Posts Tagged ‘William Blake’

Poetry as pleasure – have we forgotten the fun?

Saturday, August 15th, 2015
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stairs

He hasn’t left, either.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

I read this poem to my daughter at least two decades ago when she was a very young girl, and she was silent for a long time afterwards, thinking long and carefully. “But he wasn’t there!” she finally exclaimed. “That’s right,” I said. And then she lapsed into silence again, and pondered some more. “But then, how … ? Why did he …?”

I didn’t tell her anything about the poem. I didn’t tell her that it was written by a young man at Harvard in 1899, describing a purportedly haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Its author, Hughes Mearns, would go on to be an educator. His notions about encouraging the natural creativity of children, particularly for ages 3-8, were apparently novel at the time. According to a 1940 Current Biography: “He typed notes of their conversations; he learned how to make them forget there was an adult around; never asked them questions and never showed surprise no matter what they did or said.”

I ran across these verses by chance today and, now that my daughter is a woman of twenty-something, I emailed the poem to her and asked her if she remembered it. “Wow! Yeah! I do remember that poem!” Without analysis or explanation, the poem had lodged in her memory, undisturbed for the last two decades. The poem may not qualify for the immortals sweepstakes, and yet it was, clearly, “memorable speech.”

blakeWhich brings me to Dana Gioia‘s major essay, “Poetry as Enchantment,” in the current issue of Dark Horse. (It’s online, here.)

“In the western tradition, it has generally been assumed that the purpose of poetry is to delight, instruct, console, and commemorate. But it might be more accurate to say that poems instruct, console, and commemorate through the pleasures of enchantment. The power of poetry is to affect the emotions, touch the memory, and incite the imagination with unusual force. Mostly through the particular exhilaration and heightened sensitivity of rhythmic trance can poetry reach deeply enough into the psyche to have such impact. (How visual forms of prosody strive to achieve this mental state requires a separate inquiry.) When poetry loses its ability to enchant, it shrinks into what is just an elaborate form of argumentation. When verse casts its particular spell, it becomes the most evocative form of language. ‘Poetry,’ writes Greg Orr, ‘is the rapture of rhythmical language.’”

I doubt he had a poem like “Antigonish” in mind, and yet I think we would be unwise to dismiss a poem that lodges so securely in a child’s imagination. In the absence of religion today, it may be the closest they come to mystery. Again from Dana:

Academic critics often dismiss the responses of average readers to poetry as naïve and vague, and there is some justification for this assumption. The reactions of most readers are undisciplined, haphazard, incoherent, and hopelessly subjective. Worse yet, amateurs often read only part of a poem because a word or image sends them stumbling backwards into memory or spinning forward into the imagination. But the amateur who reads poetry from love or curiosity does have at least one advantage over the trained specialist who reads it from professional obligation. Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?

Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary.

As Rainer Maria Rilke pointed out in his “Sonnets to Orpheus”:  “Gesang ist Dasein,” or “Life is singing.” His words meant enough to Lady Gaga to that she had them tattooed on her arm, a distinctly modern kind of tribute. Dana points out that William Blake‘s “The Tyger” is the most anthologized poem in the English language – children love it, love its rhythm and its images, even though they have no idea what it means. Probably nobody does.

gaga-rilke

Gaga over Rilke. Who knew?

It is significant that the Latin word for poetry, carmen, is also the word the Romans used for a song, a magic spell, a religious incantation, or a prophecy—all verbal constructions whose auditory powers can produce a magical effect on the listener. Ancient cultures believed in the power of speech. To curse or bless someone had profound meaning. A spoken oath was binding. A spell or prophecy had potency. The term carmen still survives in modern English (via Norman French) as the word charm, and it still carries the multiple meanings of a magic spell, a spoken poem, and the power to enthrall. Even today charms survive in oral culture. Looking at a stormy sky, surely a few children still recite the spell:

Rain, rain
go away.
Come again
some other day.

Or staring at the evening sky, they whisper to Venus, the evening star:

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.

A rational adult understands that neither the star nor the spell has any physical power to transform reality in accordance with the child’s wish. But the poet knows that by articulating a wish, by giving it tangible form, the child can potentially awaken the forces of imagination and desire that animate the future. As André Breton proposed, ‘The imaginary tends to become real.’

ramandsitaEvery time I hear the first schoolyard rhyme, I remember the version I heard in India, where the children sing:

Rain, rain
go away.
Ram and Sita
Want to play.

