29 December 2006

Stephen Spender

[from Stephen Spender's Poetry Since 1939, published in 1946]


First of all, it is necessary to note the conditions in which poets have worked during the war.

In principle, everyone in Britain was mobilised to take part in the war effort (this mobilisation is, in fact, likely to extend far beyond the war). Certain people were, however, exempt from mobilisation, on account of age, illness, or because they were in reserved occupations. Although some painters were reserved to paint war pictures, no poet was reserved for the purpose of writing war poetry or any other kind of poetry.

It would be impossible, of course, for a poet to enter into an undertaking to write poetry about war in the same way that a painter can paint scenes of war. It would also have been impossible for a government in conducting total war to give poets complete freedom without any obligation to write propaganda or, indeed, to write anything: for these are the conditions of freedom which most poets require. Therefore poets have no grievance that they were “called up” like everyone else. Yet a deplorable waste and misuse and destruction of poetic talent is inevitably part of the expense of modern warfare, and it is hardly compensated for by the fact that the war stimulated much indiscriminate writing and publishing of poetry.

An inevitable result of the call-up was that the best poems written were by older men and women whom the war effort almost passed over, if it did not entirely do so. (T. S. Eliot was a part-time Air Raid Warden, Edwin Muir an administrator in Edinburgh of the British Council.) Some of the best poems written in these years were by T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Edwin Muir and Laurence Binyon.

W. H. Auden went to America in the autumn of 1938 and stayed there. His two books, New Year Letter and For the Time Being, show, if one compares them with the work of his contemporaries in England, that his American freedom enabled him to improve his technique enormously, so that he is now the most accomplished technician writing poetry in the English language.

The practical effect of the war on other English poets has been to turn them into administrators, government officials, soldiers, sailors, pilots; and to single out a few as pacifists and rebels.

The generation of poets who attracted much attention in the 1930’s, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, William Empson, Spender and others, have tended to become officials: Day Lewis was employed in the Minsitry of Information; William Plomer in the Admiralty; Louis MacNeice was a script writer in the B. B. C.; William Empson worked in the Far Eastern section of the B. B. C.; Arthur Waley, the distinguished translator of Chinese poems, worked in the Far Eastern section of the Ministry of Information. Spender was for some years a fireman, and later became a small hack of a war-time branch of the Foreign Office. Dylan Thomas was employed in documentary films.

Then we come to the many poets in the Forces. Some of the most talented of these were killed, notably Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis. In quantity, the poets in the Forces produced far more work than anyone else, and, apart from the writing of distinguished poets such as Vernon Watkins, F. T. Prince, Roy Fuller, Henry Treece, Alan Rook, Keidrych Rhys, Francis Scarfe, this poetry is the most difficult to judge at the present time while we are so close to it.

Women poets fall into a rather special category. Apart from Miss Edith Sitwell, four outstanding women writers, Kathleen Raine, Anne Ridler, Ruth Pitter and E. J. Scovell, produced books during the war. When I come to review their work, it will be seen that their strength lies in their developing that peculiar branch of extremely sensitive and perceptive writing in which women can excel.

The pacifist poets have produced a small but vociferous literature which is too full of protest and self-justification to have much value. The most notable pacifist writer is Alex Comfort, who is one of the most striking young talents in Britain.

The paper shortage and the situation in publishing play an important part in the conditions of writers in war time. After June 1940 paper suddenly became very scarce, newspapers were cut down to one-eighth of their size before the war, and publishers were limited to a quota of paper based on a small percentage of their pre-war consumption. Paper rationing was a hardship, but its results were not altogether bad. Most publishers behaved with a sense of responsibility towards literature and produced books of high quality, denying themselves paper for more popular work. Despite paper rationing, the sales of poetry increased, and even less-known poets could reckon their sales as between 2,000 and 4,000 instead of in hundreds, as would have been their circulation before the war.

Hayden Carruth

[from Hayden Carruth's Collected Longer Poems, 1994]

excerpts from Contra Mortem, a poem in 30 parts

[The Wheel of Being I]

. . . A word is like an ant
dragging a dead spider the meant
and the unmeant     So upon ragged changing seas
the poem which is a ship
buoyed by its hollowness on the abstruse
coordinates of meaning carries the loop
of its horizon . . .

[The Stone]

Difficult to think of a stone’s gratitude
difficult for that matter to think of stone
essences so various . . . Birches
step forward and the stone rises like an earthspirit
snow dripping from its flanks
burnished and new but scarcely changed a merit
of the abiding between the banks
marking the upstream from down . . .

[The Water]

. . . snow had covered the ice serene
and cool as corpseflesh while quiet small sounds
came from the holes where the skein
of black water continued winding     But now
only the scraps and tatters of the snow
are left on the banks . . . In the shallows
where pebbles excite the current
the brook is shaken like the quivering lightandshadow
of aspenleaves or like the cadence
of hundreds of migrant wings . . .

