I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you’ve been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I’ve been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.
Knowing there is no one measure of compatibility in human relationships, I still offer this: in my experience it is the quality of sleep that I achieve next to a partner that cements the bond between us as strongly as anything in the waking realm. Sleep can be messy; drooling, bad breath, restless legs, periods of wakefulness and brief conversations in the middle of the night in which one or the other partner has no waking memory. It is an anti-dote and mirror to our wakefulness and when it is gentle and accepting it makes the messiness of consciousness more accepting.
It is Pride Week. Pride festivities are likely to be a bit more subdued this year, social distancing and all, but I hope the momentum towards social justice keeps marching on, seeping into all the cracks that need to be filled in our social fabric, still allowing it to stretch into a bigger and bigger tent. Adrienne Rich is an important voice in LBGQT poetry and politics. Her poetic genius was not so much political it was an expression of love. I have several of her books from the 1970’s, relatively early in her career, her voice is one of confidence, one of courage, one of power; the power of love.
What are you doing to mark Pride this year? Marching? Dancing? Calling old friends? Doing something that celebrates we are all wonderful shades of the rainbow?
What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What atonement is this all about?
—and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.
Is all this close to the wolverines’ howled signals,
that modulated cantata of the wild?
or, when away from you I try to create you in words,
am I simply using you, like a river or a war?
And how have I used rivers, how have I used wars
to escape writing of the worst thing of all—
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our own freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?
Let it come down: these thicknesses of air
have long enough walled love away from love;
stillness has hardened until words despair
of their high leaps and kisses shut themselves
back into wishing. Crippled lovers lie
against a weather which holds out on them,
waiting, awaiting some shrill sign, some cry,
some screaming cat that smells a sacrifice
and spells them thunder. Start the mumbling lips,
syllable by monotonous syllable,
that wash away the sullen griefs of love
and drown out knowledge of an ancient war—
o, ill-willed dark, give with the sound of rain,
let love be brought to ignorance again.
Rain is in the forecast this week here in Minneapolis. It will be a cold rain when it comes. The kind of rain that will eat away at the snow piles that remain, help wash away the salt and dirt of winter, deteriorate the piles of dog poo that had congregated beneath the snow and now have resurfaced in back yards. It won’t be until the second or third rain that spring truly arrives in Minnesota. The kind of rain that changes the way the world smells, a smell of hope and growing things, the smell of soil coming back to life.
The sonnet above by Mueller is masterful. It is a framework for emotion, memories and pictures, rendering in each reader a different message. It says a lot but not too much. It is just opaque enough to allow the reader to be pulled in whatever direction their mind is taking them at the time. I like poetry that resembles a Rorschach test, it has a definite imprint you can see in black and white, but what it is exactly, is up to the individual to interpret.
This is not my idea, it is a concept rooted in history. The German mystic and poet Justinus Kerner (1786 – 1862) wrote and drew a series of complex ink blots captioned with accompanying poems. His work preceded Rorschach. Kerner’s work was popular towards the end of the 19th century. Kerner’s idea became the basis for children’s games such as “Gobolinks” and “Blottentots” in the United States, “Klecks,” in Germany, and “Blotto,” in the United Kingdom. In all of these games, the players made inkblot pictures and then wrote short poems, interpreting how the picture moved them. How wonderful to make art and poetry a game in which everyone can play, before we become reserved and shy with words.
by Lisel Mueller
“Don’t cry, its only music,”
someone’s voice is saying.
“No one you love is dying.”
It’s only music. And it was only spring,
the world’s unreasoning body
run amok, like a saint’s, with glory,
that overwhelmed a young girl
into unreasoning sadness.
“Crazy,” she told herself,
“I should be dancing with happiness.”
But it happened again. It happens
when we make bottomless love—
there follows a bottomless sadness
which is not despair
but its nameless opposite.
It has nothing to do with the passing of time.
It’s not about loss. It’s about
two seemingly parallel lines
suddenly coming together
inside us, in some place
that is still wilderness.
