Week 144: Cottage Street, 1953, by Richard Wilbur

A characteristically humane and accomplished piece by the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), with a slight sting in the tale as it reminds us by its own example that good poems don’t have to be, like Sylvia Plath’s, ‘helpless and unjust’ – they can also be helpless and just.

Cottage Street, 1953

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me,

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or sugar, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,

I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love,

Outliving Sylvia, who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Richard Wilbur

Week 143: The Quiet Grave, by U.A.Fanthorpe

While I like very much this poem by Ursula Fanthorpe about folksong, I think its conclusions are unduly pessimistic and a little unfair: it seems to me that while folksong may now survive mainly as a commercial art rather than springing naturally from the lives of the common people, we have been blessed in the last fifty years or so with plenty of artists who have treated the tradition with great respect and integrity, as well as taking it in new and sometimes interesting directions. Possibly it was the drawing-room treatment of folksong that Ursula was mainly objecting too, and I’m certainly with her there, but I’d have liked to know what she made of, say, June Tabor, Anne Briggs, Maddy Prior and the like.

The Quiet Grave
(for Cecil Sharp)

Underground Rome waited solidly
In stone patience. Orpheus might lose
A beast or two, cracked apart by roots
Of brambled centuries, but still
Foundations lasted, knowing, like the princess,
That one day a ferret and a boy
Exploring a rabbit hole would find an empire.

But this was a kingdom that lived

Some kinds of earth are reliable. The black
Peat of Somerset, and Norfolk mud
That tenderly cradled the deathship’s spectral
Long-rotted timbers. Some kinds of dryasdust
Air, too, responsibly cherish papyrus.

But this was a kingdom that lived In the living air.

Who held the keys of the kingdom?
Unfriendly old men in workhouses;
Bedridden ninety-year-olds terrorized
By high-handed grandchildren; gipsy women
With the long memories of the illiterate;
Old sailors who could sing only
Within sound of the sea. These
Held the keys of the kingdom.

Where was the kingdom?
The kingdom was everywhere. Under the noses
Of clerics devoted to folklore it lived
Invisibly, in gardens, in fields and kitchens,
In the servants’ quarters. No one could find it
But those who were in it already.

When was the kingdom?
The kingdom was while women washed
And men broke stones. It was
Intervals in birdscaring; between
A cup too low and a cup
Too high; when a great-grandfather
Sang like a lark. Then
Was the kingdom.

Who cared for the kingdom?
An old woman gathering stones,
Who seized Sharp by his gentle –
Manly lapels, blowing her song into his mind
Through wrinkled gums. A surly chap
In Bridgwater Union, holding
Sharp’s hand between his own grim bones,
Tears falling on all three. These
Cared for the kingdom.

What were the treasures of the kingdom?
Scraps of other worlds, prized
For their strangeness. A derrydown and a heyho.
And a rue dum day a fol the diddle dee.
These were the treasures of the kingdom.

Who were the heirs of the kingdom?
The kingdom had no heirs, only
A younger generation that winked
At senility’s music and switched on the gramophone.

What was the end of the kingdom?
Massed choirs of the Federation Of Women’s Institutes
filling The Albert Hall; laconic
Improper poetry improved
For the benefit of schools;
Expansion of The Folk Song Industry. These
Were the end of the kingdom.

For this was a kingdom that lived
In the dying air.

U.A. Fanthorpe

Week 142: When Thou must Home to Shades of Underground, by Thomas Campion

We last left luckless in love Thomas Campion shivering outside his beloved’s door, and here we find him once again making his bid for a place beside Wyatt and Donne when it comes to eloquent bitterness on the theme of being dumped.

When Thou must Home to Shades of Underground

When thou must home to shades of underground,
And there arriv’d, a new admired guest,
The beauteous spirits do engirt thee round,
White Iope, blithe Helen, and the rest,
To hear the stories of thy finish’d love
From that smooth tongue whose music hell can move;

Then wilt thou speak of banqueting delights,
Of masques and revels which sweet youth did make,
Of tourneys and great challenges of knights,
And all these triumphs for thy beauty’s sake:
When thou hast told these honours done to thee,
Then tell, O tell, how thou didst murder me.

Thomas Campion

Week 141: I am well disappointed, by John Keats

John Keats died in 1821 aged 25, not much celebrated in his lifetime, leaving poems and letters. The poems impress, the letters pierce. This is the conclusion of the last one he wrote, to his friend Brown.

I am well disappointed in hearing good news from George– for it runs in my head we shall all die young. I have not written to Reynolds yet, which he must think very neglectful; being anxious to send him a good account of my health, I have delayed it from week to week. If I recover, I will do all in my power to correct the mistakes made during sickness; and if I should not, all my faults will be forgiven. Severn is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends, and tell Haslam I should not have left London without taking leave of him, but from being so low in body and mind. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; –and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.

God bless you!

John Keats

Week 140: Planting A Sequoia, by Dana Gioia

The American poet Dana Gioia (b. 1950) wrote this on the death of his infant son. A beautiful, dignified, life-affirming poem.

Planting A Sequoia

All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.

In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth –
An olive or a fig tree – a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father’s orchard,
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.

But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant’s birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

We will give you what we can – our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees.
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.

And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.

Dana Gioia