Tuesday, April 30, 2013

No, It’s Mine: Why You Should Never Loan a Book to Anyone Ever Ever Ever

Everything comes to him who waits, except a loaned book. 
~ McKinney Hubbard

A quandary of ideals is presented to anyone who loves books: such a bibliophile collects and cares for their library, but also wants to share their love of reading with their less literary-minded friends. Unfortunately to these less literary-minded friends, books are just wads of paper and not prized first editions.

The problem is this: that borrowed books are usually returned in worse condition than when they were first lent out. (Or, they’re returned in exactly the same condition, but then you find out the borrower didn’t ever get around to reading the book, which is a tragedy meriting its own blog post entirely.) Personally, the few books I have loaned out to people have only been returned slightly scathed: the hardcovers a little dinged up on the corner, maybe the gilt edging a little worn, but otherwise almost as good as when I lent them. 

Not everyone, however, has been as lucky as I: Edwin Arlington Robinson once called friends “people who borrow my books and set wet glasses on them.” As a public library employee, I can tell you that hard as it is to believe that someone would commit such a travesty, but it’s true. Coffee rings are the most common offenders, but thanks to library-regulation mylar (you know, that plastic layer over the dust jacket?) these rings are for the most part temporary. For some reason people feel the need to eat and read at the same time. I have found spaghetti stains INSIDE books. Ugh. And other things whose origins I dared not speculate upon. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

The World in one blog post: Thoughts on Katharine Philips' poem, "The World"

The World
by Katharine Philips

We all live by mistake, delight in dreams,

Lost to ourselves, and dwelling in extremes;

Rejecting what we have, though ne’er so good,

And prizing what we never understood.
(lines 23-26)

Katherine Philips’ poem does a very good job of summarizing a theme set out at length in the Bible’s Ecclesiastes: Everything is vanity; there is nothing new under the sun. 

You would think that encapsulating universal human problems in one poem and then entitling it “The World” would be a huge undertaking. But somehow Philips seems to do it, from talking about mortality and human suffering to the problem of understanding why we are here, what is the purpose of life in the stanza quoted above.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Read this entry with a glass of water handy

The Poet in the Desert by Charles Erskine Scott Wood (Stanza One):

I have come into the Desert because my soul is athirst as the Desert is athirst;
My soul which is the soul of all; universal, not different.
We are athirst for the waters which make beautiful the path
And entice the grass, the willows and poplars,
So that in the heat of the day we may lie in a cool shadow,
Soothed as by the hands of quiet women, listening to the discourse of running waters as the voices of women, exchanging the confidences of love.

I like this poem—particularly the first few stanzas—because it paints a vivid picture in my mind.  I can see the arid landscape rolling on for as far as the eye can see. Sand is everywhere, uninterrupted by any foliage, animal, or other person. I feel the longing, if not the physical thirst.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In which words fail me: Thoughts on Longfellow's "The Broken Oar"

I tried. I really did. I tried to think of some angle from which to approach this poem. But I couldn't. Anything I could say would be self-evident in the poem. Unless I said something inappropriate (which is not unprecedented, now that I think about it...).

There are some things in life that words are inadequate to describe.
And there are some WORDS in life that are inadequate to discuss.
At least at this moment, that's how I feel about this poem.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

O'er the starlit sea with Matthew Arnold


Self-Dependence by Matthew Arnold

Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel's prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o'er the starlit sea.

And a look of passionate desire
O'er the sea and to the stars I send:
'Ye who from my childhood up have calm'd me,
Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!

'Ah, once more,' I cried, 'ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!'

From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea's unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:
'Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.

'Unaffrighted by the silence round them,
Undistracted by the sights they see,
These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.

'And with joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silver'd roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.

'Bounded by themselves, and unregardful
In what state God's other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the mighty life you see.'

O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear:
'Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!'
I’m not going to delve into the deeper meanings of this poem, for two reasons:

1) I think any “moral” I might impose upon you would not be nearly as effective as the meaning you interpret for yourself, and
2) I don’t want to.

Monday, April 22, 2013

An Essay on Alexander Pope

An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope  

l. 566:

Be silent always when you doubt your sense;

And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:

Some positive persisting fops we know,

Who, if once wrong, will needs always be so;

But you, with pleasure own your errors past,

And make each day a critic on the past.

