Poetry

Pandemic Villanelle

I look across an empty space

The tables have been pushed away

I smile but you can’t see my face

Warning signs are everyplace

The children can’t come out to play

I look across an empty space

You turn away, just in case

How long must we survive and wait?

I smile but you can’t see my face

Such an empty form of grace,

The church where no one congregates

I look across an empty space

Ceremonies were replaced

The best laid plans have been undone

I smile but you can’t see my face

When will we finally embrace?

The future has refused to come

I look across an empty space

I smile, but you can’t see my face

Semi-Leagues Further

Well, I have finished a book I was working on for the past eight years or so. I am not sure yet how I am going to get it into the world, but I will keep you posted. One aspect of the research was that it involved a lot of sources in other languages, and I would often go to Google Translate to make sense of them, which provided me with a great deal of mirth if not quotable translation. So while the wait continues for the new book I have decided to pass the time by creating a little quiz. Each of the following is a famous English text, most are poems, but one or two are prose. I have translated them into another language using Google Translate and then back into English. Can you name them? Answers at the end.

1.

How do I like you? Let me count the ways.

I love you in depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when you feel invisible

For Human Conclusions and Appropriate Grace.

I love you to the everyday level

Need for great peace, sunshine and candlelight.

I love you freely, as people fight for what is right;

I truly love you, as they turn to Psalm.

2.

I deliberately went to the woods with the desire to live, bringing only the essential facts of life to the fore and seeing if I could learn what it had to teach. I didn’t want to live something that wasn’t life. Living is very important. I also didn’t want to practice resigning unless I needed to. I wanted to live deeply, suck out all the bone marrow of my life, and live like a Spartan, sturdy enough to rout everything that isn’t life.

3.

Everyone kills his loved one

Let everyone hear;

Some make him look bitter,

Someone with a comforting word,

The fearful man works with a kiss,

The warrior with the sword!

4.

Die, fall asleep;

Sleep, perhaps, will dream – yes, that’s the problem:

For in that death dream there may be dreams,

When we shuffle this death coil

Gotta give us a break – that’s respect

It turns such a long life into trouble.

5.

But Musi, you are not your lane.

To prove foresight can be ineffective:

The best Mice an ‘Men plan.

Aft gang

‘lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,

For happiness worth it!

6.

You can write me in history

With your bitter and complicated lies,

You can trample me on the ground a lot

But still, like dust, I get up.

7.

Semi-leagues, semi-leagues

Semi-leagues furhter,

All in the valley of death

We went for six hundred.

“Forward, light brigade!

Charge for weapons!” he said.

In the valley of death

We went for six hundred.

8.

Because I could not stop dying –

He lovingly stopped me –

The car was held, but we:

And immortality.

9.

Oh, somewhere in this lovely earth the sun is shining,

Somewhere the band is playing, and somewhere the hearts are light;

And where men are laughing, and where children are screaming,

But there is no happiness in Mudville – the mighty Casey has begun to come forward.

10.

There was a time of good, a time of evil, a time of wisdom, a time of stupidity, a time of faith, a time of distrust, a season of Light, a season of Darkness, a spring of hope, a winter of despair, a winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing to go to, we all went straight to Heaven. , we were all moving in the other direction – In short, the times were like the present, so that the most noisy authorities demanded that they be taken only for a higher or worse level at a comparative level.

11.

I say this by sighing

Somewhere in age and age thus:

Two roads parted from a tree, and I –

I took less transported,

And it has made all the difference.

12.

Twas brillig, and sleek toes

Or girona and gymnastics wabe;

All the mimics were borogoves,

And mom is skillful

13.

Then this black bird makes my sad fantasy smile,

Judging by the serious and stern expression on his face,

“Although your coat of arms is shaved and shaved,” I said, “you are certainly not faint-hearted,

Terribly dark and ancient Raven, wandering from the Nightshore –

Tell me what your name is on the Pluto Night Coast! “

The Raven said “Never.”

14.

What is your name? He said, “My name is Love.”

