Silence is a sounding thing, To one who listens hungrily.
by Gwendolyn Bennett (1902 – 1981)
He came in silvern armour, trimmed with black— A lover come from legends long ago— With silver spurs and silken plumes a-blow, And flashing sword caught fast and buckled back In a carven sheath of Tamarack. He came with footsteps beautifully slow, And spoke in voice meticulously low. He came and Romance followed in his track…
I did not ask his name—I thought him Love; I did not care to see his hidden face. All life seemed born in my intaken breath; All thought seemed flown like some forgotten dove. He bent to kiss and raised his visor’s lace… All eager-lipped I kissed the mouth of Death.
To a Dark Girl (1927)
by Gwendolyn Bennett
I love you for your brownness, And the rounded darkness of your breast, I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest. Something of old forgotten queens Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk And something of the shackled slave Sobs in the rhythm of your talk. Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate, Keep all you have of queenliness, Forgetting that you once were slave, And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
It is easy to write.Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.
A Dialogue Between Old England and New (An Excerpt)
by Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672)
Art ignorant indeed of these my woes,
Or must my forced tongue these griefs disclose,
And must my self dissect my tatter’d state,
Which Amazed Christendom stands wondering at?
And thou a child, a Limb, and dost not feel
My weak’ned fainting body now to reel?
This physic-purging-potion I have taken
Will bring Consumption or an Ague quaking,
Unless some Cordial thou fetch from high,
Which present help may ease my malady.
If I decease, dost think thou shalt survive?
Or by my wasting state dost think to thrive?
Then weigh our case, if ‘t be not justly sad.
Let me lament alone, while thou art glad.
The publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1953 in the Partisan Review is a demarcation in Berryman’s life and career. Berryman had been appointed a prestigious position for the spring of 1952 at the University of Cincinnati. Eileen, herself an accomplished writer and successful therapist, joined him and began working at the University hospital, while waiting to open her own practice. Eileen published a remarkable memoir in 1982, The Lives of Young Poets, a generous account of their lives together and their friendships with the myriad of poets of their generation.
Eileen suffered from back issues throughout their marriage, with a combination of degeneration of disks and benign tumors that required several surgeries. She suffered from chronic pain and for periods during the final seven years of their marriage was proscribed opioids for pain management, at times nearly bed-ridden because of the condition. Eileen’s prolonged illness created a justification in Berryman’s mind for his repeated affairs, trysts, one night stands and womanizing. Berryman’s adultery was not a mystery to either Eileen or his friends. More often than not, he was eventually found out by someone in his inner circle. Several times he had close calls where he feared he had of fathered a child with one of his lovers, and may have in fact done so, but none of his lovers ever held him accountable. In reading the multiple biographies its clear that Berryman had a high sex drive that did not align with Eileen’s. It’s also hinted at that she in part blamed herself for his extra-marital activities. Berryman was the kind of man who both loathed and worshiped women, a chaos fueled in part by his complicated relationship with his mother. His loathing extended to a part of himself for the force that sex held over his thoughts and actions. His eventual regrets never seemed to stop him from taking advantage of the sexual relationships that his looks and intelligence afforded him.
Eileen made several attempts to help her husband reform his ways. She demanded he get help for his drinking and to start psychotherapy to see if he could put to rest some of his demons from his past. He took to the psychotherapy, but not abstinence. This period of critical success with his writing did help out their finances, but it was also marked by a cycle of shortage of funds. By the time they moved to Cincinnati in spring of 1952, Berryman owed thousands of dollars to friends, landlords, his psychiatrist and banks. Berryman and his wife never could afford to buy a house during their 10 year marriage, despite both having successful careers. There were always medical bills and other expenses that got in their way of achieving a level of financial comfort that both desired. Berryman suffered for his art, intellectually, financially and at times socially. Berryman’s boat floated but rarely glided down stream with ease.
