This Is The Meaning of Life

Delmore Schwartz
Delmore Schwartz in New York City

The Beautiful American Word, Sure

by Delmore Schwartz (1913 – 1966)

The beautiful American word, Sure
As I have come into a room, and touch
The lamp’s button, and the light blooms with such
Certainty where the darkness loomed before,

As I care for what I do not know, and care
Knowing for little she might not have been,
And for how little she would be unseen,
The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear.

Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever’s near,

And hope for day when the whole world has that face:
For what assures her present every year?
In dark accidents the mind’s sufficient grace.


Delmore Schwartz lived and died in New York City.  In between were stints as student or adjunct professor in Madison, Wisconsin, Harvard and Syracuse University. New York city and his parents divorce loomed as a character in his stories and poetry, his sonnet 0 City, City a far cry from Wordsworth’s love affair with London.  Schwartz seemed to bear New York on his shoulders, filling his mind with literature in its public libraries as a young man, surrounding him with artists and intellectuals and then he spit it out after having chewed on it sufficiently for 40 years.  It is said that Schwartz paved the way for Saul Bellows to be Saul Bellows.  If true, its damnable praise that his legacy was being an originality that allowed the next Jewish writer to prosper for excelling even further in defining the loneliness of trying to assimilate as an outsider into a nation of immigrants.

Schwartz was a man of brilliant intellect whose professional zenith peaked in his 20’s.  He was touted by William Carlos Williams.  He was an acquaintance if not friend of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Lowell penned a tribute or a curse in honor of him. Schwartz suffered the burdens of genius, mental illness, creativity, alcoholism and poverty.  He died  at the age of 53 of a heart attack.  His body unclaimed by family and friends he had grown estranged from years before.

Schwartz writes with a clear voice, an impulse driven by a deep understanding of literature and a willingness to work within the confines of tradition to forge something new.  The subjects of his poems were often stark.  His sonnets a love song to words and and ideas more than people.

What to make of the first line and his association of the American-ness of the word ‘sure’?  Schwartz was a first generation Romanian Jew, who grew up in respectable if not the upper middle class in New York City.  That all changed in an instant when his father died suddenly at age 49.  Apparently dying young was the one true inheritance his father passed on to his son.   The ‘sureness’ of being American may have eluded Schwartz. And yet the freedoms that invention allowed were not lost on his awakening as an artist. For what was possible for him in America would have been impossible in the birth place of his parents.


Sonnet

by Delmore Schwartz

I follow thought and what the world announces
I lean to hear, and leaning too far over,
Fall, and babied by confusion, cover
Myself in drowse, too tired by such bounces.
But in sleep are dreams across zigzagging snow
Descending quietly and slow, like minutes,
And on this peace the soul again begins its
Rhetoric of desire, older than Jericho,
And rails once more, like birds of early morning
Urchinous on branches and like newsboys,
“Extra, this is the meaning of life,
Here is the real good, beyond all turning,”
Till night goes home, astonished by such cries,
I wake up, and, to feel superior, I laugh.

 

 

 

For This Is Sunday Morning

 

file-6 (4)
Irish Fair on Harriet Island St. Paul, Minnesota August 2018

Sunday Morning

by Louise MacNeice (1907 – 1963)

Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,

And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.

But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.

And With Your Tricksome Tune

Crickt Rider

On The Grasshopper and Cricket

by John Keats

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s–he takes the lead
In summer luxury,–he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.

The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.


August is the peak time in Minnesota for insects of all types.  We don’t have many cicadas singing to us (yet) this summer, an off year for their shrill tunes.  But the cricket chorus has begun to build in the last week and should take us all the way through fall.

Agronomists, gardeners and good observers will take note around now that the green of the folliage on the trees isn’t as green as just a couple weeks ago. The levels of chlorophyll peaked in the leaves in July and is starting to wane, causing leaves to take take on a slightly darker hue. Insects, fungal and bacterial diseases on leaves are also at their peak, further reducing the amount of green in the canopy.  In two short weeks, it will suddenly be September and everything will seemingly change overnight, the lush greens of summer, replaced by a lighter paler and darker green and the start of colors of fall.

