Life! Ay, what is it? E’en a moment spun From cycles of eternity. And yet, What wrestling ’mid the fever and the fret Of tangled purposes and hopes undone! What affluence of love! What vict’ries won In agonies of silence, ere trust met A manifold fulfillment, and the wet, Beseeching eyes saw splendors past the sun! What struggle in the web of circumstance, And yearning in the wingèd music! All, One restless strife from fetters to be free; Till, gathered to eternity’s expanse, Is that brief moment at the Father’s call. Life! Ay, at best, ’tis but a mystery.
seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song
as i fled for the stars, i saw an earthchild in a distant hallway, crying out to his mother, “please don’t go away and leave us.” he was, i saw, my son. immediately, i discontinued my flight
from here, i see the clocktower in a sweep of light, framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come
i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel churchified insects. among the books mine go unread, dust-covered. i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am troubled because their tragedies echo mine.
at this moment i am sickened by the urge to smash. my thighs present themselves stillborn, misshapen wings within me
I am hesitant in writing about issues of race in this country because my own experience is starkly white. Wrestling with the legacy of Lowell this past month made me ask myself the question; how do I respect the history of the African American sonnet both past and present? Does spending time with all early 20th Century sonnet writers, regardless of race, honor the writers who created it or are am I perpetuating a problem in our society by nostalgically looking backwards and not focusing on the present? Is the constraint that lyric poetry creates less a metaphor and more a symptom of our racist past that inevitably formed a wedge in literature, a demarcation that poets have wisely taken their writing further and further away from elitist sounding language and moved instead down a new path with free verse that has the flexibility poets need to articulate the breadth of their human experience? As much as I enjoy sonnets, if that was my only diet in reading poetry I would soon starve to death.
In searching out some reading on what place do the classics have in today’s world and in particular in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement I came across Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Peralta, an Associate Professor of Classics, was in the news in 2019, when at an important conference of his peers, he dared to ask the question – should the field of study we call classics survive?
It is a fascinating question, particularly since it is his life’s passion and profession. My Mother was taught Latin in High School in public school in the 1940s in Minnesota, so I am only one generation removed from the idea that classical studies should be part of every high school graduate’s experience. I was always impressed by her insight into language and meaning of words that comes from a rudimentary understanding of Latin. (Also an invaluable skill for cross word puzzles and of course a deeper understanding of poetry.)
So how then do we reconcile the history of the sonnet with current issues around equity and inclusion? Does the sonnet deserve a hall pass to the future? My suggestion; let’s read the poets of color who are skillfully and thoughtfully treading those planks, seek out their poetry for its unique perspective. In the next several blog posts I will present African American sonneteers across the decades and let you explore what relevance their words bring to your current mindset.
If I were to draw a simple progression of African American writers of sonnets from the 1700’s to today in America that are top of mind for me, without doing any additional research, it would start with Phyllis Wheatley, then progress without perfect linearity, to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, H. Cordelia Ray, Gwendolyn Bennett, Marcus Garvey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes, with my apologies to all the fine poets I have missed, but look forward to meeting someday.
One of the things I try and share through Fourteenlines is nearly every poet has written at least one sonnet like poem, in part because it connects their writing to the past. These poems are not always classical sonnets in construction and sometimes I am not even sure the poet was consciously aware of the sonnets influence, so ingrained in our culture are “the classics”. So if it is by this distinct lens that we think of as classical literature that most art is influenced and judged, and if its by these very archetypes American thought has been formed and whittled over generations of high school and college educations, than why wouldn’t we at least ask some questions about what holes we have dug for ourselves in this process without even realizing it and should we stop digging? I am not suggesting we have to chuck the lot of it, nor is Peralta, only maybe we should go back and re-read the classics with a different focal point and scrutinize what is relevant and meaningful in our journey today while taking a bright yellow high lighter to unhelpful and racist stereotypes that don’t move us in the direction of equity and are partially to blame for the mess we have made of things.
Poetry doesn’t need to be serious. I read it because its fun. I don’t believe I have to analyze it endlessly. I read what I like and honestly don’t think too much about it in terms of an academic understanding. But this February I am trying to think a little differently and consciously address how I am presenting African American poets and poets of color during Black History Month. I feel an obligation to not be tone deaf and color blind to the biases of my “liberal” arts education.
What’s your thoughts on Peralta’s interesting ideas in the article below? I don’t think he is suggesting we should stop reading sonnets. But he opened my eyes to change my reading glasses and ponder the fact that all those ancient Greek marble statues in our museums were not originally displayed as we now see them. It was only over time that the affluent collectors of art history, in the name of conservation and “classical” studies, scrubbed and polished them white.
by Countee Cullen
There are no wind-blown rumors, soft say-sos, No garden-whispered hearsays, lightly heard, I know that summer never spares the rose, That spring is faithless to the brightest bird. I know that nothing lovely shall prevail To win from Time and Death a moment’s grace; At Beauty’s birth the scythe was honed, the nail Dipped for her hands, the cowl clipped for her face.