Joy, joy, the sopranos sing,
reaching for the shimmering notes
while our eyes fill with tears.
Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,
It seemed a curious thing that she had lain
Beside him many a night in that cold bed,
And that had been which would not be again.
From his desirous body the great heat
Was gone at last, it seemed, and the taut nerves
loosened forever. Formally the sheet
Set forth for her today those curves
And lengths familiar as the bedroom door.
She was as one who enters, sly and proud,
To where her husbands speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before –
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers,
Reading the sonnets contained within Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree, it is hard to reconcile the timeline of when they were penned to the content. Edna St. Vincent Millay published them in 1923, several years before she met and wed her husband and more than 20 years before a sequence of deaths of men she loved would begin to surround her like a shroud. I am not one to investigate literary criticism, which ties all kinds of obscure politics and literary references to lines of poetry. I know that is what great poets do, they write literary criticism, they read literary criticism, they translate other great poets from other languages and they write poetry with depth so literary critics have something to do. But I am not a great poet. I am consumer of poetry and as I have stated before, I approach poetry with the same approach I drink wine, I consume what I like, regardless of what other people think or the gravitas it has received.
There are seventeen sonnets in the sequence from Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree that deal with Death, using the view point of a wife watching and helping her husband die. Vincent constructed these sonnets slightly different than her previous work, but the construction in my mind is not intent on making a statement on Feminism as much as they fit the disjointed nature of the subject matter – death. I do believe that great poets and novelists are able to create something in words that is entirely more real than the life in which they live. These sonnets are written in third person, not first person and by doing so, they are not autobiographical, but at the same time they are chillingly personal.
The first sonnet in the sequence tells the story of many marriages, one that has subsided in working like a marriage should, but there is still a kind of connection with a history of love that cannot ever completely unchain one from the other. The first lines speaks volumes of what has come and gone. And like most things in life, do not express the totality of the wife’s sentiments, which are flushed out in subsequent sonnets.
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
So she came back into his house again.
And watched beside his bed until he died,
Loving him not all. The winter rain
Splashed in the painted butter-tub outside,
Where once her red geraniums had stood,
Where still their rotted stalk were to be seen;
The thin log snapped; and she went out for wood,
Bareheaded, running the few steps between
The house and shed; there, from the sodden eaves
Blown back and forth on ragged ends of twine,
Saw the dejected creeping-jinny vine,
(And one, big aproned, blithe, with stiff blue sleeves
Rolled to the shoulder that warm day in spring,
Who planted seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming).
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
She had a horror he would die at night.
And sometimes when the light began to fade
She could not keep from noticing how white
The birches looked – and then she would be afraid,
Even with a lamp, to go about the house
And lock the windows; and as night wore on
Toward morning, if a dog howled, or a mouse
Squeaked in the floor, long after it was gone
Her flesh would sit awry on her. By day
She would forget somewhat, and it would seem
A silly thing to go with just this dram
And get a neighbor to come at night and stay.
But it would strike her sometimes, making the tea: She had kept that kettle boiling all night long, for company.
I have had more than my fair share of deaths in my circle of loved ones in the past year. It can get to feel like death is ganging up on you. And it has been interesting to watch how all impacted in various spheres of my life, have dealt with the grief and finality of change that death brings. There is no one way to grieve and no right or wrong way to experience the loss of beloved ones and creatures in our lives. Grief is entirely a personal experience best shared with others, even if it feels awkward. In a recent conversation with someone who has experienced a bucketful of tragedy and loss in a short period of time, she stated it astutely, “I did the best that I could.” Vincent channels that sense of being lost and doing the best you can in the final sonnet I will share from this sequence.
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The doctor asked what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days,
and she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
‘Twould have been easier – then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
And questioning her, she’d never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came . . .
She said at length, feeling the doctor’s eyes,
“I don’t know what you do exactly when a person dies.”
“You know there are no secrets in America. It’s quite different in England, where people think of a secret as a shared relation between two people.”
