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Poetry Reading: The Song of the Happy Shepherd By Yeats

12 Jan

It’s difficult to talk about Yeats for too long without going into his theories of cyclic history, which is this headache inducing blend of history, horoscopes, mythology, mysticism, and charts that don’t really explain anything.  Personally, though I think many parts of our society are cyclical, Yeats takes it to an extreme usually only used by conspiracy theorists and dungeons and dragons players.   However, The Happy Shepherd comes before Yeats developed these theories, and he’s referencing the classical view on the ages of society.

So according to mythology, there’s five ages:  Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron.   Unlike how we use the term “golden age” now, the golden age of mythology is not associated with power and strength, rather it was an edenic time of peace where there was no central society, and people lived a gentle agrarian life.   It’s a combination of utopia, paradise, with more innocence and freedom involved.   The reason why there was no central society was that it  wasn’t necessary to control the population as they were peaceful on their own.

The reason I’m bringing this up is one of the first places that Yeats brings up in this poem is Arcadia–an area in Greece that is particularly associated with the golden age.  19th century poetry mentions Arcadia a lot–usually involving Shepherds, summertime, eternal youth, and love dalliances.   In the rapidly industrializing world, this idea of a place where one can be gentle and free with no effort seemed very alluring in comparison to the soot filled cities of the Victorian era.

In this poem, the golden age is over, but the shepherd is revisiting it in song.   According to him, the world is filled with many tiresome things, and the only good ones are words and dreams.   Only words can bring back the golden age as it was, dreams are what life is made of.     Deeds and people pass, but words are forever.

Dreaming in particular has a central position in this work–by which Yeats is not referring to wishes or the nighttime sort, but visionary dreams that inform the very way we see the world.  After all, the world is just a construction in our heads, and because of this we must be very careful as to what we call important, because each thing we take in influences our dreams.  All life is merely a vision, and visions are very prone to influence.   He asks us not to listen to the learned men, who view the world with cold detachment–their facts our useless to us, in our self-made worlds.

The shepherd asks us to find answers instead in seashells, where we can whisper our troubles and here them told back to us until they lose meaning.  Our troubles, our concerns are self inflicted miseries, that would simply dissolve if we could only see past them.

In the end, the Shepherd says he’s about to go to Pan’s grave, to sing to him though he is dead.  (Pan was the god of the golden age, which ended at his death.)  The earth too is dead.   Only in us, can we breathe life to this visionary world of peace.

This poem, once you parse out the meaning, is a very seductive invocation to a certain way of thinking–many of the ideas here exist in other forms to this day.  The idea of finding truth in simplicity, of getting back to nature making us more real certainly resonates with the green movement, while the looking back at a certain golden age that we must try to get back to is a message that underlies modern American conservatives.

However both those ideas, as nice as they are, are little more than dreams–idealizations of existences that we never truly knew.  There’s a reason that golden ages are always noted in the past and never in the present.   Looking back at a time that seemed more stable, more peaceful, is a purely imaginary activity–one which often deliberately omits the parts of history that weren’t so wonderful.    The Shepherd here is happy not because he is living in this era, but because he’s recounting it, as passed down through generations.   He wants us to lay aside reason and actions because these two things would easily pop this bubble he has built of the perfect world.

However, the dream is necessary.   Our worlds really are constructed in our heads, and having such a thing gives us passion and direction.   My argument is that we would follow these things with reason and actions, thus bringing our world inches closer to the idealized one, rather than decorating the graves of dead gods.



Farewell from Welfare Island, by Julia de Burgos

10 Dec

It has to come from here,
right this instance,
my cry into the world.

The past is only a shadow emerging from

Life was somewhere forgotten
and sought refuge in depths of tears
and sorrows;
over this vast empire of solitude and darkness.
Where is the voice of freedom,
freedom to laugh,
to move
without the heavy phantom of despair?
Where is the form of beauty
unshaken in its veil, simple and pure?
Where is the warmth of heaven
pouring its dreams of love in broken

It has to be from here,
right this instance,
my cry into the world.
My cry that is no more mine,
but hers and his forever,
the comrades of my silence,
the phantoms of my grave.

It has to be from here,
forgotten but unshaken,
among comrades of silence
deep into Welfare Island
my farewell to the world.

