Monday, December 18, 2017

The Pasture - Robert Frost

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may) :
I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother.  It's so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too.

It has been unfortunately too long since I posted last, friends.  I am less able to find time for poetry and reflection than I like.  My love for it has not diminished, but many days I feel unable to engage with it and share it.  Often I feel as though I am not sharp enough at the end of my day to provide any useful commentary or exegesis, but something inside told me that I simply had to try again.  I hope you will read along with me and enjoy.

Today, I've chosen a short Robert Frost poem.  I was inspired by a piece of music I sang recently with a choir, which used this text as its basis.  There's a simplicity and patience at the heart of these words, and they spoke today especially of my need to slow down, relax, and read a poem a day.  There is also something quintessentially New England about the pastoral setting here, and having somehow made my way entirely around the globe and back to New England, it speaks to me.

Often, Frost's poetry fails to speak to me.  This poem, however, has a quiet warmth and patience, and serves as an invitation to stop and partake of the world around us.  The poem is presented as a dialogue between a first person narrator and a second person, the poetic "you."  One can either read this as Frost talking to us directly, or talking another person at the scene.  To me, it makes little difference, and I feel the effect is the same.

The narrator is simply going out to rake leaves away at the pasture spring.  They "sha'n't be gone long."  What they see is simple: clear water, a young calf.  But the way in which Frost presents it as an invitation brings forward a quiet warmth, a tenderness.  It's the tenderness of the young calf so slight it "totters" when its mother licks it.  It's the loving tenderness of the repeated invitation: "You come too."  What better than to enjoy this simple scene with another?  It's the earnest, straightforward desire to share the simplest things with another.  It's like a quiet, warmly extended hand.  This poem evokes to me the warmth one feels in the cheeks on a crisp winter morning, when you return indoors from the outdoors.

Also worth mentioning is the exquisite attention Frost pays to rhyme.  The center lines of each quatrain rhyme, and each quatrain ends with, "You come too."  It's simple but the effect is such that it elevates the poem beyond the ordinary.  It's what has made the poem stick with me, and its warmth is what has driven me to post here once again.  I hope sincerely that I've helped make this poem sensible, and that its invitation to share can touch you as it has touched me. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

I Have To Tell You - Dorothea Grossman

I have to tell you,
there are times when
the sun strikes me
like a gong,
and I remember everything,
even your ears.

This wonderful short poem from Dorothea Grossman feels like a natural companion to yesterday's Raymond Carver poem.  This captures the wonderful, heartbreaking feeling of remembering every detail of someone you loved.  I like that the poem avoids clich├ęs.  It's not a lightning strike that jogs memory, but the sun.  The memory's strike is deep and resonant, like a gong.  The memory reverberates through the entire body, even your ears. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

For Tess - Raymond Carver

Out on the Strait the water is whitecapping
as they say here.  It's rough, and I'm glad
I'm not out there.  Glad I fished all day
on Morse Creek, casting a red Daredevil back
and forth.  I didn't catch anything.  No bites
even, not one.  But it was okay.  It was fine!
I carried your dad's pocketknife and was followed
for a while by a dog its owner called "Dixie."
At times I felt so happy I had to quit
fishing.  Once I lay on the bank with my eyes closed,
listening to the sound the water made,
and to the wind in the tops of the trees.  The same wind
that blows out on the Strait, but a different wind, too.
For a while I even let myself imagine I had died -
and that was all right, at least for a couple
of minutes, until it really sank in: Dead.
As I was lying there with my eyes closed,
just after I'd imagined what it might be like
if in fact I never got up again, I thought of you.
I opened my eyes then and got right up
and went back to being happy again.
I'm grateful to you, you see.  I wanted to tell you.

I know Raymond Carver primarily as a writer of short stories, as I imagine do most of you.  He played a significant role in reinvigorating the genre in the mid 1980s, and his frank, unadorned style gave us glimpses into difficult lives.  He engenders empathy, not sympathy, which I feel is an important distinction often overlooked by authors meaning us to identify with their characters.  The specific attention to experiential detail in this poem give us a concrete sense of feeling, and rather than feeling for the narrator, we feel with them.