I am surprised there aren’t more examples of dueling poems and poets. Two friends, each accomplished writers, who challenge each other to write a poem with the same prompt, the same inspiration.  Maybe there are lots of them and I am not literally aware enough to recognize them (pun intended). Dear reader, if you know of more, please share them with me, I would be fascinated to uncover more examples of dueling poems, particularly dueling sonnets.

Do we need to  declare a victor?  Did Hunt and Keats settle their friendly bet with a round of drinks? Which poem did they privately declare superior? In my opinion Hunt’s is the better sonnet, more imaginative language, clever in its delivery. I particularly like the image Hunt paints of crickets as ‘warm little housekeepers’, a fond way of referring to the inevitable cricket or two who find their way into the basement or wood bin near the fireplace to sing a private serenade as the snows of winter begin.

Hunt’s friendship and writing is often credited in helping Keats become a better poet. Hunt, true to his name, led out and showed Keats the way, and Keats took up the challenge and blossomed as an artist, knowing his time on Earth likely short.


To The Grasshopper and The Cricket

by Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859)

Green little vaulter in the sunny grass
Catching your heart up at the feel of June,
Sole voice that’s heard amidst the lazy noon,
When ev’n the bees lag at the summoning brass;
And you, warm little housekeeper, who class
With those who think the candles come too soon,
Loving the fire, and with your tricksome tune
Nick the glad silent moments as they pass;
Oh sweet and tiny cousins, that belong,
One to the fields, the other to the hearth,
Both have your sunshine; both though small are strong
At your clear hearts; and both were sent on earth
To sing in thoughtful ears this natural song,–
In doors and out, summer and winter, Mirth.

The Magic Hand of Chance

thom gunn
Thom Gunn (1929 – 2004)

“At worst, one is in motion: and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.”

From On The Move by Thom Gunn

A loose, slack, and not well dressed youth, met Mr. — and myself in a lane near Highgate. — knew him, and spoke. It was Keats. He was introduced to me and stayed a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he ran back and said: “Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” — “There is death in that hand,” I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.

Samuel Coleridge – 1832

 

Keats At Highgate

By Thom Gunn

A cheerful youth joined Coleridge on his walk
(“Loose,” noted Coleridge, “slack, and not well-dressed”)
Listening respectfully to the talk talk talk
Of First and Second Consciousness, then pressed
The famous hand with warmth and sauntered back
Homeward in his own state of less dispered
More passive consciousness–passive, not slack,
Whether of Secondary type or First.

He made his way toward Hampstead so alert
He hardly passed the small grey ponds below
Or watched a sparrow pecking in the dirt
Without some insight swelling the mind’s flow
That banks made swift. Everything put to use.
Perhaps not well-dressed but oh no not loose.


In a very quick study of Keats entirety of his poetry, sonnets comprise 25 of the 54 poems he shared with the world in his life time, not quite half. No other poetical form is represented in as large a volume in Keats work.  So it is fitting that Gunn, who would not be known for his sonnets, would write a tribute to Keats as a sonnet.

What captured Gunn’s imagination to pen this little rebuttal to Coleridge?  Coleridge was a formidable critic and poet of his time, of much greater stature than Keats.  But time has flipped the tables in a way, at least for those of us who fancy ourselves a bit influenced by the romantics. One has to wonder whether Tuberculosis has robbed humanity of great art by shortening the lives of so many over history, or whether through its premature death, one can see death coming in what should be the flourish of their youth, that many of our most beloved artists stayed on the move long enough to capture the beauty of life in words amidst the juxtaposition of the tragedy of their consumption.


When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be

by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

When I have fears that I may cease to be
   Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
   Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
   Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
   Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

 

Soaked In Our Broken Wave

_seamus_heaney
Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

Requiem For The Croppies

by Seamus Heaney

The pockets of our great coats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.