The two would spend one final summer together in 1953 in Europe. Berryman toured and lectured following the critical success of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Berryman’s timing of publication was fortunate. There was still an acceptance of long form poetry among critics and publishers. The 57 stanza 544 line poem likely would not have received as much literary acclaim if published just a few years later. Eileen had grown tired of living with his literary “mistress” that the writing of his long poem required as well as his repeated affairs in real life. They would separate when they returned that fall and divorce two years later in 1956.
Berryman had already begun his magnum opus, the long process of writing the first volume of Dream Songs. During this time he would teach one semester at the University of Iowa in 1954, only to be dismissed for intoxication, profanity and an arrest for disturbing the peace. It didn’t phase him. He would be recruited by the University of Minnesota to become a lecturer in the Humanities Department in 1955, where he would remain until his death in 1972.
Although reading Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is a bit of a slog today, its clear that Berryman had already honed his writing and poetic style that is carried forward into the creation of Dream Songs. His intellectual capacity to connect history and literature in his writing was well established. So too was his lifelong self destructive habits that were as immovable as his drive to be a successful poet. I have not read Eileen’s memoir, but have ordered a copy for February as a way to mentally cleanse myself as I venture further into Berryman’s demise. I’ll share anything I find particularly compelling later in the year. Berryman’s final lines in stanza 37 are chilling in the honesty and complexity of his struggle to find peace in his relationships with women and the destructive tendencies of his behavior on their lives.
Homage To Mistress Bradstreet (An Excerpt)
by John Berryman
–Hard and divided heaven! creases me. Shame is failing. My breath is scented, and I throw hostile glances toward God. Crumpling plunge of pestle, bray: sin cross & opposite, wherein I survive nightmares of Eden. Reaches foul & live he for me, this soul to crunch, a minute tangle of eternal flame.
I fear Hell’s hammer-wind. But fear does wane. Death’s blossoms grain my hair; I cannot live. A black joy clashes joy, in twilight. The Devil said ‘I will deal toward her softly, and her enchanting cries will fool the horns of Adam.’ Father of lies, a male great pestle smashes small women swarming towards the mortar’s rim in vain.
In the gloom the gold, Gather’s the light about (against) it.
Ezra Pound, R. P. Blackmur
Dream Song 173
In Mem: R. P. Blackmur
by John Berryman
Somebody once pronounced upon one Path. What rhythm shall we use for Richard’s death, the dearer of the dear, my older friend of three blackt out on me I am heartbroken-open-heart surgery-see! but I am not full of fear.
Richard is quiet who talked on so well: I fill with fear: I agree: all this is hell Where will he lie? In a tantrum of horror & blocking where will he be? With Helen, whom he softened-see! see! see! But not nearby.
Which search for Richard will not soon be done. I blow on the live coal. I would be one, another one. Surely the galaxy will scratch my itch Augustinian, like the night-wind witch and I will love that touch.
R. P. Blackmur would begin teaching English literature in 1940 at Princeton and would remain a faculty member of the department for the next 25 years. Blackmur was an eloquent voice for the new age in criticism. His own small body of published work well behind him, he parlayed his keen intellect, intimidating good looks, sharp tongue into a successful teaching career and eventually literary criticism. It was he that put in a good word for Berryman and helped him obtain a position in the fall of 1943. The period from 1943 to 1953 saw Berryman hold various positions at Princeton and saw him rise in stature as a poet among his peers.
During this period he befriended Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Caroline Gordon, Jean Stafford, Randall Jarrell, Saul Bellows, R. P. Blackmur, in addition to his long standing relationships with Schwartz, Tate and others. He won numerous awards during this period for essays, short stories, a biography of Stephen Crane and in 1953, for his long poem Homage to Miss Bradstreet. The list of awards is note worthy, including a Rockefeller Foundation Research fellowship (1944), Kenyon-Doubleday first place award for writing, (1945), Gurantors Prize for Poetry (1949), Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1949), Levinson Prize for Poetry (1950) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing (1952).