It’s just as effective in that hemisphere. The same carmen.

I have many thoughts about Dana’s essay – I’ve barely scraped the surface. I hope to explore it in the coming days, after I’ve met a few deadlines. Meanwhile, you can catch up by reading Dana Gioia’s whole essay here.

Happy 256th birthday, William Blake!

Thursday, November 28th, 2013
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William_BlakeIt’s Thanksgiving, and Hannukah… but who remembers that on this day 256 years ago, William Blake (1757-1827) was born on Broadwick Street in Soho?

A few of us do, and we thought it would be fun to celebrate with a few lesser known images, since he was recognized as an artist and engraver long before he was known as a poet.  We’ll begin with the 1820 portrait at left, by his friend John Linnell.

We continue below with Blake’s illustration for Canto I of Dante‘s Inferno.  Why?  Because we like Dante (see here and here, for starters) and, well, we also like lions.  We also include his illustration of “David Delivered out of Many Waters,” because it’s fantastic, in the literal sense of the word, and also because we like seraphims, with two of their six wings crossed underneath them like they’re waiting on a street corner for a bus.  (Blake seems to think they are cherubim, but we know better.)

Meanwhile, Time Out in London hasn’t forgotten the anniversary. Volunteers of Southbank Mosaics artisan studio have created 28 mosaics in tribute to the poet, which visitors can see on Centaur Street in Lambeth. The mosaics, under the tunnels near Waterloo station, show ten years’ worth of Blake’s output, created while he lived on nearby Hercules Road.  Check it out here.

Now go back to your Thanksgiving drinking and eating and belching – but spare a few thoughts, anyway, for the ur-poet of the Industrial Revolution, who, through words and images, showed us the new horrors and timeless possibilities for man in a bold new era.

blake-inferno

David Delivered out of Many Waters circa 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827

Borges in the classroom – from Beowulf to Blake

Monday, August 12th, 2013
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borges

When Jorge Luis Borges taught English at the University of Buenos Aires, he delivered his lectures off the cuff.   It was a “you had to be there” situation – until now.  Students have offered their tapes of the lectures, and editors reconstructed the course. Voilà! Twenty-five lectures, all from 1966, have been published in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature.

According to Publishers Weekly:

“This mesmerizing volume preserves the eclectic, erudite, and charismatic style of Argentine writer Borges … Borges moves effortlessly between subjects, almost overloading the senses with facts, digressions, and interpretations. While the lectures are not all equally compelling, there is enough here to keep the reader moving forward, and Borges’s delight and passion for every author shines brightly. As the afterword explains: ‘What Borges tries to do as a professor, more than prepare his students for exams, is excite and entice them to read the works and discover the authors.’ Over 40 years later, he is still achieving that goal.”

Here’s Borges speaking on “the Wolf” and William Blake:

Borges2

No notes, no teleprompter, no nuthin.

On Beowulf –

The name in itself is a metaphor that means “bee-wolf,” in other words “bear.” It is truly a long poem: it contains a little fewer than 3,200 lines, all of which follow the law of Germanic versification: alliteration. Its language is intricate; it makes constant use of what is called “hyper-baton,” that is, the alteration of the logical sequence of words in a sentence…. It was previously believed that the style of Beowulf belonged to a primitive, barbaric stage of poetic creation. Subsequently, however, a Germanist discovered that lines from the Aeneid were woven into the poem, and that elsewhere, passages from that epic poem were brought in, then interspersed in the text. Hence, we have realized that we are not dealing with a barbaric poem, but rather with the erudite, baroque experiment of a priest, that is, someone who had access to Latin texts, and who studied them…. The Germanist [Neil] Ker has criticized Beowulf, for he considers the plot to be childish.4 The idea of the hero who kills an ogre, that ogre’s mother, and then a dragon, belongs to a children’s tale. But these elements are, in fact, inevitable; they are there because they must be. Once he chose that legend, the author could not possibly omit the ogre, the witch, or the dragon. The public expected them, because it knew the legend. Moreover, these monsters were symbols of the powers of evil; they were taken very seriously by that audience.

On William Blake – 

William_Blake_by_1804

A Swedenborg fan, for sure.