By my reading, I get the impression that the character of this poem has skipped out on difficult work in order to spend the day wasting time.  I would say fishing, but he seems fairly unconcerned to have not caught anything.  Pleased, even.  The two references the narrator makes to "the Strait" make me think he works at sea, perhaps as a fisherman or some sort of deck hand.  He remarks how glad he is to not be there, on the rough seas.  The whole poem is delivered, as if talking to the titular Tess.  Clearly, this is a person close to the narrator.  After all, he has Tess' father's pocketknife with him.

That sort of small detail invites into the poem a type of intimacy.  We're experiencing what feels to me like the peculiar melancholy of a man who is bad at expressing himself.  By the end of the poem we get there, but first we meditate on death.  That the narrator goes so quickly from his feigned, carefree, fishing induced euphoria to laying down and wondering what it would be like to be dead shows that there's some sort of deep disturbance in his heart.  Just when he thinks it wouldn't be so bad to be dead, really, he remembers Tess.  Upon her remembrance, he sits right up, happy again.

What are we to make of this?  To me, it feels as though the narrator carries great respect for Tess.  H says as much in the devastatingly clear last line, "I'm grateful to you, you see.  I wanted to tell you."  This makes me wonder; why could he not tell Tess but in a poem?  Is she gone?  Moved on to a new romance, or beyond the grave?  Who can say?  I find the direct expression of gratitude after a long meandering thought process to be refreshingly brave.  Its directness touches me.  I know that there are many people in my life to whom I wish I know how to so directly admit my gratitude, or love, or apology.  I'm sure if we examine our feelings and relationships, we can all feel that in some way.

I love that in Carver's poetry and prose.  He finds a way to cut right to the heart of things, to make you feel with rather than for.  The poem may be For Tess, but it serves as empathetic experience for us all.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Early Morning - Billy Collins

I don't know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them
on the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I'm at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

This is the way it was in school.
No one would admit to winging a piece of chalk
past the ear of Sister Mary Alice,
so the whole class would have to stay after.
And likewise in the army, or at least
in movies involving the army.  All weekend
privileges were revoked until the man
who snuck the women and the keg of beer
into the barracks last night stepped forward.

Of course, it's hard to get them to stay
in one place let alone hold their attention
for more than two seconds.  The black one
turns tail and pads into the other room,
and the kitten is kneading a soft throw
like crazy, pathetically searching for a nipple.

Meanwhile, it's overcast, not pewter
or anything like that, just overcast period,
and I haven't had a sip of coffee yet.
You know, when I told that interviewer
early morning was my favorite time to write,
I was not thinking of this particular morning.

I must have had another kind of morning in mind,
one featuring a peignoir, some oranges, and sunlight.
But now there's nothing else to do
but open the back door a crack for the black one,
who enjoys hunting and killing lizards,
while blocking the kitten with one foot,
the little cottontail fucker who's still too young to go out.

Happy New Year, friends!  It isn't every day that a poem makes me laugh out loud, but not every poet can be Billy Collins, who as I've stated on multiple occasions, is my favorite living author.  I felt it fitting to start a new year of poetry blogging with some levity, especially seeing as I received Collins' most recent collection of poems for Christmas (thanks mom!). 

Collins has a unique talent for capturing in words the exact tone of a moment.  Anyone who has ever cohabitated with a cat knows exactly the absurdity of trying to lecture a cat for their wrongdoings.  I would say cat owners, but let's be honest, as Collins is, we really only share our space with them.  What this poem, and really all of Collins' poetry does so well, is capture in clear, relatable terms the wonderful absurdities of the mundane.

Our everyday lives are fundamentally mundane.  We rise, eat, clean ourselves, dress, and engage in some sort of occupation.  We repeat this nearly daily.  We are creatures of habit, and but for small variations, there is little true difference day to day.  I do not mean to depress, but rather to zoom out the viewpoint on a typical day.  What Collins does so well here is capture the humor that permeates the human experience.  His cats messed up his things, he's mad at them, he lets one out because what else can you do?  Laugh at yourself and move on.

When I got to the final line, "the little cottontail fucker who's still too young to go out" I burst out laughing.  Partly, it was the unexpectedness of the cursing.  Collins typically doesn't employ much foul language in his writing, so it came as a bit of a shock.  More than that was how relatable it is.  My parents' cat, Yoda (who I still think of as mine, despite not living there) is commonly referred to as "asshole cat" by my father and me.  Any cat person knows what it's like to lovingly curse out a pet. 

