How do you view the plant kindgdom? As benevolent caregivers of our planet by providing oxygen and food for nearly every other organism? As a source of beauty and wonder? As the original source of energy of all fossil fuels? Or as complex, sophisticated warriors who ruthlessly stake out and defend their claim to a patch of soil, water, nutrients and sunshine?
If the last one surprises you, then you might not be familiar with the concepts of competition and allelopathy among plants. A corn plant that germinates and emerges only four to five days later than its neighboring plants will never catch-up. It is relegated to a second class existence, destined to become barren or at best produce a marginal withered ear, essentially a weed, compared to those plants that emerged uniformly only a couple of days sooner. This fight for resources that plays out in a corn field is not chemical in nature, its simply the advantage of being taller and first to grow, the larger plants dominate because they get more sunshine, which translates into more energy to feed a larger root system, which means the ability to intercept more nutrients and water in the soil. The smaller plants under the dense foliage are at a disadvantage they simply can’t overcome.
Some plants have additional weapons at their disposal for helping them and their offspring survive and thrive. The concept of allelopathy takes competitive advantage to another level. Allelopathy is when a plant excretes a chemical substance from its roots or a chemical is released from decaying leaves or fruit, that inhibits the germination, growth or fitness of other plants growing in its vicinity, thereby conferring an advantage to that plant or its next generation to dominate that space. Allelopathy is the explanation for why little grows under a mature walnut tree. It’s not just the shade from the canopy, its the allelopathic qualities of the natural chemicals released from the trees roots, leaves and rotting green fruits that prevents other things from growing within its reach.
The photograph above is a winner in this year’s historical photography contest in England and was taken by Matthew Browne. You can read the full article about it in the link below. It is a marvelous artistic image of a tree’s ability to envelop objects in its way. It is interesting to consider that the tree was already 300 years old when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. Looking at the image, given the serene gaze of the Buddha peeking out, you could debate whether Buddha is being born, emerging afresh or is being swallowed up and being destroyed. It all depends on your perspective. Are we coming are we going? I think the tree is embracing, telling us, like Shakespeare, “I engraft you new.”
“It is a delicate & difficult art fitting rhythm to an idea…communicating momentary phases in a poet’s mind.”
T. E. Hulme (1883 – 1917)
Trenches: St Eloi
by T. E. Hulme
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)
Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.
The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:
My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.
Every 200,000 years or so the Earth’s polarity switches and the magnetic poles rotate, with the compass needle swinging from north to south, and then in another 200,000 years, back again from south to north. The current magnetic field of the Earth is weakening. Although this change doesn’t happen on a human time scale, there are many scientists who feel that another polarity reversal is “imminent” in the next 10,000 years. The magnetic pole wanders around at the top of the world about 50 miles a day as the Earth spins, in search of a good jumping off point.
In poetry, polarity shifts happen every generation. I can relate to the passion of the Imagists, who rebelled against the stuffy confines of romanticism and decided to rip-up the rules of poetry during the early 1900’s. Why do I relate to this period when rhymes were being left behind for something more abstract? It’s because part of my fascination with sonnets is it feels like I am rebelling against the current pervasiveness of free verse. I feel the pull of poetic polarity reversing and with it the liberty to not necessarily beat the “iambic pentameter bongos,” as Billy Collins would say, but to try and find a new language within the sonnet form. I find writing sonnets an act of rebellion with every rejection notice I receive, in the same way that I can imagine Hulme, T. S. Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams found it liberating to break free of it.
I have given a lot of thought about what it is I find attractive about the period of 1900 to 1950 in poetry. I think it’s because I can relate to the language, there are not many old English words in use during this time that make sonnets and poems of a slightly earlier period sometimes difficult to understand. I like the tension of discovery within literature during this period. The expanse of poetry being written at the start of the 20th century is a connection to parallel movements in philosophy, painting, physics and politics, the old romantic classical period of elitist imperialistic politics not yet waned and the new modernist approaches of creative thought and social justice evolving. This tension between old poetic forms and new fresh creative approaches infuses both with a fluidity of language that I find pleasing to my inner ear and a strength of character for the forcefulness required for change that is inspiring. The early 20th century is the final period before technology reshapes the world in every way. And yet, without technology, all of my endeavors into poetry would not have been as likely or even possible, as the world comes to me magically through my little Chromebook and me to it.