Poetry manifest as a reminder of bravery in the face of injustice has a long history in literature. It is the stuff from which epics and legends arise. Seamus Haney’s poem is about the battle at Vinegar Hill where 15,000 Irish rebels, many armed with only pikes, were outgunned by the English bent on slaughter and extermination. The English deploying a professional army of nearly 20,000 men, replete with cavalary, cannons equiped with newly invented shrapnel artillery shells to more effectively rain death down upon your enemy from afar. To say the battle at Vinegar Hill was a mismatch is an understatement.  Courage and luck were on the rebels side and though 1,200 died that day, many of the dead women and children camping with the rebel army for protection, the majority escaped through a gap in the lines and lived to fight another day.

My daughter spent a semester abroad in England a few years ago and during her spring break I picked her up in London and we rented a car and drove to Edinburgh, Scotland. We rented a flat for five days and tramped our way around the sites on the Royal mile, visiting museums, art galleries, churches and castles packed into the center of that marvelous city.  It was my first time in Scotland and the history of war between the Scots and the English is a bit overwhelming for a Minnesotan.  But the biggest surprise to me was the history of Scottish on Scottish violence.  It would be easy to characterize the long history of conflict between the English and Scots or the English and the Irish as the fault of English domination and cruelty, but the darker truth is much of the history of violence throughout all three countries arose from local conflicts over land, power and control. Religion was not the true root of the conflict during the clearing of the Scottish highlands, it was a shallow excuse for the brutal dislocation of the rural poor.  The conflict was really about power and the wealth that came from it between the landed gentry and the rural peasants who lived on that land.

I had never heard of the clearing the Scottish highlands prior to my visit to Scotland and what was interesting was how little it was discussed in all the museums we attended.  It came to light while visiting with an employee at a Scottish museum on the shores of Loch Ness and once I came aware of it, it helped knit together a more complex history of the United Kingdom.  The clearing of the highlands began about the same time as the great famine in Ireland and in many ways is relatively modern history.  The Scottish peasants were forcibly driven into the cities from the end of the 18th century and continued into the mid 19th Century.  These were poor farmers dislocated from their agrarian cattle based existence not by famine but by force, to be displaced by sheep that did not need a large rural labor force for landowners to make money.  The clearing forced the poor, largely illiterate peasants into slums in rapidly expanding cities to become cheap labor for the industrial revolution.  Industrial factories owned by the same wealthy land owners, industries like fabric mills in Paisley and the ship building industry across Scotland that utilized iron and coal mined locally.  The clearing of the Scottish highlands marked a transition across the region from rural to urban, from agrarian to industrial, from a mix of pagan/Catholicism to Presbyterianism, a change in perspective in the way the average person looked at the world in which they lived and the way they made their living.

It’s hard to walk away from a visit to Scotland and figure out where does justice reside? Each side, (the Scots and the English, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Anglicans versus everyone else) committed so many atrocities over such a long period of time that it is amazing that a United Kingdom ever came to be. Each side lionized their heroes and victories with monuments and poems.  But after visiting at least one castle a day for a week, I got the impression that the past 1000 years were one continuous battle, everybody fighting everyone else that was the  “other” for their one square inch upon which to scratch an existence.

The history of Presbyterianism came alive during that visit, its birthplace the revolutionary Calvinist principles that would supplant the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church with small free kirks (churches), whose seat of power was local and largely democratic.  The protestant reformation changed how many viewed their relationship with their God and alliance to King and Country. Is it any surprise then, that the evolution of the Church of Scotland, which is the Presbyterian Church, would result in bloodshed?  The institutions of religion, royalty and governance so intertwined in Scotland, Ireland and England that change could only come about through violence. It’s a history that is very relevant today around independence and Brexit and the advantages and disadvantages of local populism versus larger economic collectivism.

The following poem wrote itself one afternoon, while sitting in the park on top Calton Hill overlooking the city, the rhymes and rhythms of the past echoing into the present.


Reformation

by T. A. Fry

Speyside.  Wayside.   Go round the roundabout.
Hang’em high!  Crucify!  While women scream and shout.
If it’s my fate to make a date, with a Scottish maiden.
Then bless the martyrs just for starters and send me off to Satan.

In the High Kirk or Free Kirk, we’ll say our common prayers.
Jenny Geddes said “Come and get us, King Charles if you dare.”
But the Jacobites were not affright; took up the Bishop’s cause.
To kill free men and say Amen, to the King’s unholy laws.