Then the first straightforward turned himself to me

And he cried, “Go, for his name is Sword,

But I love, and I do not want to marry

Alone in a nice garden, until he came

Dark at night; I am True Love, I write

Hearts of boys and girls with mutual respect.”

Then sigh, saying to another, “Have your will,

I am a lover who does not want to say his name. “

15.

I saw the best insanity of my generation destroyed, hysterical bare hungers,

dragging themselves down the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry solution,

angel-headed hipsters burn in ancient celestial connection with a star dynamo in a night machine…

16.

Come live with me and love me,

And we will have all the fun to prove,

That valley, grove, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steep mountain yields.

17.

What happens to a postponed dream?

It dries

like a raisin in the sun?

Ή refresh like a wound—

And then run?

Does it smell like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar on top—

like a sweet syrup?

Maybe it just hangs

like a heavy load.

Or is it exploding?

18.

In Exadu did Kubla Khan

Outstanding entertainment setting:

Where Alph, the holy river, fled

With caves that cannot be measured by man

Under the sunless sea.

Then twice five miles of fertile land

The walls and towers were plastered all around;

And there are gardens that sparkle with lilies,

Where the incense tree flourishes;

And here are the ancient forests like the hills,

Increasing areas with green sun.

19.

Old age will graze age

You will stay, and you will be in another woe

Our friend, who is yours,

“Beauty is true, true beauty, – that’s all

You know the earth, and all you need to know. “

20.

Can I compare you to a summer day?

You are more charming and more angry:

Strong winds shake the sweet buds of May,

Summer rent is too short;

The eyes of heaven are overheated,

Often its golden color fades;

Fair trade will ever decline,

Untrimm’d random or natural changing trends;

But your eternal summer will not go away,

Don’t lose the fairgrounds you have to get;

You will not boast of death in his shadow.

As you grow up in the eternal line:

As long as men can breathe or see with their eyes

It lasts so long and it gives you life.

 

 

Answers:

1. “How Do I Love Thee” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning translated into Zulu and back

2. “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau translated into Japanese and back

3. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde translated into Hawaiian and back

4. “To Be or Not to Be” speech from Hamlet by William Shakespeare translated into Russian and back

5. “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns translated into Thai and back

6. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou translated into Tajik and back

7. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson translated into Ukranian and back

8. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson translated into Armenian and back

9. “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer translated into Punjabi and back

10. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens translated into Turkmen and back

11. “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost translated into Finnish and back

12. “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll translated into Latvian and back

13. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe translated into Russian and back

14. “Two Loves” by Lord Alfred Douglas translated into Hmong and back

15. “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg translated into Estonian and back

16. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe translated into Hatian Creole and back

17. “Harlem (Dream Deferred)” by Langston Hughes translated into Greek and back

18. “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge translated into Xhosa and back

19. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats translated into Somali and back

20. “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare translated into Mongolian and back

 

How did you do?

A Lean Knife Between the Ribs of Time

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices. Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it…

bosieThis article, from Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, on Notre Dame de Paris as “a great stone book” had me thinking again about art as a desire to speak across time.

It reminded me of Lord Alfred Douglas’s City of the Soul, written while Douglas was living with Oscar Wilde in Naples.

Each new hour’s passage is the acolyte

Of inarticulate song and syllable,

And every passing moment is a bell,

To mourn the death of undiscerned delight.

Where is the sun that made the noon-day bright,

And where the midnight moon? O let us tell,

In long carved line and painted parable,

How the white road curves down into the night.

Only to build one crystal barrier

Against this sea which beats upon our days ;

To ransom one lost moment with a rhyme

Or if fate cries and grudging gods demur,

To clutch Life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase

Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time.

Naples, 1897.

Christmas 1895: An Outtake from Oscar’s Ghost

I was looking back through some of the material that was cut from the final version of Oscar’s Ghost and discovered this timely fragment: a look back at Christmas 1895, the first Christmas that Oscar Wilde was in jail.