Recently I’ve been reading Alexander Pope: Selected Poetry and Prose for my daily dose of poetry.  It was hard connecting to his poetry at first.  For one thing, he uses a lot of couplets.  After awhile I started feeling I had been demoted back to Dr. Seuss.  It didn’t help that the volume I’m reading out of a second-hand paperback and the previous owner decided to voice all of her (the handwriting is too “loopy” to be a man’s) opinions on the overall quality of each poem by means of a Bic ballpoint pen, as well as self-evident comments on what certain phrases mean:

“To shoot” is underlined, with “hunting metaphor” scrawled next to it.  “Really?” I scoff, “I wouldn’t have figured that out, otherwise.  How helpful of you.”

Anyway, once I got past the couplets and the unnecessary running commentary, I began to appreciate Pope more.  First, I think it’s odd that he’s not more well known for his philosophy.  Much of his poetry attempts to get at the origin of some problem or to understand the source of a certain aspect of human nature.  And many of his poem are named essays, as he’s discussing a nonfiction topic in the attempt to persuade his audience of the truth of a certain point.
“This I might have done in prose,” he explains in his introduction to Essay on Man I, “but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons.  The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: The other may seem odd, but is true, I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions, depends on their conciseness.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

Don't be so "Sensitiveness": Thoughts on the Poem by John Henry Newman

Sensitiveness by John Henry Newman

Time was, I shrank from what was right,
From fear of what was wrong;
I would not brave the sacred fight,
Because the foe was strong.

Now that I’ve discovered this whole technique of “interrupting” the poem, I’m going to roll with it.  This is why we can’t have nice things. 

Oh, this first stanza. It’s full of regret. Who hasn’t had this happen?  You’re in a group, and someone says something that is wrong. Maybe it’s a hateful remark. Maybe it’s just a plain lie. And no one says anything.  And you don’t say anything, for fear of what someone else will think. I know I’ve done that. (I hope I haven’t done that much.) It’s the kind of incident that seems harmless when it happens, but then time proves it wasn’t harmless, not at all.  It’s the kind of thing that wakes me up in a cold sweat at night.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Remembering the hard stuff: Thomas Wyatt's "Forget Not Yet"

Forget Not Yet by Sir Thomas Wyatt
The Lover Beseecheth his Mistress not to Forget his
Steadfast Faith and True Intent

Forget not yet the tried intent
Of such a truth as I have meant;
My great travail so gladly spent,
Forget not yet!

Forget not yet when first began
The weary life ye know, since whan
The suit, the service, none tell can;
Forget not yet!

Forget not yet the great assays,
The cruel wrong, the scornful ways,
The painful patience in delays,
Forget not yet!

Forget not! O, forget not this!—

Wait wait go back. Let’s take a break and talk about those previous two stanzas.  Did  he just say not to forget “the weary life,” “the cruel wrong, the scornful ways” and “the painful patience in delays”?!

Isn’t that stuff that we would most like to forget? When we’re going through cruel wrong and scornful ways, don’t we think to ourselves, “Once this is over, I’ll be able to forget it.” Don’t we look forward to the time when we won’t need to be patient, when an interminable waiting period comes to an end? 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My soul, too, has grown deep - Thoughts on the Poetry of Langston Hughes

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln 
     went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy 
     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

How does Hughes know all of this? How does he know these ancient things, the Euphrates, the pyramids, the “ancient, dusky rivers”?

I know I discussed this poem in college, and I have this faint remembrance that the consensus of interpretation was something about racial identity. The mention of “human blood in human veins” and the reverence to slavery and Lincoln supports this interpretation.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Say what you mean: George Herbert's "Jordan I"

 WHo sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
            Not to a true, but painted chair?
Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?
Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
            Catching the sense at two removes?
Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envie no mans nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
            Who plainly say, My God, My King.

There is a danger when reading poetry of judging that poetry's quality according to how difficult it is to understand.  ("Huh.  I don't get it.  It must be great poetry.")  This opens the reader up for prizing lots of gobbledygood that, if translated into plain English, turns out to be nonsense.*

This is the kind of thing George Herbert is talking about in his poem Jordan I (he wrote another, Jordan II, which continues discussing this theme).  "Is there in truth no beauty?" he asks. ** To Herbert, all the most ornate and complex fabrications the human imagination can conjure are no match in beauty against plain, simple truth. 

