Week 296: From ‘Notes for a Biography’, by Louis MacNeice

Poetry and politics do not always mix well, but one has to admire poets who are not afraid to engage with the big issues of their day, and they don’t come much bigger than the one addressed by Louis MacNeice in this poem, written after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From ‘Notes for a Biography’

‘Now follow our pointer; look, here is Japan
Where man must now make what he chooses of man,
And these towns are selected to pay for their crime –
A milestone in history, a gravestone in time.

When I first heard the news, to my shame I was glad;
When I next read the news I thought man had gone mad,
And every day since the more news that I read
I too would plead guilty – but where can I plead?

For no one will listen, however I rage;
I am not of their temper and not of this age.
Outnumbered, outmoded, I only can pray
Commonsense, if not love, will still carry the day.

Louis MacNeice

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Week 295: During Wind and Rain, by Thomas Hardy

The theme and mood of this poem, an aching nostalgia for the past, are very similar to those of last week’s piece by Trumbull Stickney. Not being didactically involved with poetry, I feel no great urge to make critical judgments: the spirit of this blog is simply one of I like this, you might too. But I am mildly interested as to exactly why I should feel instinctively that the Stickney poem is good, but this Hardy poem, despite a certain quaintness of diction, is better; indeed, I would say it is touched with greatness. Something to do with the individuality of it, the feeling that no other poet could have written anything like it? Something to do with power and prowess, with the electric charge of lines like ‘Down their carved names the raindrop ploughs’? I come to no sure conclusion, but then, I don’t have to. I like this, you might too…

During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs —
He, she, all of them — yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss —
Elders and juniors — aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all —
Men and maidens — yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them — aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

Thomas Hardy

Week 294: Mnemosyne, by Trumbull Stickney

The plaintive romanticism of this piece by the American poet Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904) is not the sort of thing that normally appeals to me, but I do like how the sensuous solidity of its detail underpins the haunting refrain.

Mnemosyne 

It’s autumn in the country I remember.  

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.  

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.  

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.  

It’s empty down the country I remember.  

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.  

It’s lonely in the country I remember.  

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.  

It’s dark about the country I remember.  

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.  

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.  

It rains across the country I remember.

Trumbull Stickney

Week 293: Losses, by Randall Jarrell

Another poem from the Second World War, this time from the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), who served in the United States Army Air Forces during that conflict. Jarrell was also a very readable and influential critic; his essay on Robert Frost, for example, did much to change that poet’s image from rustic sage to something far more complex and interesting.  

I have one problem with the text of this poem. My longhand copy, that I made from a library book about fifty years ago, has the tenth line as ‘We died like ants or pets or foreigners’. When I came to check my text against online sources, I find that most, but not all, have it as ‘We died like aunts or pets or foreigners’. Now, while acknowledging the sad fact that aunts do die, I can’t help feeling that ‘ants’ fits the poem better, and I am going to stick with ‘ants’ unless and until someone who actually has the original book tells me otherwise. Anyone, please?

Losses

It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes – and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like ants or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores–
And turned into replacements and woke up
One morning, over England, operational.

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions–
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’

They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’

Randall Jarrell

Week 292: First Frost, by Andrei Voznesensky

A tenderly observed piece by the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010)

First Frost

A girl is freezing in a telephone booth,
huddled in her flimsy coat,
her face stained by tears
and smeared with lipstick.

She breathes on her thin little fingers.
Fingers like ice. Glass beads in her ears.

She has to beat her way back alone
down the icy street.

First frost. A beginning of losses.
The first frost of telephone phrases.

It is the start of winter glittering on her cheek,
the first frost of having been hurt.

Andrei Voznesensky (translated by Stanley Kunitz)