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
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
“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
Sunday in the Park
there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
— a world
(to me) at rest,
which I approach
The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city
— upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
— late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!
— and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
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!
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
Only one I’m interested in
What is he like?
Oh him. He’s married. I
haven’t got a chance with him
You hussy! And what do you do together?
Phyllis <£f Paterson
Are you happy?
Happy IVe come?
Happy? No, I’m not happy
• • . « * •
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,
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.
“Whose virtue has renounc’d thy Father’s Crimes, Seest thou, how just the Hand of Heav’n has been? Let us that thro’ our Innocence survive, Still in the Paths of Honour persevere, And not from past or present Ills Despair: For Blessings ever wait on vertuous Deeds; And tho’ a late, a sure Reward succeeds.”
The idea of a muse is very real to me. I often have had the sensation in the act of writing that feels like an out of body experience, like I am an observer watching letters and words unfold on my computer screen, as if they are being typed by fingers controlled by something or someone else. It is at those times when words flow or entire poems appear nearly fully formed in an initial draft, having been worked out in my subconscious unknowingly and it is just waiting patiently for stillness for them to come tumbling out that I am most conscious of my muse, to the point that it can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, almost as if someone is watching me from behind.
The sonnet In The Hand of Heaven was not such a poem. It is an example of good old fashioned hard work, with several failed attempts at starting and stopping. It was an idea that came from multiple sources of inspiration and took a long time to write. The first source of inspiration was a gift from a friend, a translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the second The Mourning Bride by William Congreve. The first is an easy read, short, intriguing, wise and I found shockingly aligned with my own values. The second is a slog, the old English grammar and sentence construction both familiar and unfamiliar to the ear, it was not something that I found instantly compelling, but there are short sections that are hauntingly beautiful and pure poetry. Each of these swirled together and after many revisions, the sonnet worked itself out.
I have not written many things where I have taken a quote from someone else and incorporated it into my writing, transforming it into something new and original. It is an interesting paradox, because it feels a bit like it makes your own writing derivative, but at the same time it gives your writing a deeper context from which the reader can free associate to make their own connections or discoveries.
One of the long term projects that has sustained my writing is attempts to capture the equivalent of short prayers as sonnets, in essence, write my own meditations. Simple Praise is one of the sonnets that falls in that category, (shared in an earlier blog post) and so is In The Hand of Heaven. I often return to reread these poems when in need of contemplation, (i.e. forgiveness), and to be mindful that kindness is at the center of what it is to love and be loved.
In The Hand of Heaven
By T. A. Fry
“No longer talk about the kind of man a good man ought to be, but be such.”* Who through innocence perseveres to touch The confluence of my imperfect clan. To walk their chosen pace, with no less than The grace of kindness. To thrive without much. For no better hour will I find, to clutch The bone and rattle of my neighbor’s hand.
If in the hand of Heaven I have a choice? I’ll proclaim Love’s name with unclouded voice. Send care to conquer as Calvary. Give self to self – free from self pity. Take salary and stock in earned goodwill, Until, I’m square with my begotten city.
*The first two lines come from the George Long translation Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Peter Pauper Press 1957..
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
Then can I drown an eye unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.
Loss is the unflinching gift and mantle of time, unforgiving, unstoppable and inevitable. I have been surrounded by loss the past few weeks. It can feel overwhelming and strangely rejuvenating at the same time.
Loess soils are some of the most productive soils in North America. Loess soils are found in the corn belt from Nebraska to Ohio and Missouri to Minnesota. These soils were formed over millions of years by deposition of small particles from the wind. These particles originated from erosion caused by wind, rain, freeze/thaw, glaciers, the grinding and wearing down that our environment imposes on even the stoutest of mountains. Loess is a sedimentary deposit of mineral particles which are finer than sand but coarser than dust or clay, it slowly accumulates to as much as 6 feet of depth and loess is formed. Loess often develops into extremely fertile agricultural soil. It is full of minerals, has good internal structure and drains water well, all the things plants require to prosper.
