Tuesday, November 21, 2006

To Autumn by John Keats

One of Keats' great odes--the poetic equivalent of a slice of pecan pie. Happy Thanksgiving from PW.

To Autumn
by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats (1795-1821) is considered one of the great British Romantic Poets along with Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley. Though he only lived to be 26, his work and his poetics (preserved in numerous letters) remain highly respected by contemporary poets and scholars. T.S. Eliot claimed that Keats was never wrong about poetry.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Old Joke by Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro starts this poem off in a grand and classic style: with a call to the god Apollo, complete with lyre and plectrum (plectrum?), but he's only setting us up for a fall. In the sixth stanza, we plummet from the realm of gods and goddesses down to, well, a bathroom, where some very personal, and very human, flaws are on display--the gods' old joke on us. Thankfully, Shapiro isn't done. Even while casting us in such embarrassing light, he champions us--looking up from the tiled floor to, at the very least, shout back.

Old Joke
by Alan Shapiro

Radiant child of Leto, far working Lord Apollo,
with lyre in hand and golden plectrum, you sang to the gods
on Mount Olympus almost as soon as you were born.

You sang, and the Muses sang in answer, and together
your voices so delighted all your deathless elders
that their perfect happiness was made more perfect still.

What was it, though, that overwhelmed them, that suffused,
astonished, even the endless aether? Was it the freshest,
most wonderful stops of breath, the flawless intervals

and scales whose harmonies were mimicking in sound
the beauty of the gods themselves, or what you joined
to that, what you were singing of, our balked desires,

the miseries we suffer at your indifferent hands,
devastation, and bereavement, old age and death?
Far working, radiant child, what do you know about us?

Here is my father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet,
he's shouting at his penis, Piss, you! Piss! Piss!
but the penis (like the heavenly host to mortal prayers)

is deaf and dumb; here, too, my mother with her bad knee,
on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom,
pausing, saying, who are you talking to in there?

and he replies, no one you would know, sweetheart.
Supernal one, in your untested mastery,
your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome,

and needing nothing but the most calamitous
and abject stories to prove how powerful you are,
how truly free, watch them as they laugh so briefly,

godlike, better than gods, if only for a moment
in which what goes wrong is converted to a rightness,
if only because now she's hobbling back to bed

where she won't sleep, if only because he pees at last,
missing the bowl, and has to get down on his knees
to wipe it up. You don't know anything about us.

Alan Shapiro is the author of eight books of poetry. He teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Olympia by Henri Cole

In Olympia, Henri Cole uses rich language and imagery to establish a sensual and suffocating atmosphere. This brings the reader more fully into the poem, allowing him/her to feel what the speaker is feeling. The effect is similar to how a movie soundtrack draws an audience more fully into a scene.

As for the poem's meaning, it's clear that the speaker moves through a strange, hyper-sensual, and perhaps threatening, environment to reach a place of revelation. It's not clear, however, what that revelation is. It involves shedding societal definitions of fulfillment for a purely solitary one (Jenny is hardly present in the poem, and we know her only by her flippers) . The poem reminds me of a vision quest, a Native American ritual (sometimes involving hallucinogenic drugs) wherein one looks into one's soul. But what the speaker finds here is complex and not necessarily positive: the final image calls up pain, perhaps sickness, and perhaps drug abuse.

The presence of uncertainty, or mystery, in a poem, doesn't mean it doesn't work. Most great poems, in fact, leave room for interpretation. This, among other things, allows the reader to bring a measure of his/her own experience/identity into the reading. A lot of new readers of poetry are uncomfortable when everything isn't clear, but when uncertainty is done well it can be one of the real joys and strengths of the genre. The trick, as a writer, is knowing just how much uncertainty to leave.

by Henri Cole

Tired, hungry, hot, I climbed the steep slope
to town, a sultry, watery place, crawling with insects
and birds.
In the semidarkness of the mountain,
small things loomed large: a donkey urinating on a palm;
a salt-and-saliva-stained boy riding on his mother's back;
a shy roaming black Adam. I was walking on an edge.
The moments fused into one crystalline rock,
like ice in a champagne bucket. Time was plunging forward,
like dolphins scissoring open water or like me,
following Jenny's flippers down to see the coral reef,
where the color of sand, sea and sky merged,
and it was as if that was all God wanted:
not a wife, a house or a position,
but a self, like a needle, pushing in a vein.

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1956 and raised in Virginia. He received his B.A. from the College of William and Mary in 1978. Cole is currently poet-in-residence at Smith College.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Elephant is Slow to Mate by D.H. Lawrence

I know what you're thinking: of all the great poems about elephant sex, why pick this one? Ok, ok, so the subject is a little strange, but Lawrence handles it with genuine wonder and affection. He might just win you over.

A note on the poem's form: Lawrence uses short lines after the longer four-beat lines to frustrate the poem's momentum. The rhythm built up in one line stalls in the next. This, obviously, goes hand in hand with the poem's subject matter.

Lawrence is one of only a few writers to excel as a poet and a novelist (though he's more celebrated for the latter). Thomas Hardy is another. It says a lot about the differences between the genres that even the great writers had trouble making the switch.

The Elephant is Slow to Mate
by D.H. Lawrence

The elephant, the huge old beast,
is slow to mate;
he finds a female, they show no haste
they wait

for the sympathy in their vast shy hearts
slowly, slowly to rouse
as they loiter along the river-beds
and drink and browse

and dash in panic through the brake
of forest with the herd,
and sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.

So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,
and the great beasts mate in secret at last,
hiding their fire.

Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts
so they know at last
how to wait for the loneliest of feasts
for the full repast.

They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood
moves as the moon-tides, near, more near
till they touch in flood.

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) novelist, short-story writer, poet and essayist, was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England, in 1885. Though better known as a novelist, Lawrence's first-published works (in 1909) were poems, and his poetry, especially his evocations of the natural world, have since had a significant influence on many poets on both sides of the Atlantic. He believed in writing poetry that was stark, immediate and true to the mysterious inner force which motivated it. Many of his best-loved poems treat the physical and inner life of plants and animals.