W. H. Auden
At Last The Secret Is Out
by W. H. Auden
At last the secret is out,
as it always must come in the end,
the delicious story is ripe to tell
to tell to the intimate friend;
over the tea-cups and into the square
the tongues has its desire;
still waters run deep, my dear,
there’s never smoke without fire.
Behind the corpse in the reservoir,
behind the ghost on the links,
behind the lady who dances
and the man who madly drinks,
under the look of fatigue
the attack of migraine and the sigh
there is always another story,
there is more than meets the eye.
For the clear voice suddenly singing,
high up in the convent wall,
the scent of the elder bushes,
the sporting prints in the hall,
the croquet matches in summer,
the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
there is always a wicked secret,
a private reason for this.
A life measured in words is a noble thing. It has the ability to stretch far beyond bronze sculptures, oil paintings, ancient pottery, fresco or tile, well into the future, nearly intact. It is a time capsule of a person’s most intimate secrets that can reach across eons. The poets inner life always exposed and raw. What I find spellbinding about Auden is his ability to surprise me, mid line, time after time. Auden’s work feels like he never wrote to appease anyone but himself. He never appears to be grand standing. There is a humbleness to Auden that keeps it refreshing and genuine. T. S. Eliot always strikes me a bit like he was writing to pick up girls and get laid. It has a falseness about it sometimes, that lacks sincerity, whereas Auden reads like poetry was the only intimate act between two people he ever considered.
I wonder if the digital world will overwhelm posterity with mediocrity someday? Will Auden’s work be buried beneath the next thousand years of marginal poets creating sedimentary formations in the digital world that will obscure his greatness? Or will his work become compressed to be a layer of energy, like oil deep beneath the ground, just waiting to be tapped? I hope there will be men and women like me, every generation, who will discover Auden and keep his words alive.
An interesting thing to consider is whether English will be a spoken language in 2,000 years? Or will it become like Latin, an ancient readable, translatable text, that no living human being can converse or speak naturally. And if English becomes a dead language, how will Auden be translated? Will his ideas survive further into the future than the words themselves? And what will human kind think of this man in their new vocabulary that inspires them to evolve him through translation into their modernity?
The Hidden Law
by W. H Auden
The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are,
And answers nothing when we lie.
It is the only reason why
No government can codify,
And verbal definitions mar
The Hidden Law.
Its utter patience will not try
To stop us if we want to die;
If we escape it in a car,
If we forget It in a bar,
These are the ways we’re punished by
The Hidden Law
No one, not even Cambridge was to blame
(Blame if you like the human situation):
Heart-injured in North London, he became
The Latin Scholar of his generation.
Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor.
In savage foot-notes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led,
And put the money of his feelings on
The uncritical relations of the dead,
Where only geographical divisions
Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don.”
The critics didn’t think much of Auden’s sonnet when it was published in 1936, the year of Housman’s death. It was viewed as cynical and priggish. Auden was pressured not to include it in later collections of his work. I look at the sonnet differently. I don’t think it was intended as a literary left jab. I think it was a straight on assessment from one poet to another, an homage from one scholar to another, and a gesture from one man to another. In the company of men it is far better to be teased than ignored if Auden in fact meant it as such. Auden wouldn’t have wasted his time writing a sonnet for someone who hadn’t captured a part of his imagination. It’s possible it was written as a bit of politcal statement on acceptance of homosexuality in his own inimitable way. I know I would be flattered if a writer of the stature of Auden had taken the time to write a sonnet with me as the central figure, even if it contained some inconvenient implications.
The trouble with trying to relate a sonnet to a flesh and blood person is how much does anyone really know about another person? Housman taken at his word in private correspondence stated “very little in my work is biographical” and appeared in later life to distance himself from his poetry which although popular was under siege by critics of his day as somewhat immature in its themes and poorly constructed. Housman rested his professional reputation as a scholar, not as a poet.