Most of us who have had poetry assigned to our reading against our will can sympathize with Herbert's bemoaning, "Must all be vail'd?"  Although I've said before that I love T.S. Eliot and the type of metaphorical poetry that overflows with simile and metaphor, under all that symbolism must be a foundation of truth.  Otherwise the poem is meaningless.

*I'm looking at you, Gertrude Stein.
**Simultaneously, if unknowingly, naming a Star Trek episode.


Monday, April 15, 2013

Passive-Aggressive Poetry Selections

Just because I’m still talking about you, William Carlos Williams, doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you for This is Just to Say.
However, it is fun to make up similar passive-aggressive poems. There are entire forums on the internet for posting them. Unfortunately, as with every awesome internet phenomenon, there are trolls who like to post random expletive-ridden and dirty parodies. So I will simply present you with the five best homages, arduously and skillfully selected according to scientific empirical statistical…okay fine I admit they’re just the ones I find funny.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I'm Sorry (but not really)

A lot of the poems I like are metaphorical, metaphysical, or just plain meta. But some are pretty much exactly as they appear: no symbols, no hidden messages, no agendas. 

William Carlos Williams’ poetry is like that. Sometimes he’s so much Captain Obvious that it’s obnoxious: “Really, W.C.W., you wrote about a wheelbarrow? Really?”
It’s not like the red color symbolizes that the wheelbarrow maybe is of a rather loose character.  Or that the white chickens are some message about racism against Native Americans. Does the rain water denote some sort of cleansing? 

Nope. It’s a poem about a wet wheelbarrow next to some chickens. Better put it in the shed before it begins to rust. The end.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ode to Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Stanza V

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

It’s a wonderful, mysterious thing when something we see in nature teaches us about something inside our nature. Poetry has a way of bringing both to light, as Percy Bysshe Shelley does here in Ode to the West Wind. In it, he describes the West Wind, a portent of Autumn, with all the leaves dying and falling off the trees, and the wind sweeping them clean off the landscape. The coming of winter reminds Shelley of his own limited time on earth. “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” he moans, longing for his boyhood. 

But there is a cycle at play in nature. Life gives way to death. Death, in turn, gives way to life. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets that proclaim the way to immortality it through the immortal word, Shelley beseeches the West Wind to “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe.”

I think this poem’s message, that even “dead thoughts” can be given new life through scattering words among mankind, is very interesting when you compare it to another of Shelley’s works, Ozymandias:
Source: http://architecture.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/ozymandias1.jpg
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
Being the sneaky literature fiend that I am, I used Ozymandias as the introduction to a history paper I wrote once on the influence of Occidentalism on the European Romantic Movement. Yep, I was pretty pedantic back then. 

Ozymandias is about a traveler* from an antique land who finds a decrepit statue half-buried in the sand, on a pedestal proclaiming the might of a long-forgotten king. 

So which is it? Do our written words provide us with some immortality? Or will they only serve as pitiful reminders to the future, that someone once existed who thought their ideas would live forever?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Compass in Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning"

              AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
              And whisper to their souls to go,
              Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
              "Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."
              So let us melt, and make no noise,               
              No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
              'Twere profanation of our joys
              To tell the laity our love.
              Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears ;
              Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
              But trepidation of the spheres,
              Though greater far, is innocent.
              Dull sublunary lovers' love
              —Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
              Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
              The thing which elemented it.

              But we by a love so much refined,
              That ourselves know not what it is,
              Inter-assurèd of the mind,
              Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

              Our two souls therefore, which are one,
              Though I must go, endure not yet
              A breach, but an expansion,
              Like gold to aery thinness beat.

              If they be two, they are two so
              As stiff twin compasses are two ;
              Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
              To move, but doth, if th' other do.

              And though it in the centre sit,
              Yet, when the other far doth roam,               
              It leans, and hearkens after it,
              And grows erect, as that comes home.

              Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
              Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
              Thy firmness makes my circle just,

              And makes me end where I begun.

In the last half of this poem Donne creates a beautiful image. He has to leave his wife for a while (“I must go”), but the reason this poem forbids her from mourning is that their love is deeper than separation can affect: instead of cutting their relationship in two, their separation spreads that love further (“not yet / A breach, but an expansion”). 

And here comes the description of the imagery of their relationship: it is of a (geometry) compass, which has two points that are connected in the middle, so that no matter how far one point travels, it always comes back full circle to the other point.