Collins expertly captures those moments of everyday life that make life worthwhile.  He sees and communicates the poetry present in every day life.  It's a simple poem, but it's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.  Right now, I think that's what we all need.  I will do my best to bring you more poetry this year.  I made a paltry eight posts in 2016, and I have resolved to do better this year.  I hope to laugh, smile, cry, ponder, and read much more poetry with you all in 2017.  Thank you all for your continued support, and please continue to seek out the poetry and beauty in your everyday life.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Story - Chris Hart

A few words before I begin in earnest, friends. 

First, an apology.  I have not posted much poetry in 2016, and I feel my life has been worse for it.  This has been a trying year, and I have not weathered it with the grace and serenity I strive to provide with this blog.  I let the difficulties of daily life take up the majority of my mental energies, leaving little room for much else.  I heard many wonderful words of support from many of you during the year, and for that, I am truly thankful.  I hope to serve you all better in 2017.

Secondly, this is not a poem that I share today.  Rather, it's a story of mine, one that I have not told to very many people.  As the title implies, it is a Christmas story.  I've held off on telling it because I was unsure if I could reach anyone with it.  Today, though, I have decided to cast off my doubts and write with the bravery of the season in mind, in hopes that you can feel something essential: warmth, love, and value.  Merry Christmas, friends.

This is a story about how one tiny thing can mean the whole world.  It is about the transformative power of Christmas, and how you have more value than you think.

A little over three years ago, I felt, for the first time in my life, truly lonely.  At the time, I was living in South Korea, working as an English teacher.  It was a marvelous experience, and overall one of the best decisions I feel I have ever made in my life.  It was, however, not without its difficulties.

When I got the job, I was placed into the countryside province of Gyeongsangbuk-do.  Climate-wise, it is similar to my native Connecticut: cold, snowy winters, rainy spring, complete with flowers, sweltering summer, and beautiful, bountiful fall.  Topographically, the land is channels of flat land around rivers surrounded by dramatic, sharply rising mountains.  The hills are sudden, and create a wonderful zig-zag skyline.  Population-wise, the county where I lived, Uiseong, is home to about 70,000 people.  My town, Tamni, is a quiet farming town of about 4,000 people.  I came to love it very much, and I miss it very much now.

Three years ago, though, it was December, and bitterly cold.  I had just disembarked from the train station in my town, and had just passed through the station doors to begin my walk home.  I lived no more than half a mile from the station, so it was never a long walk.  The station itself was a cute little building.  It consisted of little more than a ticket counter, lobby, and bathroom, and had one platform for both tracks.  The building was shaped like a little castle, which I always found charming. 

That night, I was returning from a nearby city, having done some Christmas shopping.  I had gone into the Western style supermarket a town over to buy baking supplies for the oven I had recently purchased, and to pick up more Christmas cards.  You see, this being my first Christmas away from home, I was making a real effort to make my life feel Christmas-y.  I had begun writing cards to friends and family back home overseas at the start of the month, and was looking forward to baking cookies for the friends I had made since arriving.

It is worth mentioning now that Christmas in Korea is quite different to it in the USA, or to most European nations.  Whereas Christmas here has come to be a large commercial holiday, and also a general season of goodwill towards others, in Korea, it is two distinct holidays.  One of those is for couples, for whom Christmas is like another Valentine's Day.  It's a day to spend in the arms of a lover, with a gift meant to show affection.  The other is the religious holiday, in which Christ's Nativity is celebrated, quietly.  There is no long break from work or cultural celebration, just one day off in December.  Knowing this, I was trying my best to feel the goodwill and love that I personally associate with Christmas, though in all honesty, I was struggling. 

Emotions are fickle things by nature.  I do not know why, but as I stepped outside of that proud little castle-shaped train station, I felt completely isolated.  The town was, as always, quiet.  It was about 10:30pm, and there wasn't another person in sight, not even in the station.  Maybe it was the piercing cold, or the strident whistle of the winter wind through the bare tree branches, but my mind turned inward on itself.  Feelings of alone-ness turned into feelings of loneliness, into which crept doubt and self-loathing.