These ten years mark both the rise of Berryman as an established poet and writer as well as the fall of Berryman as a man and a husband. It is a period marked by repeated affairs, excessive womanizing and multiple betrayals of Eileen. It is a wonder their marriage lasted ten years. That it did, is a testament to Eileen’s kindness and forgiveness. Her inability to have a child was a source of both relief and agony for both during their marriage. Berryman’s drinking and ill health as well as Eileen’s own health issues, peppered their ten year marriage with constant drama, but also mutual dependence.
It was during this period that he had his affair with Lise in 1947, the much younger wife of a graduate student. It was an all consuming, destructive affair. It was also mind games, as Berryman used Lise to not only fuel his ego sexually, but also to construct a muse for his writing of sonnets, that would chronicle the affair. He wrote them in secret, used them to seduce her and would only publish them as a volume called Berryman’s Sonnets twenty years later. The 130 plus sonnets were published in 1967, after publication of 77 Dream Songs in 1964.
I mention the affair and the book for two reasons. One, Berryman’s Sonnets was a critical and publishing flop. The context of their writing and the inappropriateness of the relationship gives everyone the willies and they aren’t very good. The very fact that it was published on the heals of winning the Pulitzer Prize is an hangover of the establishment of white men of letters of the time, who were allowed to get away with behavior that would be condemned today. Second, it is evidence that Berryman, who wrote an extensive biography on Shakespeare, was wrestling with the traditional sonnet form within the context of “romantic”, if you can call it that, literature. It is from this base of extensive sonnet writing that he would move on to the more stylized form that would become the basis of the Dream Songs.
Berryman is richly praised for his “original” creation of the Dream Song sonnet form. So it was a bit of a surprise when I stumbled across Blackmur’s poem below, published in 1933, years before Berryman wrote any of his Dream Songs. The eighteen line poem, consisting of three six line stanzas is identical in its construction and use of rhyme for which Berryman would become renowned. I have always felt that everything is derivative, nothing is completely original. Every writer, either consciously or unconsciously, is influenced by writing that came before their own. But it is striking to see an example of a close colleague, with whom he taught alongside for years, use the form that would become associated with Berryman 30 years later.
by R. P. Blackmur
I saw a face rise up made honest by the dark shadow of its hat. What animal out of the ark but would continue chaste had its opposite a face like that?
How have I seen this promise waste— treasure of company, complement in thought, the cord of Unity binding the public deed— spent, bewildered, broken, gone to seed.
How have I seen a smile unsought startle the mystery, make plain how all this action ends. From this his gestured generosity I think him such an actor as, maybe, might lay down a hated wife for friends.
The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.
Mark Van Doren
After Long Drought
by Mark Van Doren
After long drought, commotion in the sky; After dead silence, thunder. Then it comes, The rain. It slashes leaves, and doubly drums On tin and shingle; beats and bends awry The flower heads; puddles dust, and with a sigh Like love sinks into grasses, where it hums As bees did once, among chrysanthemums And asters when the summer thought to die.
The whole world dreamed of this, and has it now. Nor was the waking easy. The dull root Is jealous of its death; the sleepy brow Smiles in its slumber; and a heart can fear The very flood it longed for, roaring near. The spirit best remembers being mute.
Dream Song 123
by John Berryman
Dapples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north, I have nothing to say except that it dapples my floor and it would dapple me if I lay on that floor, as-well-forthwith I have done, trying well to mount a thought not carelessly
in times forgotten, except by the New York Times which can’t forget. There is always the morgue. There are men in the morgue. These men have access. Sleepless, in position, they dream the past forever Colossal in the dawn comes the second light
we do all die, in the floor, in the morgue and we must die forever, c’est la mort a heady brilliance the ultimate gloire post-mach, probably in underwear as we met each other once.
God bless Henry. He lived like a rat, with a thatch of hair on his head in the beginning. Henry was not a coward. Much. He never deserted anything; instead he stuck, when things like pity were thinning.
So may be Henry was a human being Let’s investigate that ….. We did; okay. He is a human American man. That’s true. My lass is braking. My brass is aching. Come % diminish me, & map my way.