And yet I cannot think that this my faith, My winged joy, my pride, my utmost mirth, Centered in you, shall ever taste of death, Or perish from the false, forgetting earth. You are with time, as wind and weather are, As is the sun, and every nailed star.
“You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”
Dream Songs 1
by John Berryman (1914 – 1972)
Huffy Henry hid the day, unappeasable Henry sulked. I see his point,—a trying to put things over. It was the thought that they thought they could do it made Henry wicked & away. But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover once did seem on Henry’s side. Then came a departure. Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought. I don’t see how Henry, pried open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long wonder the world can bear & be. Once in a sycamore I was glad all at the top, and I sang. Hard on the land wears the strong sea and empty grows every bed.
John Berryman and Robert Lowell met in 1944 at the suggestion of mutual friends and Lowell’s mother. Each was still married to their first wives at the time and it was thought that their socializing as couples would do them both some good. Ha! It probably did, but maybe not the way mothers intend. There are many similarities to their personal histories, temperaments, fierce intellect, vices and destructive personal decisions that it’s not a surprise they found enjoyment in one another’s company. When you have a tendency towards leaning into a bit of insanity and have a mirror to that fracturing in a friendship with someone of the same self destructive inclinations, it can help bring respite and lucidity once in a while, in that at least you know you are not alone in your state of mind.
Berryman did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He succeeded in spite of his father’s betrayal. He succeeded on the sheer audacity of his talent and intellect. It does not mean that doors were not opened for him because he was white and male, but Berryman is a writer’s writer in my mind. Writing entirely consumed him as maybe the only thing that could keep him alive for as long as it did. Berryman died when he was 58, though he looks more like 78 at the end.
I will turn the same age this year. I have written before on Fourteenlines that I walked across the bridge that Berryman jumped to his death probably a 1,000 times as a young man, on my way from classes on the East bank to the glass studio in the fine arts building at the time on the West bank. In every one of those passages I was completely unaware of Berryman’s fate, his poetry not yet in my consciousness. Despite spending 12 years on the same campus, treading the same paths, entering the same buildings, eating at the same greasy diners, while getting an undergraduate degree and graduate degree, I did not have the good fortune to overlap with Berryman in being physically at the same place at the same time. Looking back, that bridge holds more meaning for me today as a metaphor for the life I have tried to navigate the past 40 years. On one side of my river I have a foundation in practicality, academics and the industriousness to make a living to support myself and my family. On the other side lies the buttress with my heart and soul; creativity and expression. Through the middle of it runs my own mighty Mississippi of time, my bridge just beneath its singular falls on its entire stretch from Minnesota to a gulf, a hypoxia zone where not enough oxygen exists. Unlike Berryman, I do not have the talent or the ego to earn a living from my passions and so I shall have to continue to cross that metaphorical bridge every day and enjoy its views.
I have wondered, as I think about the men and women of letters, who managed to stay productive and thrive into old age, is it because they did not see writing as their profession; William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens but two examples? Or was writing always such a thrill that it never became a chore? We will never know if writing kept Berryman and Lowell alive as long as it did, or whether winning Pulitzers, being crowned as “the” best, created such an unbearable weight of expectation to continue to be brilliant that it may have actually accelerated their own self destruction. Maybe Dickinson did it right? Fill your desk and dresser drawers with scraps of your brilliant self as postcards to your older self. Give your friends the best of your art in cards and thank you notes and gifts. Scatter your creativity throughout your house and those of your loved ones and don’t bother with putting it out there in the world beyond the reach of your own fingertips.
Almost every great poet is also a great translator. There are exceptions, but it is far too common to be a coincidence or a requirement. I have come to believe this tendency to translate is a solution to the problem of trying to be productive as an artist every day. Maybe there are people who can wake up every day with inspiration to write brilliantly? But I suspect, more people suffer from the same thing I observe in myself. Most days nothing comes of my efforts. Sometimes whole months or even a better part of a year goes by without my muse whispering in my ear. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a writer that can wake up everyday and translate someone else’s brilliance, bringing it to a different mother tongue, that has yet to enjoy the satisfaction of the original poet’s humanity can feel productive and satisfied without the need to entirely create something on their own from nothing.
Lowell was an incredibly gifted translator. There is a silky smooth aspect to some of his translations, like the one below, that he rarely achieved with his own words, so much pent up emotions coursing through his veins, that it may have been impossible to find that level of calm when searching his own mind. Meditation is an example where the madness of Baudelaire is becalmed under the madness of Lowell and in its place resides a little pool of sonnet peace. Dive in!
by Baudelaire Translated by Robert Lowell
Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care. You called for evening; it descends, it’s here. The town is coffined in its atmosphere, bringing relief to some, to others care.
Now while the common multitude strips bare, feels pleasure’s cat o’nine tails on its back, and fights off anguish at the great bazaar, give me your hand, my Sorrow. Let’s stand back;
back from these people! Look, the dead years dressed in old clothes crowd the balconies of the sky. Regret emerges smiling from the sea,
the sick sun slumbers underneath an arch, and like a shroud strung out form east to west, listen, my Dearest, hear the sweet night march!