Sometimes, Odor Of A Man

sappho
Fresco unearthed in Pompeii called Sappho.

 

“What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.” …

“You came and I was longing for you”….

Sappho (630 BC – 580 BC)

Poem of Jealousy

by Sappho
Translated by William Carlos Williams

That man is peer of the gods, who
face to face sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely
laughter.

It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast. At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
is broken.

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears
thunder.

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down. I grow
paler than grass and lack little
of dying.

 


Very little of Sappho’s writing survives in its entirety, what does remain are broken fragments, like ancient pottery shards, which have to be pieced together with jagged holes remaining to see a glimpse of the form of the original vessel.  Much has been written about how in the blank spaces of Sappho’s poetry is formed her greatness, the reader left to fill in the holes from their own lives, envision their own connections.

Sappho is known as the first great lesbian writer, but to characterize her as strictly a lesbian or feminist does not impart the complexity of her life in my opinion and unfairly pigeon holes her, when she should be just called a great writer. She was likely bi-sexual, having married a wealthy man and raised a daughter.  She came from a large family and was richly involved in the lives of her brothers, their children and her community.   She was not the standard-bearer of the LBGT community in her lifetime.  She was herself, with the courage to love completely, from her heart, the people in her life worthy of her love.

In the Library of Congress is a wonderful 4 page document that has the original translation of this poem by William Carlos Williams, published in 1957 by Grabhorn Press in San Francisco.  I have included an image of the footnote below, in which he writes:

“I’m 73 years old. I’ve gone on living as I could as a doctor and writing poetry on the side. I practiced to get money to live as I please, and what pleases me is to write poetry.

“I don’t speak English, but the American idiom.  I don’t know how to write anything else, and I refuse to learn. I’m writing and planning something all the time. I have nothing to do – a retired doctor who can’t use his right hand anymore.  But my core (my head, you know) goes on spinning and maybe occasionally I work it pretty hard. It goes on day and night. All my life I’ve never stopped thinking. I think all writing is a disease.  You can’t stop it.

“I have worked with two or three friends in making the translation for I am no Greek scholar but have been veritably shocked by the official British translations of a marvelous poem by one of the greatest poets of all time. How their ears could have sanctioned the enormities they produced is more than I can understand. American scholars must have been scared off by the difficulties of the job to not have done better. Their prosy versions were little better – to my taste. It may be that I have also failed but all I can say is that as far as I have been able to do I have been as accurate as the meanings of the words permitted – always with a sense of our own American idioms to instruct me.

download.png

There is so much in both the translation and the footnote that I relate, that it is awe-inspiring to realize how much in common I have with humanity, going back a century, going back millenia.  The human need to be in service to love hasn’t changed.  We are attracted to whom we are attracted, mind, body and scent.  And if we are lucky, we are allowed to love and be loved, by the same.


Sonnet In Search Of An Author

By William Carlos Williams

Nude bodies like peeled logs
sometimes give off a sweetest
odor, man and woman
under the trees in full excess
matching the cushion of
aromatic pine-drift fallen
threaded with trailing woodbine
a sonnet might be made of it
Might be made of it! odor of excess
odor of pine needles, odor of
peeled logs, odor of no odor
other than trailing woodbine that
has no odor, odor of a nude woman
sometimes, odor of a man

Grip Down And Begin To Awaken

spring-lilac-bush

A Prayer in Spring

By Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.


It was my birthday this week, I turned a speed limit.   A most excellent age to be I have decided! Gone are the pretensions that I’ll get in better shape and run a marathon again.  Instead, I’ve settled comfortably into a modest layer of middle age fat and come to grips that better only implies getting more comfortable with my infirmities and eccentricities. The good thing is mostly everything still works as a factory original. There are only a few age spots on the chassis and though it’s in need of an oil change,  that can be arranged.

A birthday tradition going back a number of years is for me to see Greg Brown at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.   The Cedar is a miserable, uncomfortable, stifling hot theater whose air conditioning never works because it’s a non-profit.  It is located in the arm pit of the West Bank of the University of Minnesota.  Neither he, nor the venue, nor the aging hippies attending, have changed much, the smell of pot overwhelming on the patio during intermission.