William Blake, on the contrary, remains not only outside the pseudo-classic school (to use the most elevated term), and that is the school represented by [Alexander] Pope, but he also remains outside the romantic movement. He is an individual poet, and if there is anything we can connect him to—for, as Rubén Darío said, there is no literary Adam—we would have to connect him to much more ancient traditions: to the Cathar heretics in the south of France, the Gnostics in Asia Minor and Alexandria in the first century after Christ, and of course to the great and visionary Swedish thinker, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Because Blake was an isolated individual, his contemporaries considered him a bit mad, and perhaps he was. He was a visionary—as Swedenborg had been, of course—and his works circulated very little during his lifetime. Moreover, he was better known as an engraver and a draftsman than as a writer…. Blake’s work is extraordinarily difficult to read because he created a theological system. In order to express it, he had the idea of inventing a mythology, and critics don’t agree on what it means. There is a poem by Blake—it is included in all the anthologies—where this problem is expressed, but of course is not resolved…. In Songs of Experience, Blake deals directly with the problem of evil, and he symbolizes it, in the manner of the bestiaries of the Middle Ages, as a tiger. The poem, which consists of five or six stanzas, is called “The Tyger,” and was illustrated by the author.

Read more excerpts here.

“Heaven is the third vodka” — Czesław Miłosz

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
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So far the events celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary have been marked by a special warmth and conviviality, almost like a family reunion – but nowhere was that impression more pronounced than at last Wednesday’s event at Wheeler Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.  No surprise.  Berkeley was the poet’s home for four decades.

Thanks to the notorious Berkeley parking — a university parking lot meter that would not take cards, not take bills, and, once I got about three dozen quarters, wouldn’t take those either (nor return them) – I arrived about 45 minutes late.

Adam Zagajewski was saying “Has he grasped the totality? … Well, yes.”

“It’s in ruins, because totality is in ruins, but it’s still a totality.”  I wasn’t quite sure what the “it” was – the world?  the Nobel laureate’s oeuvre? — nor did I get more than the gist of what he was trying to say, having missed the context, but it was vintage Zagajewski, so I pass it on.

“The world does not belong to any single poet,” said Adam.

Two...

Robert Hass was the emcee for the event, and commented on Miłosz’s stunning memory, and also on the unusual and sometimes dark connections it made.  A singing of “happy birthday” would remind Miłosz of the crematoria at Auschwitz, and crematoria might remind him of strawberry jam.

Berkeley is also the home of the poet’s son, Anthony (or Antoni) Milosz.  I met him once before, several years ago at the San Francisco memorial organized by poet Jane Hirshfield, but the resemblance to his father did not strike me nearly so forcefully then.  On Wednesday evening, it gobsmacked me.

Toni has translated his father’s last poems (Wiersze ostatnie was published by Znak in 2006), to be published with the paperback selected this fall as Selected and Last Poems.

The younger Miłosz said that he was aiming at “sound translation,” and felt too often translations of his father’s poems “intellectual content dominates.”

He noted the rhythm of his father’s work, and that, among musical instruments, Miłosz favored the bass and drum – “though he claimed to like the harpsichord and more refined instruments.”

“My father’s poetry is immensely direct,” he said, adding that directness pits it against current trends.

He read his father’s late poem “In Honor of Father Baka,” which he described as “funky, short-lined” poems in the baroque manner.  It’s wry and mysterious – and I am looking forward to the November 15 publication.

Peter Dale Scott reiterated the claim that Czesław Miłosz was “perhaps the greatest poet of our time,” and called him  “a poet of radical hope” in a way “not seen since Schiller and Mickiewicz.” Miłosz saw poetry as “a home for incorrigible hope” — another feature of his work that was “in marked contrast to the times.”

Peter ranked Miłosz with poets from Dante to Blake, the poets who were “enlarging human consciousness.”  He discussed Miłosz’s poem, “Dante,” which concludes:

“The inborn and the perpetual desire
Del deiformo regno — for a God-like domain,
A realm or a kingdom. There is my home.
I cannot help it. I pray for light,
For the inside of the eternal pearl, L’eterna margarita.”

Miłosz, said Peter, was “obsessed with the need to reach the ‘second space’ – the world of paradise and perfection beyond this world we inhabit.”

Peter called Miłosz a “leading visionary of his time, looking into the open space ahead.”