One of things I enjoy about sonnets, is almost every poet, even the modernists from 1900 to 1950, published at least one sonnet or a poem that is based on an evolution of the sonnet structure. Its fun to dig around and try and find the toss off, that may not represent the vast majority of a poet’s work, but was included none the less, just to show how high up on the poetic tree they could lift their leg and mark their territory. This is a period, where the magnetic pull of sonnets and classical rhymes still heavily influences creativity, the attraction of Dante and Shakespeare still strong, that even the most ardent modernist is compelled to roll up their sleeves and try their hand, just to prove their greatness against the best.
Here’s one of Ezra’s original sonnets. I particularly like the lines, “Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness. To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her.”
by Ezra Pound
No, no! Go from me. I have left her lately.
I will not spoil my sheath with lesser brightness,
For my surrounding air hath a new lightness;
Slight are her arms, yet they have bound me straitly
And left me cloaked as with a gauze of æther;
As with sweet leaves; as with subtle clearness.
Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness
To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her.
No, no! Go from me. I have still the flavour,
Soft as spring wind that’s come from birchen bowers.
Green come the shoots, aye April in the branches,
As winter’s wound with her sleight hand she staunches,
I am a grave poetic hen
that lays poetic eggs.
And to enhance my temperament
A little quiet begs.
We make the yolk philosophy
True beauty the albumen.
And then gum on a shell of form
To make the screed sound human.
A lyric poem, typically one in the form of an address to a particular subject, written in varied or irregular metre.
Oxford English Dictionary
To Ezra Pound
by T. A. Fry
For your convictions, not the least of which Was treason: by what do I measure you? Was it romance or reason that carved your niche? An Imagist, whose chant was Make it New. The unkept vagrant of rebellious screed, Who Frost declared, “wanton and a poseur.” Should I forgive your racist, fascist deeds In lieu of your roiled poetic allure? Pound for Pound, man’s the most fallible beast. My own past mocks in brilliance and despair. If our life is but A Moveable Feast*? Let’s hope the worst is not beyond repair. And with words, left to time, an image paint, The truth of it; both serpent and a saint.
*Pound and Hemingway were long-time friends who both lived in Paris during the period Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast. The reference in the sonnet is an acknowledgement to shared passions and demons. Hemingway lobbied for Pound’s release from the insane asylum where he was incarcerated for treason in the United States from 1945 – 1957. Read my prior blog post, Make it New, for more stirrings on Ezra Pound.
IF Mercy were the friend of my desires,
Or Mercy’s source of movement were the heart,
Then, by this fair, would Mercy show such art
And power of healing as my pain requires.
From torturing delight my sighs commence,
Born of the mind where Love is situate,
Go errant forth and naught save grief relate
And find no one to give them audience.
They would return to the eyes in galliard mode,
With all harsh tears and their deep bitterness
Transmuted into revelry and joy;
Were’t not unto the sad heart such annoy,
And to the mournful soul such rathe distress
That none doth deign salute them on the road.
Ezra Pound’s life story reads like fiction. I can’t begin to approach the expanse of it in a short blog post, so I will begin where I will end, with mercy. Pound’s 1934 book Make it New, looked to the past and through a combination of translations, imitations and original material, sought to recast the old with a fresh voice. I am, of course, drawn to Pound’s translations of Guido Cavalcanti’s sonnets, but the sonnets are not reflective of most of Pound’s life work, in fact they stand almost diametrically opposed to Pound’s pursuit of a simpler modernistic style.
Pound was a driving force in the Imagists movement in poetry. It was Pound who saw the genius in T. S. Eliot when no one else would publish him and forwarded on a copy of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to Poetry magazine and promoted its publication. To a non-academic interested in poetry, I have been shocked how I seem to run into Pound at every turn. Pound befriended and promoted the careers of many leading modernist writers of the Twentieth Century. In addition to Eliot, Joyce, Lewis, Frost, Williams and Hemingway, he corresponded and helped the careers of Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Jacob Epstein, E.E. Cummings, Margaret Anderson, and Charles Olson as a short list.
I think the Imagist movement was probably the most important in English 20th-century poetry simply because of the sheer number of poets influenced by it. Carl Sandburg wrote in Poetry magazine in 1917:
“All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.”
Pound developed his theory of being a poet in 1912. His aim was clarity. He was rebelling against abstraction, romanticism, proscribed rhetoric and over-use of adjectives. He laid out the following three principles for his writing:
Be direct regardless of whether the “thing” is subjective or objective.
Be brief. Use only words that contribute to the image, avoiding unnecessary words, particularly adjectives.