Why do I put up with going to the Cedar when there are umpteen better venues to see live music in the Twin Cities?   It’s because it’s where I have to go to see Greg. I like to remember when sitting on folding chairs in a shit hole made me feel right at home.  It grounds me that I haven’t gotten too big for my breeches. I can sweat right alongside the white-collar ex-hippies who all wish he would give up on this place and go play the Turf Club where the toilets don’t have a line half way around the lobby and the whole place doesn’t stink of urine from the homeless pissing on the concrete outside The Weinery next door. (Wish I was making this up, but even fiction can’t get that creative).

Brown plays the Cedar every year around my birthday.  He has the current distinction of being the musician I have seen play live, more than any other, only because I have been going to see him since 1979 on the West Bank. Back then at the long since defunct Coffee House Extempore, the venue that the musicians headlining on Prairie Home Companion would often play for tip money the night before going on air with Garrison Keillor.

I have aged with Greg.  I  remember him as a lean, leather clad long-haired hipster, then as a rotund, overweight middle-aged hick in overalls, to now a slimmed down old man in a felt hat and faded sport coat.  I remarked last night when he walked on stage, “damn he’s lost some weight” and the three overweight men all around me, looked at me wishing they had too.

Greg is not a great singer.  He’s an average guitar player.  What he is, first and foremost is an outstanding story-teller.  His songs get under my skin.  His music is the music of the midwest, the music of my landscape, the music of my experience.  It is music that has marked time in my life and will continue to do so.   Greg is the father of Pieta Brown, also one of my favorite musicians.  Great songsmanhip runs in their blood.

Greg talked about his love of poetry and specifically William Carlos Williams last night.  He admitted he lifted the title for his song Spring and All from WCW before he played it.  I think WCW would be honored.  Although Brown’s lyrics are not in any way related to the poem, they have one thing in common; each is the genuine voice of the artist that created them.


 

Spring And All

by William Carlos Williams

the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

This City….Like A Garment

Wayne Moran Photography
Downtown Minneapolis from the base of the Stone Arch bridge crossing the Mississippi River

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

by William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!


Composed Upon Westminster Bridge is one of Wordsworth most popular sonnets.   What makes it remarkable is that it is an important shift in poetic ideals where the cityscape has replaced the pastoral countryside or nature as the inspiration for beauty. Wordsworth captures the warmth and pride he has in the city of London and the kinship he feels with his countryman in the poem.

Eighty years later T. S. Elliot makes an unnamed city (probably London where he was living at the time) a central character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  This time it is not a place of beauty, it is a place of grit and grime, possibly only existing in the poet’s imagination, a tawdry place that men of certain ages like to slouch about in.

My attempt at connecting purpose with place in my sonnet In The Hand of Heaven deals with the idea that we are shaped by the places we live, the place we call home.  The idea that both the city and its inhabitants have an obligation to look after each other, an investment in each other, a responsibility to take care of where we live and who we live with.

No poet has taken that metaphor further than William Carlos Williams in his surreal and unfinished poem Paterson.   Paterson is one of my least favorite things that Williams wrote. It reads to me like an inner dialogue, prose not meant for outside interpretation.  It is rambling, disjointed, sometimes illogical, in ways much like our own inner dialogue often is and in that way creates a bit of a voyeuristic fascination.  He allegedly wrote it as his kryptonite to T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, to counter what was popular and build upon his voice that I find much more eloquent in his book Cora in Hell.  But I like his premise, that a man (or woman) is a city and a city is a man.   It brings humanity back into the equation of the concrete, bricks, buildings, parks, roads and bridges that we live amongst in our daily lives.   William Carlos Williams loved his city, Paterson, N. J. and its inhabitants.  His poem Paterson is in my mind his love song to the place he called home. He describes a Paterson that is imperfect, complicated, incomplete, but human, just like the men and women who inhabit it.

Here’s a couple of brief snippets from Paterson….