God’s Henry’s enemy. We’re in business . . . Why, what business must be clear. A cornering. I couldn’t feel more like it. – Mr Bones, as I look on the saffron sky, you strikes me ornery.
There are other connections between Berryman and myself. When Berryman first moved to Minnesota in 1954 he moved to 2509 Humbolt Avenue South, an area in Minneapolis called Uptown. The house is still there and looks much the same as as it did nearly 70 years ago. He made it a daily routine to walk around Lake of the Isles, an approximately 3 mile walk that is only 2 blocks from both his apartment and the condo I own 4 blocks away. It is a neighborhood that has and hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. It still meets the criteria, then and now, that you can walk to almost anything you would ever need; a grocery store, a liquor store, a hardware store, a movie theater, a library, clothing and used furniture stores, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, synagogues and churches, book stores, ice cream store, all the staples of a good life. When I walk around Lake of the Isles I sometimes wonder what Berryman would think of how Uptown looks today? Would he think it gentrified or run down compared to his first months in Minneapolis?
Spending time in The Dream Songs raises all kinds of questions in my mind.
Who is Henry?
Who is Mr. Bones?
Who is the narrator?
Are these carefully crafted poems or the product of an afternoon’s work, tossed off under the influence of alcohol?
Why are they structured the way the are? What purpose does their structure serve?
This is a simple list of questions that immediately come to mind. I wish I could travel back in time and take one of his classes or buy him a drink at Stub and Herb’s at seven corners and ask him. Let’s start with who is Henry?
It’s too easy to say Henry is John Berryman. Nothing Berryman did was by chance. Berryman earned his education through a combination of good fortune, good luck and sheer force of will. His intelligence earned him multiple scholarships along the way of a formal boarding prep school, then his time at Columbia University and Cambridge. Each stop of his academic career immersed him among some of the finest literary minds of the first half of the 20th century, both professors and students. Berryman wrote in the classical sonnet structure years before he began writing The Dream Songs and years before he published The Berryman Sonnets. He viewed the sonnets he published as autobiographical, writing in the first person and using the form to create a literary and personal ending to relationships and travails early in his life. But The Dream Songs are different than his sonnets. I would argue that none of his three main re-occurring characters are Berryman directly. Each has a different literary purpose to which Berryman assigns a role in the pursuit of his creative expression.
Berryman wrote about The Dream Songs; “whatever its cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age…” Henry I believe is a character that Berryman could observe, like a god from above, and write the things that Berryman the man could not bear to write about himself. Henry is that strange being that exists in poetry, that is neither the poet, nor the man, nor the muse, but a tether to which the ideas of the poetry can be attached to give it greater weight. Henry freed Berryman to write in the style he so desperately wanted to write. Free of the expectations of the formal structure of a sonnet, Berryman put his own stamp on a form that served his purposes.
The Dream Songs – The more than 400 that have been published and the more than double that number which were not, follow roughly the same structure. I believe structure was important to Berryman, if for no other reason in that it allowed his brain a break. In most cases the structure is made up of 18 lines, 3 separate 6 line stanzas, that often, but not always, have some rhyming contained within, but there is no strict rules by which the rhymes appear. Unlike traditional sonnets, there is no strict meter or rhyming conclusions, no sense of finality. The Dream Songs are open often ended, as if you are waking from a dream in which the conscious mind, wonders where the dream would have led had sleep not been interrupted.
Dream Song 13 is the first time Mr. Bones is introduced into the cast of characters. Mr. Bones is neither Henry or Berryman’s alter ego, but rather more the fool, who is afforded truths, like Homer Simpson, in ways that we all can too well relate, but would rather not acknowledge. Mr Bones is Henry’s wing man, a spirited companion to debate the meaning of life and death. At times Mr Bones provides some comic relief, and at others he is an observer to Henry’s most tortured innermost thoughts. Mr. Bones is both drinking buddy and priest to Henry or Berryman.
