Week 469: Anniversaries, by Douglas Dunn

This week another poem from Douglas Dunn’s 1985 volume ‘Elegies’, written in memory of his first wife who died young. It is a collection that I find intensely moving, and also very skilful: I love the lilting movement of poems like this.

Note on the last verse: the beautifully precise word ‘longanimous’ means ‘patient with a suggestion of long-suffering’ – I believe Dunn was a goodish club-level runner in his younger days, so I take it the image here is one of his wife coming along even in the rain to cheer him on.

Roukenglen, Kelvingrove and Inchinnan are names associated with the Glasgow area of Renfrewshire.

Anniversaries

Day by nomadic day
Our anniversaries go by,
Dates anchored in an inner sky,
To utmost ground, interior clay.

It was September blue
When I walked with you first, my love,
In Roukenglen and Kelvingrove,
Inchinnan’s beech-wood avenue.

That day will still exist
Long after I have joined you where
Rings radiate the dusty air
And bangles bind each powdered wrist.

Here comes that day again.
What shall I do? Instruct me, dear,
Longanimous encourager,
Sweet soul in the athletic rain
And wife now to the weather.

Douglas Dunn

Week 468: Prayer, by Dana Gioia

This week a strange but hauntingly lyrical poem by the American poet Dana Gioia (b. 1950), a sturdy defender of such unfashionable values in verse as form and meaning, whose work has steadily grown on me over the years. I think the key to this poem lies in the death of the poet’s firstborn son in infancy (see also week 140). But who or what exactly is being addressed in this prayer of intercession, and being described in the remarkable series of kennings that form the poem’s build-up? Gioia has a Catholic background, but I think readers are to some extent free to make their own interpretation: God if you like, or Death, or whatever mystery lies behind the making and unmaking of this world.

Prayer

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough –
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset –
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

Dana Gioia

Week 467: To bring the dead to life, by Robert Graves

An intriguing if slightly macabre insight into Robert Graves’s way of working, though perhaps more in his role as a historical novelist than as a poet. One anecdote relates how he would become so absorbed in recreating a particular character that he would lay a place for him at dinner. I can’t say that my own forgetfulness has ever gone that far, but I will say that sometimes when translating a poem from another language I will begin by just writing out the literal meaning and then it is as if the words start to rearrange themselves, with an unseen hand suggesting a rhyme here, a rhythm there, and I am no more than a passive observer watching patterns in a verbal kaleidoscope swirl and settle. As a firm rationalist I don’t believe that this is anything more than some kind of mental muscle memory at work, but I can see how those so inclined might feel that there is something spooky going on.

To bring the dead to life

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.
 
Let his forgotten griefs be now,
And now his withered hopes;
Subdue your pen to his handwriting
Until it prove as natural
To sign his name as yours.
 
Limp as he limped,
Swear by the oaths he swore;
If he wore black, affect the same;
If he had gouty fingers,
Be yours gouty too.
 
Assemble tokens intimate of him —
A ring, a hood, a desk:
Around these elements then build
A home familiar to
The greedy revenant.
 
So grant him life, but reckon
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.

Robert Graves

Week 466: Cofio, by Waldo Williams

Waldo Williams (1904-1971) ranks as one of the most influential and beloved of twentieth-century Welsh-language poets, a mystic, pacifist, Welsh nationalist and passionate teacher. His country was the Preselis, an upland range in north Pembrokeshire, that I walked the length of a few years back, a wild lonely land of wind and sheep, tumbledown cairns, Bronze Age tracks dark and springy with peat, wheatears perched on doleritic outcrops and the mewling cry of buzzards overhead.

‘Cofio’ is one of Waldo’s most celebrated poems, dealing with memory and things beyond memory. The translation that follows is my own.

Cofio

Un funud fach cyn elo’r haul o’r wybren,
Un funud fwyn cyn delo’r hwyr i’w hynt,
I gofio am y pethau anghofiedig
Ar goll yn awr yn llwch yr amser gynt.
 
Fel ewyn ton a dyr ar draethell unig,
Fel cân y gwynt lle nid oes glust a glyw,
Mì wn eu bod yn galw’n ofer arnom –
Hen bethau anghofiedig dynol ryw.
 