Excerpts from Paterson

by William Carlos Williams

Author’s notes:

Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in
himself is a city, beginning, seeking v achieving and con-
cluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a
city may embody— if imaginatively conceived — any city,
all the details of which may be made to voice his most
intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental
character of the place. The Second Part comprises the
modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them
vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be remi-
niscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in
a lifetime.

Paterson

Preface

“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty
when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”

To make a start,

put of particulars

and make them general, rolling

up the sum, by defective means —

Sniffing the trees,

just another dog

among a lot of dogs. What

else is there? And to do?

The .rest-have run out —

after the rabbits.

Only the lame stands— on

three legs. Scratch front and back.

Deceive and eat. Dig

a musty bone

For the beginning is assuredly

the end — since we know nothing, pure

and simple, beyond

our own complexities.

Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months’ wonder, the city
the man, an identity — it can’t be
otherwise — an

interpenetration, both ways. Rolling

 

40

Book Two

Sunday in the Park

Outside

outside myself

there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
— a world

(to me) at rest,

which I approach

concretely —

The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city

— upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
(concretely)

— late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!

— and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
the proof)

himself among the others,
— treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!

laughing, calling to each other-
Wait for me!

152

You ought to see this place.

There was a hellicopter (?) flying all over the river today
looking for the body of a suicide, some student, some girl
about my age (she says . a Hindu Princess). It was in the
papers this morning but I didn’t take notice. You ought to
have seen the way those gulls were winging it around* They
went crazy .

You must have lots of boy friends, Phyllis

one

Incredible!

Only one I’m interested in

right now

What is he like?

Who?

Your lover

Oh him. He’s married. I

haven’t got a chance with him

You hussy! And what do you do together?

Just talk.

Phyllis <£f Paterson

Are you happy?
Happy IVe come?

Happy? No, I’m not happy

Never?
Well .

The

• • . « * •

The Poet

Oh Paterson! Oh married man!
He is the city of cheap hotels and private
entrances , of taxis at the door, the car
standing in the rain hour after hour by
the roadhouse entrance

Good-bye, dear, I had a wonderful time.
Wait! there’s something . but I’ve forgotten
what it was . something I wanted
to tell you. Completely gone! Completely,
Well, good-bye

212

from Paterson. I do have a whitmanic mania & nostalgia for cities
and detail & panorama and isolation in jungle and pole, like the
images you pick up. When I’ve seen enough I’ll be back to splash in
the Passaic again only with a body so naked and happy City Hall
will have to call out the Riot Squad. When I come back 1*11 make
big political speeches in the mayoralty campaigns like I did when
I was 1 6 only this time I’ll have W. C. Fields on my left and
Jehovah on my right. Why not? Paterson is only a big sad poppa
who needs compassion. • In any case Beauty is where I hang
my hat. And reality. And America.

There is no struggle to speak to the city, out of the stones etc.
Truth is not hard to find . . . I’m not being clear, so Til
shut up . . I mean to say Paterson is not a task like
Milton going down to hell, it’s a flower to the mind too etc etc.

 

 

And Yet One Arrives Somehow

 

rolla-henri-gervex
Rolla by Henri Gervex

Arrival

by William Carlos Williams

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom—
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !


There is a tradition in poetry which I admire; that being established poets mentoring the next generation of poets who are pushing the current boundaries of poetry.  Many of my favorite poets have maintained a wide circle of friendships, and provided encouragement and criticism to new writers,  helping them to hone their craft.

William Carlos Williams is an example and maintained correspondence and friendships with many poets, including Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Charles Abbott, James Laughlin, Louis Zukofsky, and Denise Levertov to name a few. Levertov, a disciple of Williams’ Imagist style, wrote him an admiring letter when she was young, and included several of her poems. Williams wrote back, providing validation and the most generous act of all, suggested edits, to help refine her writing technique.

Levertov penned an interesting explanation of why modern poetry evolved in the 20th century beyond the confines of more formal metrical structure like sonnets.  In it she wrote:

“.….I do not mean to imply that I consider modern, nonmetrical poetry “better” or “superior” to the great poetry of the past, which I love and honor. That would obviously be absurd. But I do feel that there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional forms…The closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are more exploratory, more open-ended. A sonnet may end with a question; but its essential,underlying structure arrives at conclusion. “Open forms” do not necessarily terminate inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is–structurally, and thereby expressively–less pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole…The forms more apt to express the sensibility of our age are the exploratory, open ones.”