I believe the structure gave purpose to Berryman, a process and a canvas on which to write, while not limiting him. They are by design not an imitation of the classical poetry that Berryman had studied and written prior to publishing of The Dream Songs. I also think that 18 lines was all that Berryman could manage most days, before turning his mind to something else. It was a way to be productive, feel productive, when longer forms of writing, like novels, screen plays or long form poetry eluded him. The Dream Songs structure were created out of necessity. And it is this very limitation of Berryman the man and the poet, that gives The Dream Songs their beauty.
Dream Song – 25
by John Berryman
Henry, edged, decidedly, made up stories lighting the past of Henry, of his glorious present, and his hoaries, all the bight heals he tamped – – Euphoria, Mr. Bones, euphoria. Fate clobber all. -Hand me back my crawl,
condign Heavens. Tighten into a ball elongate & valved Henry. Tuck him peace. Remember him sightless, or ruin at high rate his crampon focus, wipe out his need. Reduce him to the rest of us. -But, Bones, you is that.
-I cannot remember. I am going away. There was something in my dream about a Cat, which fought and sang. Something about a lyre, an Island. Unstrung. Linked to the land at low tide. Cables fray, Thank you for everything.
…This world is wild as an old wives’ tale, And strange the plain things are, The earth is enough and the air is enough For our wonder and our war; But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings And our peace is put in impossible things Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening Home shall men come, To an older place than Eden And a taller town than Rome. To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are, To the place where God was homeless And all men are at home.
The Burning Babe
By Robert Southwell
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow, Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow; And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near, A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear; Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed. ‘Alas!’ quoth he, ‘but newly born, in fiery heats I fry, Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I. My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns, Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shames and scorns; The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals, The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls, For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good, So will I melt into a bath, to wash them in my blood.’ With this he vanished out of sight, and swiftly shrunk away, And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
by Louise Imogen Guiney
I: THE MOTOR: 1905
From hedgerows where aromas fain would be
New volleyed odours execrably arise;
The flocks, with hell-smoke in their patient eyes,
Into the ditch from bawling ruin flee:
Spindrift of one abominated sea
Along all roads in wrecking fury flies
Till on young strangled leaf, on bloom that dies,
In this far plot it writes a rune for me.
Vast intimate tyranny! Nature dispossessed
Helplessly hates thee, whose symbolic flare
Lights up (with what reiterance unblest!)
Entrails of horror in a world thought fair.
False God of pastime thou, vampire of rest,
Augur of what pollution, what despair?
Guiney’s old English verse is as thick as the carbon black from exhaust of early automobiles on London’s cobble stone streets, yet it is remarkably clairvoyant of what will unfold with the consequences of fossil fuel consumption. The internal combustion engine was invented in a series of breakthroughs beginning around 1870. Ford’s Model T wasn’t rolled out until 1908. But Guiney’s poem of 1905 already is dreading the despotic hold that automobiles will have on the 20th century. No single thing has caused more ecological destruction than the endless applications that internal combustion engines have caused, enabling humanity’s zeal to make money from natural resources. Internal combustion engines made it possible for people to travel to places they could never have otherwise managed to travel and live in places they could never have managed to live. The internal combustion engine has made resource extraction and exploitation possible at levels never imagined 100 years ago.
I particularly love her expression – vampire of rest. It sums up the feeling I get driving to work with endless pressure from middle aged and older men in mostly pickups, aggressively riding my bumper, wanting to drive 20 miles over the speed limit, and acting like they, and only they have a right to the road. I have coined a new phrase for them – Frustrated Older Republican Drivers – (though I am sure there are Democrats doing the same) driving mostly Ford F150s in which they are angrily ensconced. What is driving this anger? I suspect it is a frustration stemming from a nagging realization that a lifestyle they have worked so hard to create is not sustainable in the future. We have built cities and infrastructure designed for our past, not our future. Ford is aggressively marketing an all electric replacement for the Ford F150 that is impractical, range limited, excessively expensive, dangerously heavy and bound to fail. It is a marketing statement, not a transformational vehicle for the future. If America is going to get serious about climate change we are going to have to adapt and give up our obsession with large vehicles. And we all are going to have to get comfortable with that change voluntarily or get carbon taxed into it. Change makes most old men, even me, grumpy.