[The Primavera]

. . . see the dog run     Light as a wish free
as a thought he runs with his nose to the ground
raising his bellvoice gone and returned
on his keen inquisitive course as swift as an echo
and the prints of his paws are flowers
and the shaking of his coat is soft rain and the glow
of his eyes is the making of nests his terror
is the scourging of somnolence for he is the dog of spring . . .

[The Child’s Being]

Extended and always uncentered which is why it scares
everyone but him     When an insistent finger
stabs him with a you he only stares
uncomprehendingly a stranger
to the pronomial itch and then pointing anywhere
to the tree the cloud the flower distant or near
expostulates in manic delight
me me me a spendthrift spate
of consciousness     And thus the child puts on
his being . . .

28 December 2006

Hayden Carruth

[from Hayden Carruth's Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays]

And luck has a good deal to do with virtue, and with self-control and independence, too. Any artist knows this. A poet or painter must work in exceptional and solitary diligence to sustain technique and the required pliancy of imagination, that is, to keep the artistic apparatus in a state of readiness for the stroke of luck that alone can materialize a genuine work of art when it comes; more than this, the artist must not only work but live in a state of devotion to things greater than himself. But no dereliction from hard work and devotion is implied in deferring to luck. Deference is a recognition of reality, what Wallace Stevens called “the necessary angel,” who must mediate the imaginative procedure. A work of art — a work of virtue — is luck welcomed and accepted, the success of chance. And happiness is the feeling that goes with it.

26 December 2006

Lynda Hull

Please go to Poetry Daily every day, and today (12/26/06) go there to read the Lynda Hull poem because it's a knockout.

22 December 2006

Laurence Lieberman

[from Laurence Lieberman, Carib’s Leap: new and selected poems of the Caribbean, 2005]

Skin Song

I cannot be a fish     sure of failure, I will try
no risk, no loss

the flippers tell my feet     flesh, be rubber
you must not bend or kick     to be
moved, lie still     to be held
let go

the mask instructs my face
mouth, stay shut     the Other
opens     be slow, nose
you will breathe
easy     eyes
do not be first, come
after     late, you will see more

Water commands:

body, be light     the will
is heaviness     ignorance
has no weight     know
nothing     give everything away     cast off
self to the deep     shed weight
lightness     grows
full     body, be light

be white, blood     be
without color     lose your red
grow lighter than water
thinner     blood, be white
skin, be empty     sleep
you will dream

a motion not your own     a motion
that is given     give
up, touch     be taken     emptiness
lifts     skin, be empty

Marianne Moore's Christmas poem

[from The Poems of Marianne Moore]

To Pierrot Returning to His Orchid

Spider, with the freckles of a clown
      And sumptuous contortions of a gnome,
           How came you by that one bright object in my room
           That you could fitly call your own — upon whose flame you
                                          seemed unconsciously to drift
And like a moth to settle down?
      The forest is your home.

I shall not evict you, spider, no.
      You strayed exotic from the pantomime,
                Your dog-flower carried by the stream to drown yourself,
                Like inland seaweed, in a pond of tough-stemmed lilies:
                                          You are here; apparently
Content to be my guest — Say so.
      It is Christmastime.

21 December 2006

Marianne Moore's little engine that could

by Marianne Moore

If you will tell me why the fen
Appears impassable, I then
Will tell you why I think that I
Can get across it, if I try.

19 December 2006

Michael White

[from Michael White’s Island, 1992]

The Solving Memory of Things

Regardless how nonchalantly you walk
Through the flickering delicate interlock of shade,
You can never quite approach whatever it is
That disappears at the peripheries of leaves
And light — a memory like a bird slipped free
And flitting ahead as it might have done in life —
Across the concave of a phantom riverbed
Sunk in the trees, where the deep diluvial chill
Of March is strongest. And something tells you
You won’t catch sight of it again by looking
Directly for it. . . .
                            The branches on all sides
Grow eerily, impenetrably thick here,
So already you wonder what the idea was,
What inland-tidal pull, from long back, rose
Against the nature of your present self,
And plunked you down in a whorl of ravaged limbs?

(Stuck in an unnoticed corner of sky, forgotten,
Blotted by clouds, hangs the gray, flat disc of the sun.)

And where is the path you would follow (nervously jangling
The keys and change in your pocket) if the woods
It wove through are half washed away in flood
Each spring? And how will you ever find your way out,
With all sense of direction vanished; the passing of time
So strangely numbed; and the images you remembered
Turning to air as you grope through bloodroot and cobweb? —
Down the wrong roads of insomnia, into
The sycamores, the nightmare trees:
                                                       and beyond
Their caverned silence lies a heartbreaking vastness
Of wind-muscled fields; and then open marshes,
Looms of sumac where mosquitos rise
Like heat through the swampy and heron-haunted air:

For there is the empire of nostalgia, a smokefall
Of dusk lain over the riffling pewter skin
Of the river. And there is the lace-iron bridge,
The banks of driftwood and tires and rusted cans
Of adolescence, that echoing broken land.