Jane Hirshfield noted that for Miłosz, “everything was I and Thou, everything was personal.”

Most of the evenings speakers at the front of the room arrived via literature, said journalist Mark Danner. “I come here through real estate.”  (That’s not quite true; he was Miłosz’s friend for several years before he bought the poet’s house on Grizzly Peak.)

He described the roughstone chimney and the roughstone path of the house that has been compared to a cottage from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.  He also remembered “Czesław’s deer.”  “The deer populate the place,” even though Miłosz would chase them away from the garden they viewed as a salad bar.

Bingo! (But it's not Żubrówka...but would you notice by the third round?)

One morning he recalled seeing more deer on the lawn than he had ever seen before – over a dozen, as he recalled.  Bob Hass’s voice was on his answerphone – “Mark, I don’t want to leave a message on a machine…” Miłosz had died in Krakow.

Mark thumbed through a book Miłosz had inscribed to him, and was startled to read the reference he had apparently forgotten, the inscription “in the name of all generations of deer.”

Bob Hass’s wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, recalled the Monday translation sessions Bob shared with Miłosz — sometimes spending the session working on a single line.  Bob recalled Miłosz appearing on their doorstep, with the command, “Vodka, Brenda!”  A bottle was always in the freezer, waiting. I hope it was Żubrówka.

Brenda was, for a time, interested in the knotty issues the Gnostics raised, and asking Miłosz, “What is heaven?  What is it like?”  To which the poet replied:

“Brenda, heaven is the third vodka.”

“Too big to be swallowed”: Robert Hass, Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh remember Czesław Miłosz

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011
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Clare signs books after the event (Photo: David A. Goldfarb)

The apocalyptic scene enveloping Japan brings to mind Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” written in Warsaw, 1944, during another kind of apocalypse.  The poem ends with a white-haired old man binding his tomatoes, who would be a prophet but is “too busy to be a prophet,” repeating:

No other end of the world will there be.
No other end of the world will there be.

Sound wrong?  According to translator Clare Cavanagh, speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night, it’s a new kind of right.  The line is usually translated “There will be no other end of the world.”  But the original Polish has an inversion that doesn’t always work well in English.  Antoni Miłosz has translated the poem, keeping the original inversion.  I kinda like it — the poem ends with a dactylic chant.

Clare was one of three heavy-hitters speaking about Miłosz that night and reading his poems – Robert Hass and Adam Zagajewski were the others.

Clare pointed out that, although Miłosz celebrates the rural Lithuania childhood, it is at least part an invented one.  In fact, his father was a civil engineer working in Russia, and the six-year-old experienced the Russian Revolution firsthand and traveled widely.  Movement was as much a characteristic of his upbringing as the stability he mythologized.

The venue: 92nd Street Y

She recalled the long theological discussions that I mentioned in my post several days ago.  She wouldn’t describe them in the essay she wrote for An Invisible Rope – and she wouldn’t describe them Monday night either.  I hope her silence on this subject is not permanent. “I’m not going to repeat what he said,” she finished, “but I keep wondering what he knows now.”

Bob Hass, wearing a heavy bandage on his nose, told the audience he hadn’t been in a fight, but advised his listeners to wear sunscreen.  He recalled a poet “tormented by how inexpressible experience was.”

"Please wear sunscreen"

Bob quoted Milosz, “War is only nature speeded up.”

The Berkeley prof recalled approaching Miłosz to discuss an anti-nuclear movement on campus, only to be told,  “I am against anti-nukes.”

“Blue hair?  Why does no one protest blue hair?” the elder poet responded. Beautiful young women become old ones with blue hair (note to young ‘uns: blue-tinted rinse was a common for elderly women in the 20th century).  “Who protests?”

“The true enemy of man is generalization,” Hass recalled Milosz saying.  His response to generalization was memory, said Clare. Miłosz’s memory was “beyond human – except that it’s most perfectly human, the way memory ought to be – how it should be in heaven.”

Hass recalled traveling in rural California, and on a whim going into an old secondhand shop – or rather, he said, it was as if he were drawn to it.  He found a thick book, in Polish, on the history of women’s underwear.  He plopped the $40 for the book and gave it to Milosz.

“I do not know that I have ever seen him so happy,” he said.  Suddenly, he could identify the underclothes he had seen on his aunt’s clothesline during his childhood.