By Louise Imogen Guiney
You that are dear, O you above the rest! Forgive him his evasive moods and cold; The absence that belied him oft of old, The war upon sad speech, the desperate jest, And pity’s wildest gush but half-confessed, Forgive him! Let your gentle memories hold Some written word once tender and once bold, Or service done shamefacedly at best, Whereby to judge him. All his days he spent, Like one who with an angel wrestled well, O’ermastering Love with show of light disdain; And whatso’er your spirits underwent, He, wounded for you, worked no miracle To make his heart’s allegiance wholly plain.
At a certain point all writing is political, whether the writer realizes it or not, because it positions itself a certain angle. It stands, whether it likes it or not, in relation to its time.
At the Solstice
by Sean O’Brien
We say Next time we’ll go away, But then the winter happens, like a secret
We’ve to keep yet never understand As daylight turns to cinema once more:
A lustrous darkness deep in ice-age cold, And the print in need of restoration
Starting to consume itself With snowfall where no snow is falling now.
Or could it be a cloud of sparrows, dancing In the bare hedge that this gale of light
Is seeking to uproot? Let it be sparrows, then, Still dancing in the blazing hedge,
Their tender fury and their fall, Because it snows, because it burns.
For the past couple of years I am in a race with the start of winter and the on-set of cold weather, a rush to see how many outdoor projects I can finish. This year I discovered, late in the fall, the solution for a problem that had been vexing me all summer, just as the number of days above freezing were dwindling. I had ordered screens for the windows I had installed a year ago back in May, and the brand name company who made them apparently has decided to stop making screens, because my order was never completed. Then in late November, I realized there were stock storm windows available at my local building supply store that would fit my windows, with just a minor clever tweak at instillation. After buying one to prove my theory correct, we bought three more and got them in last weekend. Now I am tempted to try and get two more on the second story of the north side of the house, where the wind blows, this coming Sunday, but it means making many trips up and down a ladder in the cold. The question I ponder – is it worth it?
Increasingly, that seems to be a question I ask myself about a lot of things that pull at me lately, wanting my attention and time? Is it worth it? I think the answer is yes, but it’s going to be miserable, or at best uncomfortable, like many of the other things I contemplate that very same question. Life is not made up of a series of tasks that are pleasant. Someone has to muck out the stalls, clean the cat pan, suffer through another boring TEAMs meeting on the very same topic as the previous week by the inept project lead who can’t seem to take notes or make decisions. Life is a slog these days more often than not. How does one wax the sleds so that life pulls a little easier or even glides ever so slightly downhill once again?
One of the blessings of Fourteen Lines, is that I have come to appreciate poets that I had glossed over years before. Robert Frost is one such poet. The deeper I read Frost the more I enjoy his perspective. Maybe I am finally catching up to him. I have read this poem a few winters, considering it. But it wasn’t until this week that several lines jumped off the page and grabbed me. I appreciate Frost extending a literary hand and pulling me closer. For those of us that experience an actual winter, it can become a time, to come in out of the cold and ponder the stores in our cellar.
A light he was to no one but himself Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what, A quiet light, and then not even that.
An Old Man’s Winter Night
by Robert Frost
All out of doors looked darkly in at him Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars, That gathers on the pane in empty rooms. What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand. What kept him from remembering what it was That brought him to that creaking room was age. He stood with barrels round him—at a loss. And having scared the cellar under him In clomping there, he scared it once again In clomping off;—and scared the outer night, Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar Of trees and crack of branches, common things, But nothing so like beating on a box. A light he was to no one but himself Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what, A quiet light, and then not even that. He consigned to the moon,—such as she was, So late-arising,—to the broken moon As better than the sun in any case For such a charge, his snow upon the roof, His icicles along the wall to keep; And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted, And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept. One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house, A farm, a countryside, or if he can, It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
God, though this life is but a wraith, Although we know not what we use, Although we grope with little faith, Give me the heart to fight and lose.