Be musical, make the words flow, but not necessarily in a pre-set rigid sequence.
Bravo Pound! I agree whole heartedly with this philosophy that the job of a poet is to make words that are meaningful sound beautiful. It’s why I find his translations of Cavalcanti’s sonnets remarkable. In his own writing he was moving away from classical poetry and yet he undertook the task to carefully translate 13th Century sonnets into the English language beyond just their meaning. He wrote in the forward:
“I have in my translations tried to bring over the qualities of Guido’s rhythm, not line for line, but to embody in the whole of my English some trace of that power which implies the man…. it was my first intention to print only his poems and an unrhymed (translation). This has not been practicable. I can not trust the reader to read the Italian for the music after he has read the English for the sense….”
For me, Pound is a symbol of the complicated personal contradictions that make us human. He was a modernist who translates classical poetry. He was a romantic in lifestyle and militant in his politics. He supported the Italian Fascist cause because he believed that only through conflict would come a new economic order that would create greater wealth equality, but he invoked racist ideology to further his cause. In his writing, he was just as inconsistent. He used translation and imitation to inform his body of work, yet was cutting edge in his modernist free verse. Through it all he persevered to an old age, despite reoccurring depression and an extended imprisonment in an insane asylum in the United States.
His writing veers wildly. He himself condemned his Cantos as “scattered and unfinished.” It was published despite its obvious flaws and received a literary award because his literary friends and political supporters hoped it would put pressure on the State Department to release him from the mental hospital where he had been confined after being convicted of treason in 1945 for his support of Fascism and Mussolini. When Hemingway won the Nobel Peace prize for Literature he told Time magazine “this would be a good year to release poets.” In 1957 the government finally relented and realized Pound was no threat to anyone and had suffered enough. He was released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and was quoted as saying:
“I never was (released). When I left the hospital I was still in America, and all America is an insane asylum.”
Pound was both contrite and unrepentant at times following his release in terms of his extremist right-wing views. He made contradicting statements regarding whether he had matured beyond his anti-semitic racism. I like to think he found some measure of clarity and peace in truthful contemplation late in life, as I nostalgically root for my literary heroes to do the right thing. In an interview by Allen Ginsberg in 1967, Pound described his life’s work as:
“A mess…my writing, stupidity and ignorance all the way through… but my worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything…I found after seventy years that I was not a lunatic but a moron… I should have been able to do better …”
Yes, some of Pound’s life and by reflection his writing is a mess and not very attractive. But some of it is beautiful. I think it is with mercy we should forgive this complex and imperfect man who had an impact on poetry that is vast and uncompromising. Where would poetry be without the unmeasured life of Ezra Pound? The current headlines in the United States on sexual harassment beg this same question: can we admire a person for their art, despite their despicable failings as a person?
The Seeing Eye
by Ezra Pound
The small dogs look at the big dogs;
They observe unwieldy dimensions
And curious imperfections of odor.
Here is a formal male group:
The young look upon their seniors,
They consider the elderly mind
and observe its inexplicable correlations.
It is in only small dogs and the young
That we find minute observation.
“Why do you write?” (Shelley) “Because I haven’t the ability to prevent it.” (Lord Byron)
Byron – The Movie
by George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron)
Though the day of my destiny’s over
And the star of my fate hath declined,
Thy soft heart refused to discover
The faults which so many could find.
Though thy soul with my grief was acquainted.
It shrunk not to share it with me,
And the love which my spirit hath painted.
It never hath found but in thee.
Yet I blame not the world, nor despise it,
Nor the war of many with one;
If my soul was not fitted to prize it,
“Twas folly not sooner to shun:
And if dearly that error hath cost me,
And more than I once could foresee,
I have found that, whatever it lost me,
It could not deprive me of thee.
From the wreck of the past, which hath perish’d.
Thus much I at least may recall,
It hath taught me that what I most cherish’d.
Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of thee.
To Augusta is a six stanza poem, I have included only the first and fifth and sixth stanzas. I find Byron interesting. There are parts of his personality that are repellent; he was a cad, narcissistic, he took advantage of women in his relationships, but he was true to his nature, recklessly so, for taking your half-sister as your lover is not for the faint of heart, it simply isn’t done in any time period.
One of the powerful themes within the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin is who are you allowed to love? This question stems from the relationship between a brother and sister, Cersei and Jamie Lannister, and the lies, the deception, the chaos that this incestuous legacy of children that it creates. Incest, even in fiction, is an uncomfortable and difficult subject, I can’t imagine what it was like for Byron and Augusta in real life.