The Douglas family Christmas in 1895 was not a shining example of peace on earth, goodwill to men. Bosie’s gift to his father was a copy of a poem he had written about him the previous year and published anonymously in the Pall Mall Gazette. It was called “A Ballad of Hate” and began:

Here’s short life t the man I hate!
(Never a shroud or a coffin board)
Wait and watch and watch and wait
He shall pay the half and the whole
Now or then or soon or late
(Steel or lead or hempen cord
And the devil take his soul!)

The cover letter said “I hated you then I hate you a thousand times more now & will be even with you some day wishing you every curse & misery & speedy death with eternal damnation.”

Queensberry made a copy of the poem, scribbled his own comments on it and sent it not to Bosie but to [his brother] Percy. His letter promised that if Bosie came back to England he would “instantly get him put under restraint this last letter will be quite sufficient to get this done as I have already shown it to a doctor anyone will see it is the letter of a lunatic.”


Bosie’s “Hopeless Debt”

Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. In commemoration of the anniversary, some people have posted Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas’s best-known poem to Wilde. It’s called “The Dead Poet,” recited here by a weirdly animated photo of its author.

 

This was not the only poem Douglas wrote as he tried to come to terms with what he described, in 1940, as “the strange posture of affairs which forced me into the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend…”

My personal favorite poem that Douglas wrote for Wilde was one that was intended to be the dedication of his first book of poetry, but Wilde, then in prison refused to allow it:

TO OSCAR WILDE

What shall I say, what word, what cry recall,
What god invoke, what charm, what amulet,
To make a sonnet pay a hopeless debt,
Or heal a bruised soul with a madrigal?
O vanity of words! my cup of gall
O’erflows with this, I have no phrase to set,
And all my agony and bloody sweat
Comes to this issue of no words at all.

This is my book, and in my book my soul
With its two woven threads of joy and pain,
And both were yours before they were begun.
Oh! that this dream would like a mist unroll,
That I might look upon your face again,
And hear your kind voice say: ‘This was well done.’

Although he would for years shout down (or sue for libel) anyone who claimed Wilde’s downfall was his fault, letters he wrote to friends and family at the time reveal that he did feel responsible. It is one thing to blame yourself, quite another to have others blame you.

Three months after Oscar went to prison, Bosie wrote a poem called Rondeau:

If he were here, this glorious sky,
This sweet blue sea, these ships that lie
On the bay’s bosom, like white sheep
On English fields, these hours that creep
Golden in summer’s panoply,
This wind that seems a lover’s sigh,
Would make a heaven of peace as high
As God’s great love, a bliss as deep,
If he were here.

This great peace does but magnify
My great unrest that will not die,
My deep despair that may not reap
One poppy, one poor hour of sleep,
Nor aught but pain to wake and cry,
‘If he were here!’

“Perhaps if I were in prison myself I should be infinitely happier,” he wrote to the journalist W.T. Stead that November. “What makes me more unhappy than anything else is the feeling that my friend is bearing nearly all the burden and I so comparatively little. People look upon me as the victim of his superior age and wisdom and therefore an object of pity, while they reserve their execration for him. All this is so utterly wide of the real truth. So far from his leading me astray it was I that (unwittingly) pushed him over the precipice. He lived 36 years without seeing me and then I came and dragged into his life all the influences of our morbid half insane heritage which reaches its highest point in that terrible father of mine…”

A few years later, when his mother was intent on separating Douglas from Wilde after their post-prison reunion, he wrote to her asking if she expected him to say of Oscar “I cannot come and live with you now. I lived with you before and stayed with you and lived on you, but that was when you were rich, famous, honoured and at the summit of your position as an artist, now I am very sorry of course, but you are ruined, you have no money, you have hardly any friends, you have been in prison (chiefly, I admit, on my account and through my fault), you are an ex-convict, it will do me a great deal of harm to be seen about with you, and besides that my mother naturally object to it very strongly, and so I’m afraid I must leave you to get on as best you can by yourself… Sincerely and frankly, is this what you would have had me write?”