No Worst, There is None
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
One could argue, quite successfully, that pairing Hopkin with Untermeyer is in poor taste, rather like pairing champagne with collard greens. Each has it own merit, but better to drink beer with one and eat strawberries with the other. However, just because it isn’t done, doesn’t mean the clash can’t be illuminating.
Untermeyer was a clever chap, he ran in elite literary circles, not so much as a writer but more so as an editor and anthologist. His academic background helped to wrangle a spot as one of the original judges on What’s My Line? in the early days of television. He was booted off the show after a year because there was a whiff of Marxism floating around in his closet from many years prior. The producers used it as an excuse to remove what was a decideldy dull personality from its show. Untermeyer’s blacklisting was more like a grey listing, as the evidence really didn’t stand up. In fact at the very time that Untermeyer was under suspicion, he was waging a rather nasty rhetorical battle against Ezra Pound, who was in prison for treason. Many other writers had come to Pound’s defense, but not Untermeyer. With a level of wit completely non-existent from his television career, he was quoted as saying, ““I do not believe he (Pound) should be shot. I would favor merely life imprisonment in a cell surrounded by books—all of them copies of the works of Edgar A. Guest.”
Untermeyer fared far better than others who were blacklisted for less. He was appointed to the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the position that was the predecessor to our national poet laureate. Untermeyer is best known for his translation work and his many anthologies for readers of all ages. Untermeyer traveled extensively late in life giving lectures on poetry around the world, his welcome little sullied by his political leanings.
On The Birth Of A Child
by Louis Untermeyer
LO, to the battle-ground of Life, Child, you have come, like a conquering shout, Out of a struggle—into strife; Out of a darkness—into doubt.
Girt with the fragile armor of youth, Child, you must ride into endless wars, With the sword of protest, the buckler of truth, And a banner of love to sweep the stars.
About you the world’s despair will surge; Into defeat you must plunge and grope. Be to the faltering an urge; Be to the hopeless years a hope!
Be to the darkened world a flame; Be to its unconcern a blow— For out of its pain and tumult you came, And into its tumult and pain you go
“What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1899)
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Hopkins, for all his precise literary religious fervor, is complicated in his contradictions. He uses exquisite rhyme and structure to construct his poetic hymns. His goal was to promote Christianity through his art. In his own words;
“What are works of art for? to educate, to be standards. To produce is of little use unless what we produce is known, is widely known, the wider known the better, for it is by being known that it works, it influences, it does its duty, it does good. We must try, then, to be known, aim at it, take means to it. And this without puffing in the process or pride in the success.”
Well, let’s not go too far Mr. Hopkins in your humbleness. You also said, “What I do is me, for that I came,” which is a clever way to say, I am what I write or I write because I am, either way there is a certain amount of credit being taken. I have never met a writer who put their work out into the public eye that didn’t take a little pride in its success. If Hopkins’ was writing today he would have thousands of likes on his blog. My point is genius can rarely get out of the way of its own recognition.
It’s okay to not seek recognition, it is another to ignore it. I am in the camp both approaches are acceptable to an artist, but the latter can get one in bind if they pick and choose what awards they acknowledge during their career. Writers willing to be adored only by fans worthy of their adoration rarely age well, the vintage goes off as dust settles, something just not quite right as the flavor goes off.
The interesting question is why do some why do poets like Hopkins continue to inspire for hundred’s of years after their deaths, while thousands of other writers, some with equal gifts, are discarded by and large to obscurity relatively quickly? I think it may have something to do with luck and inspiration, but in reality I have no idea….
Justus quidem tu es, Domine
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just. Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must Disappointment all I endeavour end? Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain, Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.