Loss and Loess are phonetically identical. Do you find it interesting that soil scientists have categorized the soils of the most productive farmland in the world as the accumlation of the unpredictable and random deposition of the debris of the surrounding environment? Is there a metaphor there for the human condition? Is our loss less the wearing down of our beings, but rather the creation of fertile soil from which we will sprout new life…
A Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning
By Algernon Charles Swinburne
What secret thing of splendour or of shade
Surmised in all those wandering ways wherein
Man, led of love and life and death and sin,
Strays, climbs, or cowers, allured, absorbed, afraid,
Might not the strong and sunlike sense invade
Of that full soul that had for aim to win
Light, silent over time’s dark toil and din,
Life, at whose touch death fades as dead things fade?
O spirit of man, what mystery moves in thee
That he might know not of in spirit, and see
The heart within the heart that seems to strive,
The life within the life that seems to be,
And hear, through all thy storms that whirl and drive,
The living sound of all men’s souls alive?
A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
“It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will prevail.”
The Rhythm of Time
By Bobby Sands
There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.
It was born when time did not exist,
And it grew up out of life,
It cut down evil’s strangling vines,
Like a slashing searing knife.
It lit fires when fires were not,
And burnt the mind of man,
Tempering leandened hearts to steel,
From the time that time began.
It wept by the waters of Babylon,
And when all men were a loss,
It screeched in writhing agony,
And it hung bleeding from the Cross.
It died in Rome by lion and sword,
And in defiant cruel array,
When the deathly word was ‘Spartacus’
Along with Appian Way.
It marched with Wat the Tyler’s poor,
And frightened lord and king,
And it was emblazoned in their deathly stare,
As e’er a living thing.
It smiled in holy innocence,
Before conquistadors of old,
So meek and tame and unaware,
Of the deathly power of gold.
It burst forth through pitiful Paris streets,
And stormed the old Bastille,
And marched upon the serpent’s head,
And crushed it ‘neath its heel.
It died in blood on Buffalo Plains,
And starved by moons of rain,
Its heart was buried in Wounded Knee,
But it will come to rise again.
It screamed aloud by Kerry lakes,
As it was knelt upon the ground,
And it died in great defiance,
As they coldly shot it down.
It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.
It lies in the hearts of heroes dead,
It screams in tyrants’ eyes,
It has reached the peak of mountains high,
It comes searing ‘cross the skies.
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right! ‘
Happy Cinco de Mayo! If there happens to be a margarita on an outdoor patio in your future sometime this afternoon or a mint julep while watching the Kentucky Derby, you might lean back in your chair, close your eyes while enjoying the sunshine on your face and tip your glass to the heroes and martyrs for justice and freedom that have come before you.
May 5 is the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, a 27-year-old IRA leader who died in cell block H after a 66 day hunger strike. By the time Sands died he was an international celebrity, having been voted into Parliament and a symbol of British injustice in Ireland. Sands sacrifice and the sacrifice of 9 others who followed him in death as the result of the 1981 hunger strike that raised the awareness of the conflict in Northern Ireland and paved the way for Sinn Féin as a political party.
There is cosmic coincidence that Bobby Sands died on Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of the defeat of Napoleon III’s forces in Puebla. Mexico in 1862. Napoleon had sent an army to expand the French empire into the Americas by taking control of Mexico. Although not a major strategic win in the overall war against the French, the Battle of Puebla represented an important symbolic victory and bolstered the morale of the resistance movement. An ill-equipped group of 2,000 men, lead by General Ignacio Zaragoza, outnumbered more than three to one, withstood a day long siege and then routed the French forces. More than 500 French soldiers died in comparison to fewer than 100 Mexican patriots. The battle of Puebla marked a turning point in the Mexican revolution and five years later in 1867, in part due to increasing military support and political pressure from the United States, France finally withdrew.
Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican independence, which had been declared more than 50 years before the Battle of Puebla. Independence Day in Mexico (Día de la Independencia) is September 16, the anniversary of the revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s famous speech “Grito de Dolores” (“Cry of Dolores”), a call to arms that amounted to a declaration of war against the Spanish colonial government in 1810 and an end to the tyranny of the privileged colonial land owners that had invaded Mexico and subjugated the Aztec people.
All great revolutions begin with the same underlying truth, that corrupt governments that come to power and stay in power by suppressing human rights, will inevitably be brought down. All governments that create and then institutionalize inequality and foster injustice are doomed. Father Hidalgo, Spotted Elk, Terence MacSweney and Bobby Sands all knew that the rhythm of time would prove them on the right side of history.
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, —let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.