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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
This seems a fitting sonnet on the Monday after the conclusion of the Tour de France, particularly since a Welshman prevailed in the yellow jersey at the end. But this poem does not depict a race, quite the opposite. It depicts the kind of bike ride that is made magical by repetition, by fraternity with friends, having done it so many times, that the riders become Lord and master of the road upon which they glide along.
Kavanagh and Selkirk shared more than this understanding of self determination, they were both the sons of poor cobblers. Selkirk responded to his surroundings of childhood poverty in Scotland by famously becoming a privateer and seeking his fortune on the high seas. Kavanagh took a decidedly different route, apprenticing to his father and following in his footsteps, settling into a life of rural poverty and finding a sense of peace in the simplicity it provides. Kavanagh understood both poverty and the ignorance that can be its bitter fruit, the latter much more vexing, his lack of access to a quality education a torment to his bright mind that would be a source of both inspiration and drive in his writing to witness his community honestly.
I recognize the feeling in this poem, the sense of understanding of a stretch of land and your community of friends and neighbors that you call home that goes beyond familiarity, becoming a place where the dust is part of your bones. A place where you look around down the road and can anticipate the view before you round the bend, a stretch where you can bike or walk it in complete darkness, so complete is your knowledge of its ruts and turns.
That is one of the magical aspects of rural life, the fact that change happens more slowly, the landscape seemingly timeless from one year to the next, so that by degrees you become one with its firmament. Kavanagh understood another truth of rural poverty, that no matter how lean the soil and crop from which it sprouts, a man and woman will give everything to defend it if they call it home. And that deep-seated grudges can become longstanding epic generational disputes over a simple boundary line of property when two families claim it as their own or one family has gotten the better of another under trying circumstances.
by Partrick Kavanagh
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
FYI – A rood is 40 square rods of land or about a quarter of an acre.
I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!
There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.
As starts the absent dreamer when a train,
Suddenly disengulphed below his feet,
Roars forth into the sunlight, to its seat
My soul was shaken with immediate pain
Intolerable as the scanty breath
Of that one word blew utterly away
The fragile mist of fair deceit that lay
O’er the bleak years that severed me from death.
Yes, at the sight I quailed: but, not unwise
Or not, O God, without some nervous thread
Of that valour, Patience, bowed my head,
And with firm bosom and most steadfast eyes,
Strong in all high resolve, prepared to tread
The unlovely path that leads me toward the skies.
I had the good fortune to find in my local used book store a little gem of a book last Saturday. It is a limited edition, one of 200 by Melville Press. It is titled Prayers, (sometimes also referred to as Prayers Written at Vailima) by Robert Louis Stevenson, and has an introduction by Mrs. R. L. Stevenson.
Mrs. R. L. Stevenson begins the introduction:
In every Samoan household the day is closed with prayer and the singing of hymns. The omission of this sacred duty would indicate not only a lack of religious training in the house chief, but a shameless disregard of all that is reputable in Samoan social life…
What makes this small volume of prayer interesting is that if you read most accounts of Stevenson’s life he was an avowed atheist. He admitted to his parents that he had rejected Christianity by age 23, following his father’s inquiries into his membership into the RJR club (Liberty, Justice, Reverence) whose motto reads; “Disregard everything our parents have taught us.”
This would be the second time Stevenson had broken with his father’s hopes for him, the first when he had decided to not pursue a college degree in engineering and join the family firm in designing, and building lighthouses, instead choosing to become a writer. The second decision he felt an ever bigger betrayal in his parents eyes, becoming a godless bohemian. Stevenson wrote:
“What a damned curse I am to my parents!” As my father said “You have rendered my whole life a failure”. As my mother said “This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me”. O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.
So how does one reconcile this beautiful book of prayer published after his death, with his prior public statements as a non-believer? Is it a case of his wife trying to do a bit of postmortem PR on his behalf to rehabilitate his reputation for posterity? Or did Stevenson have a change in spiritual perspective late in life? Stevenson was sickly his entire 44 years. He would not be the first person who proclaimed loudly his rejection of Christianity only to have a change of heart when realizing that death was drawing near.