Little you probably know that Welfare Island was a literal place.  An island on the East River, leased by New York city, it’s a place that first had prisons, then workhouses, then insane asylums, then apartments for the poor.  It’s now known as Roosevelt Island.   For years this island was separated from the city, bridgeless and alone.
It’s hard not to see welfare island as a gigantic metaphor.   It’s common to see welfare as some handout, but the truth is, that it set these people off in an island of their own.   Just like welfare island was at the very heart of New York City, yet completely separated, so is America’s underclass.   It’s funny, they live in the same places as everyone else, yet still manage to be invisible.   And yes, they suffer, they suffer terribly.  There’s is a life that knows no safety.
And that’s the thing, this voice which cries out just to be heard–is it from a prison, a workhouse, an insane asylum, or welfare housing?   Would there be any difference?  Aren’t all four places where freedom is severely restricted?   And yes, the farewell to the world might be a suicide, but then again, it might just be landing in any one of these places, because your chances of getting out of these swamps once you’re in them is slim to none.
And there’s a certain irony here, that the people are in these low spaces so that the other places can be “cleaner” “safer” “better.”   There are people whose lives are wrecked, and it makes no difference if it’s their own fault or not–their existences are pitiable, barely human.

Poetry Reading: Galway Kinell’s, “Why Regret?”

2 Dec

Why Regret?

by Galway Kinnell
Didn't you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn't it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn't you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster's New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn't it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid's ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
"The perfected lover does not eat."
As a child, didn't you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn't you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren't you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring's offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?

This mid-length poem is so dense in delightful imagery, it’s what I used to think all poems should be.  In fact Galway Kinell was one of those poets introduced to me as an undergrad where I felt like YES, he got it.  He understood where I was coming from, and there’s a hugeness to him–watching the parade of life.   His parade is not all pleasant–after all he has pinworms and Casanova as well as other things, but he paints the urgency of life, of the now, of the simple, of the life of  the mind.  One which many people profess admiration for, but few really delve into these little moments.  Even though all our lives, from the poorest scavenger to the strongest head of state, ALL of our lives are made from these little moments.

I imagine him talking to someone at the end of a love affair–and the question “why regret?” why end love affairs in such awful ways, wishing they had never been, sinking into depression?  Why cannot we sometimes enjoy a short relationship as well as a long one, and leave it like one would leave summer camp?   Isn’t that enjoying something because of precisely what it is?

Notice the constant reference to things that are very fleeting and small–on second reading, you can see how the speaker is probably much better at words than the lover, who is full of regret.   His Carpe Diem message is a bit self serving, and as he shows us these images you can’t help but think that this guy’s probably a rascal.  However, even while being a rascal, even knowing this, you still hear these words and get a little thrill from them.

My favorite line?

Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.

Poetry Review: Larry Levis’s “Blue Stone”

18 Nov

Blue Stone

Someday, when you are twenty-four and walking through
The street of a foreign city…
Let me go with you a little way,
Let me be that stranger you won’t notice.
And when you turn and enter a bar full of young men
and women, and your laughter rises,
Like the stones of a path up a mountain,
To say that no one has died,
I promise I will not follow. 

Sometimes a poem touches me even if I don’t really understand all the pieces of it.  Clearly, this is the point of view of an older man talking to a younger person, could be his daughter or son.   He wants to watch young people, not in a dirty way, but to see their happy innocence.   Rising laughter because nobody has died yet.  And the old man is removed from this laughter.  He says it rises like stones on a path to a mountain, and he promises he will not follow.  Something about this tone catches me a little in the throat.   His promise that he will not follow–because he cannot?  Because the laughter, while familiar is beyond him?  Because he no longer has days where no one has died?  And also the promising not to follow goes with the not trying to be one of the young ones, to not get hip to them or anything like that.

To be a peeping tom with sex is creepy, but sort of understandable–but to be a peeping tom of joy, there’s something seriously wrong here.   That this is the closest to joy that this lonely old man can find.   To be left out.  To choose to be left out because he knows so much.

And why is this called blue stone?  I don’t know–blue for the mood of the speaker, stones for the laughter.   Or maybe how instead of climbing up a pebbled path, he’s surrounded by heavy blue stone.  I don’t know, I have yet to find an explanation for that name that gives me the proper frisson and connection.  Beautiful poem though.