Excerpt from The Function of The Line, 1979.  Yale University Press.

It is an interesting idea, that the poets of the 20th and now 21 century have left structure and rhyme behind because there are no answers to the madness that befalls this world on a daily basis.  But there’s always been madness.  And in my opinion, if poetry lacks beauty, in some form, it lacks a timeless quality that is the cornerstone of verse that survives its epoch.  As readers we toy with darkness and enjoy rolling in the mud from time to time, but’s its the light of poetry that is the bread of life for our souls. Its why, when I ask someone, do you have a favorite poem, the answer if yes, is more often than not, a metrical rhyming poem.  A poem where there is a reassurance of an answer. Poems where there is something concrete in meaning or imagery for the reader to find, not words that were by design to be elusive, there is something for the reader to hold on to.

Wallace Stevens’ legacy is primarily his originality of free verse, but he wrote beautifully in traditional forms as well, even if he found “it sounded like the rise, of distant echo from dead melody, soft as a song heard far in Paradise.”


Sonnet

by Wallace Stevens

Lo, even as I passed beside the booth
Of roses, and beheld them brightly twine
To damask heights, taking them as a sign
Of my own self still unconcerned with truth;
Even as I held up in hands uncouth
And drained with joy the golden-bodied wine,
Deeming it half-unworthy, half divine,
From out the sweet-rimmed goblet of my youth.

Even in that pure hour I heard the tone
Of grievous music stir in memory,
Telling me of the time already flown
From my first youth. It sounded like the rise
Of distant echo from dead melody,
Soft as a song heard far in Paradise.

Alive By Reason

science-112012-004.jpg

The Descent

by William Carlos Williams

The descent beckons
   ……as the ascent beckoned
  .““`…….Memory is a kind
of accomplishment
      …a sort of renewal
…………..even
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
  ………..inhabited by hordes
…………………… heretofore unrealized
of new kinds—
  ……..since their movements
…………………are toward new objectives
(even though formerly they were abandoned)

No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since
the world it opens is always a place
  …….formerly
……………..unsuspected. A
world lost
   ,a world unsuspected
.…….beckons to new places
and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
of whiteness

With evening, love wakens
though its shadows
  ………..which are alive by reason
of the sun shining—
……grow sleepy now and drop away
  …………from desire
Love without shadows stirs now
……………beginning to awaken
………………..as night
advances

The descent
………made up of despairs
……………..and without accomplishment
realizes a new awakening:
.…………which is a reversal
of despair
………For what we cannot accomplish, what
is denied to love
…………..what we have lost in the anticipation—
………………..a descent follows
endless and indestructible

Home To Your Heart

 

Wallace-Stevens-portrait
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

 

“One thing I am convinced more and more is true and that is this: the only way to be truly happy is to make others happy. When you realize that and take advantage of the fact, everything is made perfect.”

William Carlos Williams in letter to his Mother, published in Selected Letters 1957.

 

Slow Movement

by William Carlos Williams

All those treasures that lie in the little bolted box whose tiny space is
Mightier than the room of the stars, being secret and filled with dreams:
All those treasures—I hold them in my hand—are straining continually
Against the sides and the lid and the two ends of the little box in which I guard them;
Crying that there is no sun come among them this great while and that they weary of shining;
Calling me to fold back the lid of the little box and to give them sleep finally.

But the night I am hiding from them, dear friend, is far more desperate than their night!
And so I take pity on them and pretend to have lost the key to the little house of my treasures;
For they would die of weariness were I to open it, and not be merely faint and sleepy
As they are now.


I am a little envious of artists whose skill and daring make it possible for them to earn a living as an artist.  I have never had such pluck.  I am in good company when it comes to poets in that regard.  Many of the poets I admire and who helped shape the poetic language of the 20th Century did not make their living as a poet.  William Carlos Williams was a doctor, a general practitioner in Patterson, NY and Wallace Stevens was an executive for a insurance company in New York City.  Either could be the patron saint of the responsible adult toiling daily in a job they may or may not love, but which gives structure and financial stability to their life so that in their free time they can pursue their art.