In 1900, shortly after Oscar Wilde’s death, Douglas wrote to his brother, Percy, “I was afraid you might think I had changed my mind about him in later life. I never did and he was the same to me, always my dearest and best friend, although I found it absolutely impossible to see him as much as formerly in the face of the avalanche of slander and grief of relations etc. both on his side and mine.”

Bosie said he remained in love with Oscar until well after his death when he read the unpublished parts of De Profundis in 1912. He did not start looking for a bride until after Wilde’s death, which suggests he could not move on while Wilde was alive.

Years later, after a falling out with his friend and co-editor T.W.S. Crosland, Douglas would write that Crosland had no excuse for treating him as he did because unlike Wilde, Douglas had done no harm to him. He really had, he said, unintentionally caused Wilde to suffer.

The Dead Poet was not Douglas’s favorite.  He preferred a sonnet he wrote three years after Wilde’s death on the subject of emerging from grief.

Forgetfulness

Alas! that Time should war against Distress,
And numb the sweet ache of remembered loss,
And give for sorrow’s gold the indifferent dross
Of calm regret or stark forgetfulness.
I should have worn eternal mourning dress
And nailed my soul to some perennial cross.
And made my thoughts like restless waves that toss
On the wild sea’s intemperate wilderness.

But lo! came Life, and with its painted toys
Lured me to play again like any child.
O pardon me this weak inconstancy.
May my soul die if in all present joys,
Lapped in forgetfulness or sense-beguiled
Yea, in my mirth, if I prefer not thee.

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

“Mother of Exiles”

 

amd-statue-liberty-jpgNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus

Identity and Poetry

This poetry performance won the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.  In “Lost Voices” Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson change places and speak in the voice of the other.

Michigan Radio reported:

The main message of their performance, Simpson says, is to show the audience that “this is what you look like when you’re speaking for someone.”

…putting this piece together taught them a lot about how to be supportive of people struggling through situations different from their own and that there is inherently a limit to the depth of their own understanding.

…Simpson explains that the two aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t speak out for one another, but that in doing so there is the danger of losing sight of an individual’s experiences.

To Be Forgiven for Fame

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

 

640px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_by_Washington_Allston_retouchedSamuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his own epitaph. Years of addiction to opium, debt, illness and divorce had not dulled his instincts as a poet. He summed up his life with a beautiful chiasmus “That he who many a year with toll of breath/Found death in life, may here find life in death!”


He adopts a humble tone “A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.” (One is tempted to wonder how sincere his humility was, given that this epitaph is carved in stone for posterity.)


The line that jumps out at me today is “mercy for praise- to be forgiven for fame.”
(There was a time when poets were famous.)


It is a strange request, as praise and fame are not something you do, but something others bestow upon you. He is being asked to be forgiven for how he was received by other people.
To be forgiven for fame is not something modern western people often ask. Leo Braudy writing in The Frenzy of Renown observed, “John Lennon of The Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus. As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: if Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”


Few of us hope that when we die our stories will not be told.


The book The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration by Peggy Hadden suggests artists use a quest for immortality as a driver.


 “Thus, the desire to break out of the limits of our life span prompts us to create, to leave something behind us… None of us thinks of retiring from making art. It seems too much like living itself. Visiting a museum is not like going to see dead people. Rather, it is like going to a place where we can instantly revive the artists, hear their views, see what they have to say. To be included in their midsts would be a way to live forever.”
The book then goes on to some other source of inspiration without having the candor to note that very few artists will actually achieve this or to give any thought as to what aspect of the artist really can live on or whether the artist would recognize or approve of the story future people tell about her.


Reaching the end of his life, Coleridge came to believe that this type of immortality was a chimera. That kind of renown does nothing to extend the life of the artist’s soul. If posthumous reputation exists at all it only preserves the public persona, the false self, its posing and vanity.  The only real “life in death,” he says is through Christ, and so he asks or mercy and asks, with some urgency, that his readers do the same.