Camp a chelfyddyd y cenhedloedd cynnar,
Aneddau bychain a neuaddau mawr,
Y chwedlau cain a chwalwyd ers canrifoedd
Y duwiau na ŵyr neb amdanynt ‘nawr.
 
A geiriau bach hen ieithoedd diflanedig,
Hoyw yng ngenau dynion oeddynt hwy,
A thlws i’r clust ym mharabl plant bychaìn,
Ond tafod neb ni eilw arnynt mwy.
 
O, genedlaethau dirifedi daear,
A’u breuddwyd dwyfol a’u dwyfoldeb brau,
A erys ond tawelwch i’r calonnau
Fu gynt yn llawenychu a thristáu?
 
Mynych ym mrig yr hwyr, a mi yn unig,
Daw hiraeth am eich ‘nabod chwi bob un;
A oes a’ch deil o hyd mewn Cof a Chalon,
Hen bethau anghofiedig teulu dyn?

Waldo Willams

Remembrance

One brief moment as the sun is setting,
One quiet moment as the night comes on
To bring to mind the things that are forgotten,
Lost now in the dust of time long gone.

Like the white foam of waves on lonely beaches
Like the wind’s song when there is none to hear
I know that they are calling to us, vainly –
The old forgotten things we once held dear.

The cunning and the craft of early peoples
That built alike small dwelling and great hall,
The well-wrought legends lost among the ages,
The gods of old gone now beyond recall.

The little words of languages long vanished
That once were merry on the lips of men
And lovely in the lisping of small children
That no tongue now will ever speak again.

And all the earth’s unnumbered generations,
Their pious dreams and fragile piety,
Is nothing left in all those hearts but silence
Where gladness and where grief were wont to be?

Often in the dusk, as I sit lonely,
Great longing comes, to bring you all to mind.
Do heart and memory somewhere still hold you,
You old forgotten things of humankind?

Week 465: La Figlia Che Piange, by T.S.Eliot

Richard Dawkins mocked certain evolutionary naysayers for deploying what he called ‘the argument from personal incredulity’. With this in mind, I am always reluctant to criticise a literary work using what might be called ‘the argument from personal stupidity’: ‘I don’t understand this poem therefore there is something wrong with it’. And indeed there are things about this piece that I much admire, especially the hauntingly melodious third stanza. I just can’t help wishing that the poet had made it a bit clearer what is actually going on here and why.

To deal first with the title and the epigraph. ‘La Figlia Che Piange’ (The Woman Who Weeps’) is the name of a stele that Eliot once went to look for in an Italian museum. He never found the tablet, which sets the tone for the poem’s mood of aesthetic detachment: this is a construction of what might have been rather than a reconstruction of what was. This sense of unreality is reinforced by the epigraph ‘O quam te memorem virgo’ (‘Maiden, by what name shall I address you?’), which is from Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, from the scene where Aeneas meets, unbeknown to him, the goddess Venus disguised as a huntress.

So the poet sees, or imagines, a woman standing at the top of a flight of stone steps. There is something ethereal about her, a creature like the sunlight that he enjoins her to weave into her hair. At first she is holding a bunch of flowers, and he tells her to clasp these to her, but then changes his mind and imagines her throwing them to the ground, presumably in a fit of pique which goes with her pained surprise and the ‘fugitive resentment’ in her eyes.

The pique and resentment are explained in the second stanza, in which the poet pictures a parting between this woman and a man whom one assumes to be her lover. There is a curious shift within the stanza from third to first person, as if the poet were having difficulty in admitting to himself that he is himself the lover and the one doing the imaginary dumping in this imaginary relationship. I don’t know why the woman’s resentment is described as ‘fugitive’, unless the implication is that the woman will soon have other admirers and will forget him

The third stanza is then one of regret for that parting. Imaginary the whole encounter may have been, but at some level of memory or dream the poet has made a choice, and that choice comes back to haunt him with a sense of perennial loss. I wonder if there is a parallel here with Edward Thomas’s poem ‘That Girl’s Clear Eyes’ where the poet has a transient encounter with a woman that comes to nothing, but then confesses that all he wanted anyway was to savour the moment without any actual human involvement: ‘Nor until now could I admit/That all I cared for was the pleasure and pain/I tasted in the stony square sunlit…’ So is Eliot’s too a poem about preferring the exquisite potentiality of a relationship to the complex and demanding actuality?