"to glorify things as they are"

Adam Zagajewski spoke last – the perils of having a name that begins with “Z,” he said.

He noted Miłosz’s many contradictions.  He was drawn to the notion of “secret knowledge,” Adam said. “He craved initiation and looked for gurus” — for example, Miłosz’s influential kinsman Oskar Milosz and the man called “Tiger” in Native Realm. At the same time, he had “a longing for ignorance and innocence,” said Adam – which accounts for his attraction to William Blake, in part.

Ivan Turgenev said that poets are either rivers, absorbing everything in their current, or mountains, overlooking the world from an elevated plane of existence.  According to Adam, Miłosz decided he wanted to be “like a river and a mountain.”  The result?  A poet “too big to be swallowed,” he said.

Though Miłosz “loathed propaganda poetry,” Adam said he walked “the narrow road between pure poetry and poetry engagée, which he thought a mistake.”

In his restless questioning of existence, Miłosz took on God — “God being the strongest enemy that was,” said Adam, and objected to Blaise Pascal’s wager, which Adam said, “was like a shopkeeper saying it’s better to save some money because times can be hard.”

Adam concluded, “This is his religious vocation – to glorify things as they are.” And in this mission he was truly omnivorous. His poetic hubris – wanting to understand everything, wanting to experience everything – has caused his eclipse in current Poland.  Will his reputation wax again?

“I don’t worry.  I am totally convinced he will return.  He will have the last word.  Not I.” (Adam’s “Z” notwithstanding.)

David Lang’s postmodern passion: “It is not a pretty story”

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010
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Just in time for Christmas (Photo: Peter Serling)

I’m not always au courant with the latest musical offerings —  so I missed David Lang‘s Little Match Girl Passion when it won the Pulitzer in 2008.  Only when I interviewed and wrote about Lang did I familiarize myself with this stunning composition.  A friend of mine, Tim Page of the Washington Post‘s said of it, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new … composition” and that it was “unlike any music I know.” It’s in keeping with the darker side of the season, a postmodern take on the Hans Christian Anderson story that inspired it.

“It is not a pretty story,” says Lang, who wrote the text.  True. It’s always surprised me that the tale — all of two-and-a-half pages in my 1906 edition published by J.M. Dent & Co. in London — is viewed as something to be read to children.  Lang rightly observes that “it has that shocking combination of danger and morality that many famous children’s stories do.”  And in Lang’s sensitive hands, the story comes shockingly alive once again: a poor young girl tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on New Year’s Eve, fears returning to the impoverished home where she is beaten by her father, and freezes to death while having visions of her grandmother, “the only person who had ever been kind to her,” as Anderson explains in the story.

Knew poverty from the inside out

“Through it all she somehow retains her Christian purity of spirit,” Lang writes.  You can hear the whole Passion on Lang’s website, here.

Anderson knew what he was talking about: “When Hans Christian Andersen was a child, he was almost as poor as the ‘little match-seller’ in one of his own tales,” Ernest Rhys writes in an editor’s note to my edition.  He “almost starved” as a teenager in Copenhagen, and his early poem “The Dying Child” earned him lasting fame.

Lang writes in the notes that accompany the CD, “What drew me to ‘The Little Match Girl’ is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.”

In other words, Anderson’s work demands a return to radical innocence.  That dark insistence is at the heart of this short, incomprehensible work.   Other Industrial Revolution writers —  William Blake in his poems,  Charles Dickens in his stories — would have understood.  Without it, the story is mere pathos and sentimentality.  Radical innocence is a to-the-death kind of thing,  as Anderson knew, as Blake knew.  (That tenacious survivor, Czesław Miłosz, tries to recover it in “The World” cycle of poems.  I don’t think he does so convincingly; clearly, it was the Eden he longed to return to.)

“A Passion,” of course, is about suffering — typically, the passion not only tells the story, but also comments upon it, giving the tale a “powerful inevitability,” said Lang.   It also includes texts from other sources to tell its story (Lang borrows from Genesis, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes). It embraces different p.o.v.s — the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock, or remorse, as well as other texts altogether.  These tools place us in the middle of the action, rather than allowing us the emotional as well as temporal distance of bystanders.

Lang modeled his own Passion on Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion — “what has always interested me, however, is that Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus.”

Merry Christmas to all.

(Listen, at least, to the opening “Come, Daughter” piece here.)