I think that Housman might protest a bit too much in denying that his poetry did not come from his own experience. There is an underlying grey cloud of depression that permeates his poetry. It is not surprising given that he was homosexual and unable to realize relationships with men given the criminality of homosexuality at that time. In the on-line Poetry Foundation biography of Housman he is quoted in a letter that his writing of poetry came like;
‘a morbid secretion’, as the pearl is for the oyster. The desire, or the need, did not come upon him often, and it came usually when feeling ill or depressed.”
I have sympathy for Housman, it can’t be much fun as a writer if the source of your inspiration is only fueled by the dark side of your psyche.
What does Auden mean by the line “In savage footnotes on unjust editions”? I think it might reference the publication of some of Housman’s poems after his death by his brother Lawrence. Auden’s sonnet came out three years after the following two poems were published posthumously in 1933.
by A. E. Housman
He would not stay for me; and who can wonder? —He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand tore my heart in sunder —And went with half my life about my ways.
by A. E. Housman
Because I liked you better —Than it suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised —To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us —We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Goodbye’, said you, ‘forget me.’ —‘I will, no fear’, said I.
If here, where clover whitens —The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you —Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone naming —The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you —Was one who kept his word.
A further footnote that Auden was unaware, is an essay deposited in the British Library in 1942 by Lawrence Housman titled “A. E. Housman’s ‘De Amicitia'” with instructions it not be published until 1967. The essay talks candidly of Housman’s homosexuality and for his love of Moses Jackson as a young man which he repressed.
It is hard for us to understand homosexuality having such dire consequences through today’s lens of protection under the law for non-discrimination based on sexuality. Remember that in 1895 Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for indecency for being a sodomite. He would die in 1900 as a direct result of the conditions he was subjected to in prison. It makes it easier to understand why Housman might create a healthy distance from the rhymes of his poetry that reveal his most private thoughts. I’ll end this blog entry with a poem Housman penned as brilliant homage to Wilde following his trial. I wonder what Housman would have written if he had been un-cuffed and free to express whatever he chose?
Oh Who Is That Young Sinner
By A. E. Housman
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.
Now ’tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.
Here dead lie we because we did not choose —To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; —But young men think it is, and we were young.
A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936)
A. E. Housman and Wilfred Owen both have childhood connections to Shropshire, England. It is there alone, separated by a gap of more than 30 years, that their lives intersect beyond poetry. Wilfred only published 5 poems while alive and penned nearly all of his poetry in the 18 months prior to his death. His friend and fellow soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, oversaw the editing and publication of his work in 1920 following Owen’s death.
Owen is revered as one of the great war poets of World War I, his poetic talents heightened by his harrowing experience. Owen, in letters home, regretted returning to the front after recuperating in Scotland from injuries sustained in France the year prior, but kept his anti-war poetry to himself among the soldiers he fought alongside. He lost his life at the age of 25 in battle, by all accounts, a brave and loyal soldier.
I do not consider A. E. Housman a war poet. He lived comfortably, if unhappily, to the age of 77. He published only 2 volumes of poetry during his lifetime. His first volume, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, enjoyed critical success. Housman was an acclaimed Latin scholar and along with his success as a poet, landed several prestigious academic positions, which allowed him to retreat from the difficulties of life among the elite in Oxford. I don’t cast spurious judgement upon Houseman for being pampered, sullen, private and un-prolific, he earned his success. However, his poetry lacks the tension of Owen’s in part because of his lack of real world experience. Owen risked much more in the creation of his art or was it the risk that created his art?
I am unable to find a single sonnet from Housman in his collected works. He wrote several 4 line poems that follow 10 syllables per line that could be considered the start of sonnets but were clearly complete in their simplicity. He seemed to prefer a structure of 8 syllables per line, with many of his poems either 12 or 16 lines in length.
Owen’s legacy is as a voice of humanity in the insanity of war. Owen’s anti-war sentiments caution readers that governments will pander to men’s patriotic proclivity and entice them to enlist with promises of sacrificial glory. Though both wrote during a period of nearly endless conflicts and foreign wars in which recruits were needed for the ascension of the British Empire, it is Owen’s poetry which stands out for me in its brave clarity. To die for one’s country or fellow soldiers can be a noble act, but even the noblest of deaths are haunted by the questions from grieving loved ones if such a thing as a just war exists? The history of humankind littered with wars fueled by madness and vanity when the spotlight of history is finally lit.