Percy Shelley was a good friend of Byron, Shelley matching him in strength of character, writing ability and unconventionality in lifestyle. Shelley was largely unpublished in his lifetime, his writing viewed as too radical in reflecting a bias towards atheism and for his liberal views in supporting social justice. He was hugely influential after his death among generations of poets, writers and political thinkers who saw in Shelley a beautiful courage.
The sonnet, To Wordsworth, is a touching memorial, but I wonder if is written in honor to more than just one poet? The lines “wept to know That things depart which never may return” had to be influenced by the deaths that surrounded Shelley in his short life, particularly the deaths of several of his children. Shelley seemed to have been stalked by tragedy, himself drowning shortly before his 30th birthday while sailing in the boat Don Juan, after a meeting to set up a new journal called The Liberal. His body was cremated on the beach in Italy where his body washed ashore, as was customary at the time, his friends Trelawny and Byron attending. Shelley’s remains are buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. His grave bears a few lines of “Ariel’s Song” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)
Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return:
Childhood and youth, friendship and love’s first glow,
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honored poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,
–Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.
“The great art of life is sensation – to feel that we exist, even though in pain.”
Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)
By Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
So now I have confessed that he is thine,
And I my self am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore to be my comfort still:
But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous, and he is kind;
He learned but surety-like to write for me,
Under that bond that him as fast doth bind.
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer, that put’st forth all to use,
And sue a friend came debtor for my sake;
So him I lose through my unkind abuse.
Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me:
He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.
I am conflicted by the idea that art can only come from a well-spring of great experience, be it love or tragedy in spades. I think sometimes art can come equally from the mundacity of life as well. However, I recognize that artists have their own favorites when it comes to their creations. I feel more strongly about some of my poems than others, and specific poems stand out in my mind because they become in my memory like a snapshot of a key event. It would be an interesting thing to discuss with artists, what shaped the creation of your favorite piece of art and to see whether there is a common thread of experience?
There is no denying that a certain amount of ego and impulsiveness is required to be an artist. The creative process, if it is to be shared with others, requires at some point that an artist must get naked in public metaphorically speaking. The quesiton each artist must answer is how much skin to bare and when does the process of creating art jump the barrier from tasteful nude to pornography because of the severity of what is depicted?
It is an interesting question, the idea that art can be pornographic in a graphic sense of how much our interior is revealed. The list of artists who were (are) tortured souls is nearly as long as the list of artists, but I am not convinced that unhappiness, depression, addiction and suicide are a requirement for creativity or the creation of great art. I think creativity can come equally from love, joy, sanity and modesty. But for some, the lighter side of the human experience is not nearly as productive personally. As a rule I know the art I am most attracted imparts an emotion or an idea regardless of whether it is positive or negative.
I think there is a certain lurid fascination with the artist who becomes a Phoenix, bursting into flame mid-flight. Those artists who share their doomed voyage either in spite of their art or who choose to use their art as a legacy of their descent. My preference however, is for artists, who singe their wings but do not implode or explode and manage to land safely enough to preserver.
Circling back one last time, for now, to Wilco, I found this short interview with Jeff Tweedy talking about the idea of a tortured artist and his own struggles. In the end, I think it all depends, like Shakespeare says above, on whether you can separate art from the artist and the idea; “Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me.”
Slyvia Plath usually makes the short list in any discussion of tortured artists. I have found it interesting how my respect for Sylvia Plath’s writing has grown as I have spent more time writing poetry. But I also have a healthy aversion to her work, reading her in small doses and infrequently.
I don’t agree with Sylvia’s last couplet in her sonnet below. I am often attracted to poems where my level of disagreement is strong, when the poem sets off an internal debate. I think of time as a continuous piece of paper before us and a millions words trailing behind.
How do you intrepet Sylvia Plath’s sonnet below?
Sonnet: To Time
By Sylvia Plath
Today we move in jade and cease with garnet
Amid the ticking jeweled clocks that mark
Our years. Death comes in a casual steel car, yet
We vaunt our days in neon and scorn the dark.
But outside the diabolic steel of this
Most plastic-windowed city, I can hear
The lone wind raving in the gutter, his
Voice crying exclusion in my ear.
So cry for the pagan girl left picking olives
Beside a sunblue sea, and mourn the flagon
Raised to toast a thousand kings, for all gives
Sorrow; weep for the legendary dragon.
