starts out with this peasant—the pilgrim—wanting to find out what it means in the Bible when it says you should pray incessantly. You know. Without stopping. In Thessalonians or someplace. So he starts out walking all over Russia, looking for somebody who can tell him how to pray incessantly. And what you should say if you do.’”
Franny, earlier in the novel, also talks about poetry, or rather, argues with her twerp of a boyfriend about what great poetry should do:
“‘I know this much, is all,’ Franny said. ‘If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings—excuse the expression.’”
I’m still ruminating over these ideas: how prayer relates to memory, and if poetry has taken over the role of prayer for those of us who grew up in religiously convoluted or agnostic households, and how memorizing and repeating language creates a feeling of transcendence.
I know this much, is all: While I was memorizing “Ode to a Nightingale,” its words and rhythms ran through my head all day, like a song, and there was a quality of incessant prayer to it. The mind-space that would normally be taken up by, most likely, quotidian chatter—what I needed to buy at the store, who I needed to email, what the point of doing anything whatsoever is, what would happen if I got hit by a car without health insurance—was replaced with:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Just as Keats fades, dissolves, and forgets the weariness, fever and fret of living while listening to the nightingale’s song, I found myself—on my walk to the bakery for a muffin and coffee, or brushing my teeth at night—dissolving in the music that Keats conjured, and taking such consolation in the sounds that I would feel transformed and would often forget where I was and what I was doing. (“Room for milk in your coffee?” “That I might drink and leave the world unseen!—er…yes, please.”)
But whether you are inclined to think of memorizing poems as a kind of religious act or an exercise in staving off Alzheimer’s, it is invariably a learning experience for anyone attempting to write poetry. By letting someone like Keats inside your head, you, in turn, enter the mind of Keats and, as you memorize each line, you come to a better understanding of the decisions he made while writing, therefore coming to a more complete appreciation of the beautiful things that the poet did. It is the difference between renting a hotel room for a few days in a strange city and owning a mansion in the city middle, from whose windows you can observe the city’s inner workings, into whose rooms (“stanza,” as we know, being the Italian word for “room”) you can wander and sit for hours:
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.