This is all a bit rarefied for my taste, and so it is that for all its fine touches I find, as so often with Eliot’s work, that there is something posed and artificial about the piece, such that it remains for me a poem under glass, that I can admire intellectually but not engage with emotionally. It would be interesting to know what others make of it.

La Figlia Che Piange

O quam te memorem virgo …

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

T.S.Eliot

Week 464: The Dover Bitch, by Anthony Hecht

I feel that there must be a single word term for this kind of irreverent gloss or counter-poem, but for the moment I can’t bring one to mind. You cannot, I think, call it a parody. A good parody works by close imitation, so close that you could almost think you were reading an original work by the target author, just giving the game away by the subtlest of exaggerations, the most innocent-looking of stumbles. Think, for example, of Henry Reed’s parody of T.S.Eliot, ‘Chard Whitlow’, of Chesterton’s versions of Yeats and Whitman, of Max Beerbohm’s take-offs of Henry James and Arnold Bennett, of Hugh Kingsmill’s A.E.Housman.

In contrast, Hecht’s poem is in tone and style nothing like Matthew Arnold’s celebrated Victorian poem ‘Dover Beach’, about the ebbing tide of faith and the loss of the old certainties. It is not even clear to me whether Hecht dislikes Arnold’s poem and finds in it a pomposity that needs puncturing, or whether he feels that high-mindedness is all very well but sometimes a bit of low-mindedness doesn’t come amiss either, or whether he is just having a bit of fun. In any event, I do find the poem good fun, and of course Arnold’s original remains a powerful piece well able to take the hit and sail on.

The Dover Bitch

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me,
And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.’
Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London , and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’ Amour.

Anthony Hecht

Week 463: Under The Waterfall, by Thomas Hardy

Bit of an odd one this week. On the face of it this is a rather decorous, even slightly naïve poem about two Victorian lovers enjoying a picnic by a waterfall, yet it portrays the event with a sensuous precision that borders on the erotic, and while the last thing I would want to do is get all Freudian about a beautiful poem, I can’t help wondering if Hardy, with a knowing twinkle in his not-so-innocent Victorian eye, was not well aware of certain symbolic possibilities in the poem. This is after all the man who in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ gives us such a dazzling account of Sergeant Troy’s swordplay in ‘the hollow amid the ferns’. But never mind all that: as always with Hardy, any other theme is subordinate to the passage of time, the transience of human happiness and the bittersweetness of memory.

Under the Waterfall

‘Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.
      Hence the only prime
      And real love-rhyme
      That I know by heart,
      And that leaves no smart,
Is the purl of a little valley fall
About three spans wide and two spans tall
Over a table of solid rock,
And into a scoop of the self-same block;
The purl of a runlet that never ceases
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.’
‘And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?’

‘Well, under the fall, in a crease of the stone,
Though where precisely none ever has known,
Jammed darkly, nothing to show how prized,
And by now with its smoothness opalized,
      Is a drinking-glass:
      For, down that pass
      My lover and I
      Walked under a sky
Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green,
In the burn of August, to paint the scene,
And we placed our basket of fruit and wine
On the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine;
And when we had drunk from the glass together,
Arched by the oak-copse from the weather,
I held the vessel to rinse in the fall,
Where it slipped, and sank, and was past recall,
Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss
With long bared arms. There the glass still is.
And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in basin or bowl, a throe
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass both used, and the cascade’s rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of china-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.

‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
There lies intact that chalice of ours,
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’

Thomas Hardy

Week 462: The Burial of the Old, by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry (1934-) is an American poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist and environmental activist. I admire this poem for its terse unsentimental serenity, even if it does appear to take a rather brisk attitude towards the dying of the aged. I sat with my father in his last hours, wanting to say to him those things it is so difficult to utter in normal times, but he never came round from the operation, so all went unsaid, and whether the light became again the sky for him I cannot say. But the third verse certainly rings true: when I left the hospital it seemed an extraordinary thing to walk in sunlight and for days afterwards I felt charged with an almost lacerating sensitivity to my own aliveness.

The Burial of the Old

The old, whose bodies encrust their lives,
Die, and that is well.
They unhinder what has struggled in them,

The light, painfully loved, that narrowed
And darkened in their minds
Becomes again the sky.