However, as someone who has been an agnostic his entire adult life, and yet attempts to write prayerful poetry, I keenly recognize that these two seemingly contradictory stances by Stevenson can cohesively co-exist. The language of reverence is the same for all religions. And even atheists may write a prayer of grace, including the word Lord, knowing it will make it meaningful to a broader audience. The word, Lord, a nod to their own admonition of uncertainty or certainty as for what or whom their particular Lord might represent in their minds, even if it is different from Christians.
Only Stevenson knows what he believed at the end of his life. He may very well have continued to reject some or all of Christianity, and at the same time used his skills as a story teller to pen prayers to make it possible to more fully participate in the community he was living.
Mrs Stevenson explains in the introduction:
“Vailima lay up some three miles of continual rise from Apia, and more than half that distance from the nearest village. It was a long way for a tired man to walk down every evening, with the sole purpose of joining in family worship; and the road through the bush was dark, and, to the Samoan imagination, beset with supernatural terrors. Wherefore, as soon as our household had fallen into a regular routine, and the bonds of the Samoan family life began to draw us more closely together, Tusitala (Samoan for storyteller, referring to R.L.S.) felt the necessity of including our retainers in our evening devotions. I suppose ours was the only white man’s family in all Samoa, except those of the missionaries, where the day naturally ended with the homely, patriarchal custom. Not only were the religious scruples of the natives satisfied, but what we did not forsee, our own respectability – and incidentally that of our retainers – became assured and the influence of Tusitala increased tenflold.”
These services were simple and would have sounded exotic to a former Presbyterian Scot’s ears, suitably unconventional to satisfy whatever lay in his own heart. They began by his son reading a chapter from the Samoan bible, then Tusitala saying a prayer, impromptu or from his notebook, modifying them to fit the needs of the day. Then came the singing of a hymn in the Samoan language, accented sometimes by the strangely savage monotonous noise of native drums from inhabitants close to his household at close of day, and then closing with the Lord’s Prayer, also in Samoan. Mrs. Stevenson writes, “many of these hymns were set to ancient tunes very wild and warlike and strangely at variance with the words.”
What better setting and mood for a man to craft his personal theology, than to take the foundation of spiritual beliefs from his upbringing and reshape them as a humanist in a foreign land.
On the evening before his death, the service was unusually short, and Mrs. Stevenson asked him at its conclusion, “What is it?” He replied. “I am not yet fit to say “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” I recognize that reluctance in Stevenson’s admission, my own doubts having silenced me into ponder on occasion at precisely that same line.
Mrs. Stevenson concludes the introduction with the following:
It is with natural reluctance that I touch upon the last prayer of my husband’s life. Many have supposed that he showed, in the wording of this prayer, that he had some premonition of his approaching death. I am sure he had no such premonition. It was I who told the assembled family that I felt an impending disaster approaching nearer and nearer. Any Scot will understand that my statement was received seriously. It would not be, we thought, that danger threatened anyone within the house; but Graham Balfour, my husband’s cousin, very near and dear to us, was away on a perilous cruise. Our fears followed the various vessels, more or less unseaworthy, in which he was making his way from island to island to the atoll where the exiled king, Matafa, was at that time imprisoned. In my husband’s last prayer, the night before his death, he asked that we should be given strength to bear the loss of this dear friend, should such a sorrow befall us.”
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Grant that we here before Thee may be set
free from the fear of vicissitude and the fear of
death, may finish what remains before us of
our course without dishonor to ourselves or
hurt to others, and, when the day comes, may die
in peace. Deliver us from fear and favor: from
mean hopes and cheap pleasures. Have mercy on
each in his deficiency; let him be not cast down;
support the stumbling on the way, and give at
last rest to the weary.