I suspect I am not alone in this, but the night can turn my own worst thoughts back inward.  I began to meditate on loneliness as I began my solitary walk back to my solitary apartment.  Under normal circumstances, when I feel lonely, I can easily remind myself that I am not alone, and that there are people who value me for nothing apart from my own self.  Maybe it was the unusual cold that pierced right through me, despite my thick woolen jacket, but I could conjure no such thoughts of reassurance.

The cold and dark seemed to tell me that not only was I alone, but I deserved to be alone.  My worst fears about myself as a person seemed in that moment to be Gospel truth.  Of course I was lonely!  I didn't know how to fall in love, and when I did, I never knew how to show it.  It was right for me to be cold and alone on Christmas.  My mind was racing with every time I had somehow perceived myself to fail, too be too much of one thing, not enough of another.  It was as if the cold was confirming to me every doubt I had ever held, ratifying every fear I had.  Surely I was unlovable!  You fled from your failures at home and look at you, still alone, still sad, the wind shrieked.

Here you are, alone in a cold, dark down on the opposite side of the world, desperately trying to convince yourself that it's Christmas.  A season of goodwill among men, and love?  Hah!  There is no such thing, the cold pressed.  There is only me, and you, and no one for you here or anywhere.  It was an unbearable moment.  I felt further away from any person on the planet than I ever have.  I simultaneously missed my family, friends from home, and anything on which I could anchor a feeling of belonging, or self-validation.  Some confluence of environment, weather, and my own emotional state had conspired to convince me briefly that I was deservedly alone, nothing more than a list of things I could do for other people.

No more than four minutes could have passed, but I felt all of these things as deeply as I have ever felt anything before in my life.  Then, something wonderful happened.  I looked up.  Above a local church's door, lining the jetty, was a single string of white Christmas lights.  They meant everything to me.  It was a familiar sight when I needed it most, and had not been there earlier in the day when I took the train into the city.  A single string of Christmas lights made me feel, no, believe, that I belonged.

All of the feelings of the season flooded into me, and I was suffused with incredible warmth.  All the fears of loneliness I had were dispelled by those lights.  They let me know that I was not alone, but that the essential goodness of Christmas transcends any cultural trappings.  It lives in knowing that you are loved, and you are, no matter how you think or feel about it.  You matter as much as anyone else and should never deny yourself that knowledge. 

I know it sounds silly, but in that moment, that one string of Christmas lights meant the world to me.  I knew in that moment that my fears were unfounded.  They represented a bright world of possibility, a world redeemed by love, the true meaning of Christmas.  It is the bravery to see yourself as someone worthy of love.

Having looked up at those wondrous, beautiful, ordinary lights, I continued my walk home, unaware of the bitter cold.  I went into my apartment, put Christmas music on, and began baking cookies, singing along with the music as I went.  From an outside appearance, all I did that day was walk from the train station to my house, maybe slightly slower than normal.  It was a mundane journey, over a short distance, and for no remarkable purpose.  To me though, it has stood these past three years as a realization of what the Christmas spirit means to me.  It is giving unselfishly with the knowledge that everyone is as human as you, and as deserving of love and goodwill as you, and that you are as deserving as anyone else.

I went on to have an absolutely wonderful Christmas that year.  I woke before dawn to Skype with my family, celebrating Christmas.  After that, I took the bus into the neighboring town, where I volunteered at an orphanage with friends, giving gifts to the children and singing songs with them.  That evening, I went to a friend's house, where we all prepared a delicious Christmas dinner, and celebrated one another's company late into the night with food, wine, laughter, and endless goodwill.  I will never forget that experience, and I hope to hold those feelings in my heart's memory for the rest of my life.

Something so small as a string of lights in the dark, cold, foreign night unlocked for me the goodness of the season.  It is the eternal Christmas triumph of a light in the dark, a Hope for a hopeless world.  Of course, I knew that those horrible emotions I felt were not grounded in reality.  But we do not live only in a world of facts.

I do not know if my story can speak to you, reader.  Maybe it is too personal, or too general.  I did say I was unsure about sharing it.  But when I felt some bitterly cold weather the other night, this memory came back to me.  It is a story I have only told to a few people, because I was not sure if I could explain it properly.  I hope I have, reader, and I hope that you know that you have value, and are loved.  Look up, and look for light.  It is Christmas, after all.

Thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas.  I hope to talk to you all much more in the new year.