Playfair.  Wayfair.  A call from Calton Hill.
“If we’re to die then let ’m try to enforce the conventicle.”
For John Brown was gunned down with polity on his side.
The King’s men shot again and justice was denied.

Claverhouse, a clever louse, the English devil’s son.
He took to killing for his living, ‘till Scotland was undone.
“I don’t need a reason to call it treason,” laughed the Bluidy Clavers.
“So fall in line for the killing time, the dying’s just begun.”

And Find Me Good

67095334_1512082944
R. P. Blackmur

By Luckless Blood

By R. P. Blackmur (1904 – 1965)

Soft to the river falls the millet field
moulding and giving to the wind, as might
an ordinary woman slowly yield
by moonlight her own summer to the night.
Alas, this tardy love that comes elate,
irradiant sun-flash on cresting seas,
invades and wastes, as if by chosen spate
not luckless blood, my quiet granaries.

I am at loss, all manners and no man,
all aching breath, all queasy near the heart,
the fond brain, vacillating plan to plan.
All’s torment here, dull hope and under-smart –
unless, O sweeping harvest, sleeping flood,
the old love grow in me and find me good.


 

In my favorite used book store, Midway Books in St. Paul, the poetry section is located on the second floor.  This is the kind of book store where they still don’t have a cash register.  You take your precious finds to the front counter and the cashier writes down the cost of each book on a lined pad of paper, totals it up by hand or with a small calculator, only to start all over and head back to the lined note pad to add the tax.   The place is enormous, with most of its stock hidden away in an adjoining building where the public is not allowed. Supposedly, this is where the most valuable and rare books are kept, only available through the research department, (which consists of a small desk wedged beneath the stairs going to the second floor), or on-line, but I have always suspected is simply the owners own personal book collection that he can’t bear to sell.

Midway Books poetry section is generous in both size and breadth of the authors represented.  I have rarely taken an interest in a poet, wandered in and not found at least one volume of his or hers poetry to my liking.  Across from that actual poetry section is an equally large section, with the ominous title; “Literary Criticism.”  These are the books that will be there until the place collapses under its own weight.  I must admit, I have never once purchased a single book that could be called literary criticism and I don’t give a fig what anyone ever had to say on the subject.

Such is the fate of “great” literary critics, R. P. Blackmur and Alan Tate often reported as two of the finest during their lifetimes. Does anyone really care what critics have to say, beyond the obligatory interest of academics and English literature professors of their day?  My answer is no. There are too many good books and good poets to read, with a stack of books by my bed at any given time as proof, to ever even consider passing those by and reading criticism instead. I understand that the reputation of many of the great poets of the 20th century were made in part because of their contributions to literary criticism as well. But how long does criticism stay relevant or even have a purpose?  The answer is, about as long as a donnut stays fresh.

I am not one who believes that poetry is dead, I think it thrives today as much as it has at anytime in history.  However, the audience for most poets is watered down.  Gone are the days of living rock star poets, when a poet could rise in stature to speak for an entire country or a generation. Today the sheer volume of new work, much of it shockingly good, creates a thinner veneer of support for new writers, except for the one or two names that are bankable and are on every skinny shelf of poetry in new book stores, giving the impression that poetry is in a tail spin careening towards its final doom.  Some wit said, “There is nothing more unsaleable than a new poet’s first book.” And so the path to getting a second or third published, requires a poet not only to continue writing poetry, but to also write about other people’s writing. Many poets seem compelled to contribute to the broader conversation about poetry, maybe in part to wave a brightly colored flag to say look over here, read this person too.  If that’s the case, and literary criticism is intended to somehow illuminate our path to find new voices, then maybe it has a purpose. The problem is, I don’t want someone else telling me what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. In the end, the only thing that matters to me, is the poetry.

Randall Jarrell said, “The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.”  All poetry is an artifact of being human, it contains a living breath that connects us to an artistic web that reminds us that we aren’t alone.  Poetry and art in general are lifelines being thrown to us everywhere.  We just have to reach out and grab onto one.