Both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams pushed the boundaries of free verse and helped redefine American poetry. William’s wrote in Modern American Poetry (1950); “The job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language which is to him authentic.”  Neither WCW or Stevens is known for classical poetry, quite the opposite, they are known for their free verse, and yet, like most poets, the sonnet form is like a siren calling them to the shore, and they are inspired to take their turn in wrestling with tradition.


Explain My Spirit

by Wallace Stevens

Explain my spirit—adding word to word,
As if the exposition gave delight.
Reveal me, lover, to myself more bright.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”
Again! For all the untroubled senses stirred,
Conceived anew, like callow wings in flight,
Bearing desire toward an upper light.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”

Burn in my shadows, Hesperus, my own,
And look upon me with a triumphant fire.
Behold, how glorious the dark has grown!
My wings shall beat all night against your breast,
Heavy with music—feel them there aspire
Home to your heart, as to a hidden nest.

 

While We Glide By

William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

Uses of Poetry

by William Carlos Williams

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,

Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat’s long sway.

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesy’s transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.


A Letter To William Carlos Willaims

by Kenneth Rexroth

Dear Bill,

When I search the past for you,
Sometimes I think you are like
St. Francis, whose flesh went out
Like a happy cloud from him,
And merged with every lover—
Donkeys, flowers, lepers, suns—
But I think you are more like
Brother Juniper, who suffered
All indignities and glories
Laughing like a gentle fool.
You’re in the Fioretti
Somewhere, for you’re a fool, Bill,
Like the Fool in Yeats, the term
Of all wisdom and beauty.
It’s you, stands over against
Helen in all her wisdom,
Solomon in all his glory.

Remember years ago, when
I told you you were the first
Great Franciscan poet since
The Middle Ages? I disturbed
The even tenor of dinner.
Your wife thought I was crazy.
It’s true, though. And you’re “pure,” too,
A real classic, though not loud
About it—a whole lot like
The girls of the Anthology.
Not like strident Sappho, who
For all her grandeur, must have
Had endometriosis,
But like Anyte, who says
Just enough, softly, for all
The thousands of years to remember.

It’s a wonderful quiet
You have, a way of keeping
Still about the world, and its
Dirty rivers, and garbage cans,
Red wheelbarrows glazed with rain,
Cold plums stolen from the icebox,
And Queen Anne’s lace, and day’s eyes,
And leaf buds bursting over
Muddy roads, and splotched bellies
With babies in them, and Cortes
And Malinche on the bloody
Causeway, the death of the flower world.

Nowadays, when the press reels
With chatterboxes, you keep still,
Each year a sheaf of stillness,
Poems that have nothing to say,
Like the stillness of George Fox,
Sitting still under the cloud
Of all the world’s temptation,
By the fire, in the kitchen,
In the Vale of Beavor. And
The archetype, the silence
Of Christ, when he paused a long
Time and then said, “Thou sayest it.”

Now in a recent poem you say,
“I who am about to die.”
Maybe this is just a tag
From the classics, but it sends
A shudder over me. Where
Do you get that stuff, Williams?
Look at here. The day will come
When a young woman will walk
By the lucid Williams River,
Where it flows through an idyllic
News from Nowhere sort of landscape,
And she will say to her children,
“Isn’t it beautiful? It
Is named after a man who
Walked here once when it was called
The Passaic, and was filthy
With the poisonous excrements
Of sick men and factories.
He was a great man. He knew
It was beautiful then, although
Nobody else did, back there
In the Dark Ages. And the
Beautiful river he saw
Still flows in his veins, as it
Does in ours, and flows in our eyes,
And flows in time, and makes us
Part of it, and part of him.
That, children, is what is called
A sacramental relationship.
And that is what a poet
Is, children, one who creates
Sacramental relationships
That last always.”

.        .With love and admiration,

 .         .Kenneth Rexroth.