Friday, August 26, 2016

[My own heart let me more have pity on] - Gerard Manley Hopkins

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room, let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather - as skis
Betweenpie mountains - lights a lovely mile.

Where to even begin with this magnificent poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins?  At its core, this is a poem about accepting the idea that we all deserve grace and love, no matter how we feel about it.  For Hopkins, this would have been Grace with a capital G, as he was a devout Catholic, and it is impossible to read the poem without considering the relationship with God Hopkins sought to cultivate.  Still, even for those of us who are not religious, I feel the central themes of the poem resonate so strongly with many of our modern concerns.

The first stanza of the poem is a plea from the narrator to the self to forgive the self.  Who among us is not our own harshest critic?  I know that personally, I have many negative things to say to myself when I look inward.  We all do.  Hopkins is asking to have more pity on himself, to recognize his own worth.  When Hopkins reaches out for this comfort, he feels blind.

Pity and Grace, Mercy, Forgiveness, these are the things Hopkins seeks.  For him, the source of these things is in God.  "Soul" he addresses, "call off thoughts awhile."  By opening up to God, Hopkins is leaving himself open to "God knows what."  That what Hopkins lovingly describes as "skies betweenpie mountains - lights a lovely mile."  It's a bright and optimistic image.  By leaving those thoughts of trying to offer the self pity behind, and inviting Grace in, the future becomes limitless.

Looking at it in a more secular light, I think we can take the first stanza to heart.  We can always find reasons to criticize ourselves and deny ourselves the dignity afforded to all by way of nature.  We mustn't.  That first line resonates deeply with me.  "My own heart let me have more pity on."  Indeed, let me have more pity on myself.  Recognizing your own worth is a radial act, and whether you think you need the divine to do so or not is up to the individual. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

In a Garden - Amy Lowell

Gushing from the mouths of stone men
To spread at ease under the sky
In granite-lipped basins,
Where iris dabble their feet
And rustle to a passing wind,
The water fills the garden with its rushing,
In the midst of the quiet of the close-clipped lawns.

Damp smell the ferns in tunnels of stone,
Where trickle and plash the fountains,
Marble fountains, yellowed with much water.

Splashing down moss-tarnished steps
It falls, the water;
And the air is throbbing with it;
With its gurgling and running;
With its leaping, and deep, cool murmur.

And I wished for night and you.
I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool,
White and shining in the silver-flecked water.

While the mood rode over the garden,
High in the arch of night,
And the scent of the lilacs was heavy with stillness.

Night and the water, and you in your whiteness, bathing!

I've posted Amy Lowell's poetry a number of times before here, and I make no secret of my admiration or her direct style and clear descriptions of specific scenes.  Broadly speaking, she's of the Imagist school of poets.  Imagist poetry grew out of modernism, and according to T.E. Hulme, an early proponent of the style, is meant to "use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word."  Imagism can be thought of as a reaction against romanticism, or poetry that was overly abstract.

While that makes Imagism sound somewhat clinical, I think it's clear from the above poem that what Imagism necessitates is an incredible skill for creating a precise picture in the reader's mind's eye.  How easy is it to picture the garden scene Lowell describes?  The fountains are describe in precise detail, and when talking about a beautiful scene, what language can be more appropriate than the exact word? 

Imagist poetry also does not rule out the romantic or sentimental in its quest for clarity.  Lowell sits in the garden and pines for her lover.  She "wished for night and you" and described her lover "white and shining in the silver-flecked water."  Imagist poetry does not seek to moralize a given image, or to construct an elaborate allegory or parallel.  Rather, it presents a scene, as if crystallized in amber, and allows us to examine it.  I feel like I can walk around Lowell's poems, as if they are a perfect diorama that I may inhabit.

The advantage to this sort of poetry, in my opinion, is that it allows great room for relation and empathy.  I feel like I, too, can sit in this garden and can so easily imagine a past lover of mine in the moonlight, and I feel so clearly the tug on Lowell's heartstrings as she wishes for "night and you."  The poem is like a painting in how it captures the imagination.  Specificity is not antithetical to personal interaction with a poem, or imaginative thought.  Just as a photograph can capture your heart so too can a highly focused poem.  The beauty of the scene and the clear, direct sentiment of missing a lover at its heart make this a true gem, and one that I plan on memorizing.  I want always to carry it with me.