So you find yourself looking up, far above, at the lapis
Gaps in the canopy, watching the clouds pass over
And over again in the northward current of sky;
And you think: they are not of us, those dramas of mansions
Falling in, catastrophes of towers
And terraces. . . .
                            And they are not written words,
Nor the drift of seraphic dreams, but water from over
The mountains, evolving its instants of dissolution. . . .

Until finally, even down here, there is something alive
Far back in the cotton woods, trapped in the densest meshes,
Straining its great clawed limbs down the long aisles
Of pillared shade:
                           and this, too, is the sun.

And the rounded, primordial outlines of limestone cliffs
Invent themselves, in a new hard brightness of air;
And the ivy’s dark green river of hands splashes over
The foot of them; as the sound of water faintly
Unlocks, in the mossy springs that drip down the cliffsides,
Commencing their implausibly intricate cursive
Through the dark distillations of woods. . . .
                                     And, in the motion of a moment,
Against an almost unconscious backcloth of grapevines
Let down out of the treetops;
                                           and in the slow burn
Of the muted and ghostly violets washing surflike
Around your ankles, covering what softly breaks
Beneath your weight,
                               you take another step.

18 December 2006

Hayden Carruth

[From Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems, 2006]

The Buddhist Painter Prepares to Paint

     First he must go where
Not even the birds will brave his solitude,
Alone to the sunburnt plain to try his mood
     In silence. Prayer

     Will help him to begin
Perhaps, or tell him if after all tomorrow
May not be better. But, alas, his sorrow
     Is genuine,

     The requisite of art.
He kneels, eyes bent in humble palms. To see
In perfect light is difficult; one must be
     Blind from the start.

     And then the sevenfold
Office, the changing of the hundred names,
The offering of flowers, none the sun shames,
     But marigold

     Of his imagination,
Jasmine of the pure mind, ghostly for the ghost
Of Buddha; he speaks the uttermost

     He whispers, he merely thinks,
Thinking the perfect flower of the universe.
And the primal vastness comes to intersperse
     His thoughts, he sinks

     Through the four phases
Of infinity to the abyss, crying, “Die,
O world. Sunburnt grasses, fade.” The sky
     Turns on its huge axis

     Under him; all is lost,
Fingers, heartbeat, the singing brain, gone,
Or glittering there in that resplendent one
     Who shimmers, posed

     In the wide abyss.
The holy impassivity of his goddess dances
Without motion. The painter sighs. Expanses
     Of unknown bliss

     Widen through death, through birth,
Acheless, moving the goddess, the one, the all,
Who dances in the void of the painter’s soul.
     But something of earth,

     Something of his old dolor,
Calls back the painter now from the reflected
Essence to the form of the goddess projected
     In line and color.

     His sadness is like the itch
That gives his fingers back: among the many
Loves that preceded his pure ceremony
     There is one which

     Denies the formless, paints
Something that might be the goddess dancing, dressed
In green flesh with four arms and three heads, lest
     The loveless saints

     Alone find rapture. Why
Must the painter paint? For love of forms so trite?
Or is it that love of minds and hearts finds sight
     Within his eye?

     The painter’s love is his
Great penalty, because to fashion even
This sham goddess, he must deny the heaven
     Where the goddess is.

16 December 2006

10 December 2006

Jody Shields

[from Jody Shields's novel, The Fig Eater, 2001]

Egon had told him how messages were sent in Paris during the war in 1871, when the Germans occupied the city. He once worked with the photographer who engineered the airborne postal system. Anyone who had a leter to post brought it to the photographer's studio. There, the letters -- secret, urgent, and even ordinary -- were glued end to end into a single huge sheet, which was then photographed. In the darkroom, the image was reduced to a print of several square centimeters, rolled up inside a quill, and attached to a homing pigeon.

After the bird delivered the miniature photograph, it was inserted in a magic lantern machine and projected on a white wall. At dusk, a crowd gathered in front of the luminous square to read the letters.

In those days, the photographer had explained to Egon, the skies were full of secrets.

08 December 2006

T'ao Ch'ien

[T’ao Ch’ien, lived 365-427; from David Hinton’s anthology Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, 2005]

Wandering at Oblique Creek

This new year makes it fifty suddenly
gone. Thinking of life’s steady return

to rest cuts deep, driving me to spend
all morning wandering. Skies clear,

air’s breath fresh, I sit with friends
beside this stream flowing far away.

Striped bream weave gentle currents;
calling gulls drift above idle valleys.

Eyes roaming distant waters, I find
ridge above ridge: it’s nothing like

majestic nine-fold immortality peaks,
but to reverent eyes it’s incomparable.

Taking the winejar, I pour a round,
and we start offering brimful toasts:

who knows where today might lead
or if all this will ever come true again.

After a few cups, my heart’s far away,
and I forget thousand-year sorrows:

ranging to the limit of this morning’s
joy, it isn’t tomorrow I’m looking for.

06 December 2006

04 December 2006

Sharon Sharp

Visit Sharp Handmade Books to see Sharon Sharp's gorgeous work.