Time is a great machine of iron bars
That drains eternally the milk of stars.
Th’ AUTUMNAL glories all have passed away:
The forest-leaves no more in hectic red
Give glowing tokens of their brief decay,
But scattered lie or rustle at the tread,
Like whispered warnings from the mouldering dead;
The naked trees stretch out their arms all day,
And each bald hill-top lifts its reverend head
As if for some new covering to pray.
Come, WINTER, then, and spread thy robe of white
Above the desolation of this scene;
And when the sun with gems shall make it bright,
Or, when its snowy folds by midnight’s queen
Are silvered o’er with a serener light,
We’ll cease to sigh for summer’s living green.
My parents were both talented gardeners their entire lives. My father who is in his mid 80’s, still has an enormous garden that is source of nourishment, entertainment and exercise. He is legendary for his tomatoes, apples and sour cherries. Growing up, we helped our parents in the garden, even as little children. Gardening was a necessity, stretching our family food budget and allowing for a few extravagances. Staples of a June garden in Minnesota are spinach, rhubarb, strawberries, sweet peas and green beans. There is nothing better than sweet peas shucked fresh and eaten after a light blanching and nothing worse as far as I am concerned than canned peas.
As a young child, I was a picky eater beyond compare. In the family mythology it has been exaggerated over time, but there is some truth to the suggestion that I subsisted on nothing but Captain Crunch, oatmeal and peanut butter sandwiches for a time as a 3 and 4 year old, winning the battle of wills played out at the dining room table between myself and parents on a daily basis. Today I eat almost anything and everything, but I can remember the Thanksgiving day dinner 20 years ago, when my Mother was visiting and she was shocked to see me preparing green beans for the holiday table given my history as a child.
In that childhood garden there were two very long rows of beans each year. As children we he helped our mom pick them each day. No matter how you try and stay ahead of picking beans in season, inevitably some get bigger, thicker and tougher than is ideal from a taste and texture perspective. But my parents were born during the depression. Waste not, want not was ingrained and every other day, during bean season my Mom would process all of them into the freezer by cutting them, blanching them, putting them into a one family meal serving portion in a baggy and then storing them in little white boxes that had folding tops into the freezer. The boxes were cardboard and looked much like a take-out box from a chinese restaurant. By the middle of July the large freezer in the basement would be full to the brim on one side with rows and rows of stacked green and yellow beans. I hated them. It meant a monotonous fare of woody tasting green and yellow beans for dinner throughout the fall and winter. So it came as quite a surprise to my Mother to see me not only preparing green beans but having a second helping during dinner.
This is a recipe that is a bit of my own culinary creation. The beauty of this dish is that its fast to prepare, the last thing you make to put on the holiday table and its festive and delicious.
Second Helping Green Beans
Time – Start to finish, less than 10 minutes.
About a 1/2 pound of green beans, washed and kept long with only bad spots or stems trimmed
1/2 cup of dried cranberries
2 tablespoons of a blue cheese of your choice
slivered almonds to taste (either raw or the flavored kind in the produce section for salads.
Bring salted water in pot to boil. Add green beans to boiling salted water and blanch until hot and bright green color. Don’t over cook, leave the beans crunchy. Drain.
Put a medium-sized sauce pan on medium heat, with a tiny bit of olive oil or butter in it, add the blue cheese. It will start to melt quickly, almost immediately, be careful not to burn it, lifting the pan off the heat if it gets too hot. Add the green beans before it’s all melted and stir. The heat of the beans will also help melt the blue cheese. Coat the green beans in the blue cheese. It will be a thin coating, hardly visible. Quickly add your cranberries and almonds. Stir quickly, mixing them throughout. Turn off heat and put in covered dish and serve. Don’t scrimp on the cranberries and almonds. Be prepared that if you make this once, you will be requested to make it again at the next holiday gathering.
by Mary Oliver
They’re not like peaches or squash. Plumpness isn’t for them. They like being lean, as if for the narrow path. The beans themselves sit quietly inside their green pods. Instinctively one picks with care, never tearing down the fine vine, never not noticing their ripped bodies, or feeling their willingness for the pot, for the fire.
I have thought sometimes that something-I can’t name it- – watches as I walk the rows, accepting the gift of their lives to assist mine.
I know what you think: this is foolishness. They’re only vegetables. Even the blossoms with which they begin are small and pale, hardly significant. Our hands, or minds, our feet hold more intelligence. With this I have no quarrel.