I did not recognize Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est initally as a sonnet. On closer reading, the poem is 28 lines written as two sonnets back to back. The ending, Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori, translates roughly as “it is sweet to die for one’s country”.
Much has been written about the cruelty of mustard gas during World War I. It was in some ways the first weapon of mass destruction, though in the end it killed relatively few. Mustard gas instilled terror and was as much psychological warfare as an agent of death. Mustard gas was first developed by German chemists who falsely believed it would end the war quicker and reduce loss of life on both sides. 2017 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the use of chemical weapons in artillery shells and the rapid industrialization of weapons of mass destruction. Germany is not alone in its shame, with England and the United States both following suit, deploying chemical weapons as a precursor to the greater insanity of nuclear weapons. Our ability as humans to deceive ourselves as to what is justifiable is fathomless. Owen captures in Dulce et Decorum Est the inhumanity of chemical weapons. The poem is an anti-war testament for why no nation should ever deploy them again.
Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
The state of being obsessed with someone or something.
An idea or thought that repetitively preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.
The judgement of others who believe the person obsessed is spending an excessive amount of time on something.
English Oxford Dictionary
A true confession. The wonderful thing about an honest obsession is the depth of wonder it constantly evokes, connections that one either uncovers like mini-mysteries, threads woven into the common consciousness or imagines out of whole cloth for one’s own entertainment. To an outsider, another’s obsession may seem odd, repetitively annoying, bewildering, or taken to the extreme, a mental illness. I haven’t given this much thought, how my sonnet obsession might appear to others; harmless, eccentric, needlessly academic, outdated, nerdy all jump to mind. Fortunately, as of yet, it has not proven to be the cause of social ostracism or source of embarrassment to my children. However, I’ve only just begun this blog; stay tuned..
One of the things I quickly uncovered about sonnets is the ubiquity of their influence on writers of all stripes throughout the ages. Sonnets lend themselves to the obsessive mind because of their seemingly unlimited connections within literature, a backbone of the cosmos of poetic ideals that are inherent to the human psyche’s pursuit of artistic expression.
I have not, as yet, uncovered a sonnet written by Earnest Hemingway. If someone reading this blog knows of one, be so kind as to share it. The title to Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms, is likely lifted from George Peele’s sonnet of the same name. The themes of the novel and the sonnet are very much connected; exploring the noble ideals around the concept of service – service to country first as soldier, then, when no longer able to sustain the ravages of war, service to others, friends, family, lovers or Queen.
Reading Peele’s sonnet the first time sent me scurrying to the dictionary, unsure if I truly understood the meaning of the word beadsman. I’ll save you the trip. What I learned is in the 1500’s it was common for royalty, nobleman and wealthy benefactors of churches or castles to hire alms men or woman to pray for their well being. An interesting thought, that the rich believed someone else could pray their way to either earthly success or something more eternal. I suppose that’s the cynical view of a concept I have no modern equivalent. A more generous assumption would be that with no social security as safety net, the wealthy shared a modest pension to those that had loyally served them when young, to provide a modicum of support in their waning years. I’ll let you decide. Regardless, Peele’s sonnet speaks to the ideals of faithful service to a cause that is worthy of something greater than himself.
A Farewell To Arms
HIS golden locks Time hath to silver turn’d;
O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!
His youth ‘gainst time and age hath ever spurn’d,
But spurn’d in vain; youth waneth by increasing:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.
His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
And, lovers’ sonnets turn’d to holy psalms,
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms:
But though from court to cottage he depart,
His Saint is sure of his unspotted heart.
And when he saddest sits in homely cell,
He’ll teach his swains this carol for a song,–
‘Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well,
Curst be the souls that think her any wrong.’
Goddess, allow this aged man his right
To be your beadsman now that was your knight.