The young, who have looked on dying,
Turn back to the world, grown strangely
Alert to each other’s bodies.

Wendell Berry

Week 461: ‘Here comes Sir George’, by Jon Stallworthy

I imagine that many may find the rather Kiplingesque sentiment of this poem challenging in these post-colonial times when the whole concept of empire has long been called into question. I do myself, but I think that we should, within reason, always be prepared to listen to an unfashionable viewpoint, rather than simply denying a speaker the right to hold it, and should try to be open to the possibilities of nuance, the nuance in this case being that some servants of the British Empire may have done their best to carry out their roles in a humane and beneficial way, even if the existence of those roles in the first place may be contentious.

I suppose the fact is that morality and poetry have always been imperfect bedfellows, but cohabit they must. I cannot see, for example, how a poem that extolled the virtues of cruelty or celebrated the Holocaust could be other than detestable, however technically accomplished. Yet at the same time it would be a pity to have a generation of poets grow up thinking that poetry is simply a matter of saying right things, and forgetting that it is also a matter of saying things right.

‘Here comes Sir George’

The boys wink at the boys: ‘Here comes Sir George.’
Yes, here he comes, punctual as nine o’clock
with bad jokes buzzing at his ramrod back –
‘Victoria’s Uncle,’ ‘Rearguard of the Raj’.

They do not know or, if they know, forget
the old fool held a province down larger
than England; not as a Maharaja
prodigal with silver and bayonet;

but with cool sense, authority and charm
that still attend him, crossing a room
with The Odes of Horace under his arm
and in his button-hole a fresh-cut bloom.

Honour the rearguard, you half-men, for it
was, in retreat, the post of honour. He –
last of The Titans – is worth your study.
You are not worth the unsheathing of his wit.

Jon Stallworthy

Week 460: Hommage à la Vie, by Jules Supervielle

This week one of my favourite French poems, in which the ageing poet looks back over his life, in language that is simple yet idiosyncratic, lucid yet profound.

The translation that follows is my own. I offer it merely as a crib – I decided that any attempt to force a match with Supervielle’s rhyme scheme would sacrifice too much of the original’s simplicity, or at least must wait for a better talent than mine.

Hommage à la vie

C’est beau d’avoir élu
Domicile vivant
Et de loger le temps
Dans un cœur continu,
Et d’avoir vu ses mains
Se poser sur le monde
Comme sur une pomme
Dans un petit jardin,
 
D’avoir aimé la terre,
La lune et le soleil
Comme des familiers
Qui n’ont pas leurs pareils,
Et d’avoir confié
Le monde à sa mémoire
Comme un clair cavalier
À sa monture noire,
 
D’avoir donné visage
À ces mots: femme, enfants,
Et servi de rivage
À d’errants continents,
Et d’avoir atteint l’âme
À petits coups de rame
Pour ne l’effaroucher
D’une brusque approchée.
 
C’est beau d’avoir connu
L’ombre sous le feuillage
Et d’avoir senti l’âge
Ramper sur le corps nu,
Accompagné la peine
Du sang noir dans les veines
Et doré son silence
De l’étoile Patience,
 
Et d’avoir tous ces mots
Qui bougent dans la tête
De choisir les moins beaux
Pour leur faire un peu fête,
D’avoir senti la vie
Hâtive et mal aimée
De l’avoir enfermée
Dans cette poésie.

Jules Supervielle

Homage to Life

A fine thing, to have lived
In a house of flesh,
And given time a home
In a steadfast heart,
To have looked on as one’s hands
Take hold of the world
Cupping it like an apple
In a little garden,

A fine thing, to have loved
The earth, the moon and sun
As familiar friends
Whose like you have not known,
And to have entrusted
The world to memory
Like a bright cavalier
Riding his black steed,

To have given a human face
To these words: children, wife,
And to have served as shore
To wandering continents,
To have come upon the soul
With small strokes of the oars
Lest it be scared away
By an approach too brusque.

A fine thing, to have known
The shade beneath the boughs
And to have felt old age
Creep on the naked body,
Kept company with pain
Like black blood in the veins
And to have gilded silence
With the star, Patience.

And to have all these words
Bustling in one’s head,
To choose the least beautiful
To let them live a little,
To have felt this life
So hurried, so ill loved,
And to have secured it
In this poetry.