Poetry Review: “A Short History of the Apple” by Dorianne Laux

11 Nov
The crunch is the thing, a certain joy in crashing through living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days. —Edward Bunyard, The Anatomy of Dessert, 1929
Teeth at the skin. Anticipation.
Then flesh. Grain on the tongue.
Eve’s knees ground in the dirt
of paradise.  Newton watching
gravity happen.  The history
of apples in each starry core,
every papery chamber’s bright
bitter seed. Woody stem
an infant tree. William Tell
and his lucky arrow. Orchards
of the Fertile Crescent. Bushels.
Fire blight. Scab and powdery mildew.
Cedar apple rust. The apple endures.
Born of the wild rose, of crab ancestors.
The first pip raised in Kazakhstan.
Snow White with poison on her lips.
The buried blades of Halloween.
Budding and grafting. John Chapman
in his tin pot hat. Oh Westward
Expansion. Apple pie. American
as. Hard cider. Winter banana.
Melt-in-the-mouth made sweet
by hives of Britain’s honeybees:
white man’s flies. O eat. O eat.

This poem is an idea cloud of everything that comes to mind with apple.  What’s interesting here is that Laux combines mythology and facts to make a history.  It’s an interesting bait-and-switch, because though her subject seems to be apples, what she’s really showing us is what makes a history.   For her it is not facts and figures–there’s no science here, but a collection of associations, stories, and sensual memories.   History at its heart is an irrational thing, based on our impressions of the present more than what actually happened in the past.

She revels in language here, with several phrases just popping out–bees being white man’s flies,  winter banana, tin pot hat.   And how the apple can symbolize women’s shame, westward expansion, scientific progress, America, Snow White–all these ideas that don’t normally fit together put under the thematic circle called apple.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a whole dictionary that cataloged common things like this.   How rich it would be.

Poetry Review: “A Blessing”, by James Wright

6 Nov
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.
Ahhh “A Blessing,” there’s something absolutely marvelous about this poem.   The sense of intention, of balance, just holds this poem up, like a tree.  The whole poem speaks of order, communion, and silence.    The things to pick up here is that spring is new here, that this is a place of rejuvenation.   The statement “There is no loneliness like theirs” pops out at first glance, because the kindly horses are together after all, but I take it as how happy they are to see their master, and how even together, they are alone.    These horses need people.   In turn, these people need horses–notice there are two of them as well–and they too may have been lonely together.   The delicate shy joy at recognition goes both ways here, and the tremendously intimate gesture of touching the horse’s ear (such a sensitive part of the body–tell me who would you let touch your ear?)   This action, this connection, quiet and simple, brings the greatest bit of joy, the part that makes the soul break into blossom.   Lovely.

Poetry Review: Louis Simpson “After Midnight”

21 Oct

Going through American towns after midnight can be quite a strange thing–unlike other parts of the world, American towns tend to close up completely at night, showing empty buildings and strange neon lights.

“The dark streets are deserted,/with only a drugstore glowing/Softly, like a sleeping body;”

Does a sleeping body glow?   I can see it though, those closed stores with soft lights, like living things that are at rest.   Being in a town so late, there’s something that feels a bit like you’re intruding–sort of like being in a museum after it’s been closed, or a theme park.

“With one white, naked bulb/In the back, that shines/On suicides and abortions.”

Suicides and abortions–two things that might be done in the very still of the night.  We’re not just literally “after midnight” but emotionally there.   Even though it’s not said, the strangeness of night makes things have different associations than during the day.   One would not think of suicides and abortions in the middle of the day.   The naked bulb almost seems to punctuate the darkness that surrounds rather than bring light.

“Who lives in these dark houses?/I am suddenly aware/I might live here myself.”   The dark houses are the metaphor for the dark self–the dark city–he’s knowing that there’s a part of him that lives in the world of suicides and abortions as well.

“The garage man returns/And puts the change in my hand./Counting singles carefully.”   So the man stopped to get gas in the middle of the night, and the man returning takes him away from his thinking.  A the same time there’s a bit of loneliness and melancholy here too we don’t hear any speech or any real connection, just a transaction.

This whole poem is really about the speaker, and feeling disconnected from everything around him.  The associations he makes are also disconnected, but connected in the theme of night.   At the same time there’s a sort of fascinating defamiliarization that makes him see all these things in a new way.   In the end, I find this to be one of the best sorts of Halloween stories, filled with the sort of fear we all live with.