Sunday, February 26, 2012

Writing for a rock: On Butler's Monument

On the Setting Up Mr. Butler’s Monument in Westminster Abbey

While Butler, needy wretch, was yet alive
No generous patron would a dinner give.
See him, when starved to death and turned to dust,
Presented with a monumental bust!
The poet’s fate is here in emblem shown;
He asked for bread, and he received a stone.

~ attr. Samuel Wesley (1691-1739)

This will be a short post this week, as I wish to take time away from blogging for the writing of poetry, for which I may (some sweet day) be rewarded with… a stone. This poem (and the contemplation of writing more poetry) does beg the question: Why do we poets bother? Certainly not for a patron, or a meal, or a monument, as is implied in Wesley’s words.

Why do you write? Please ease my mind, and my writing burden, by filling in some of this empty space with your thoughts on the matter.

The Oxford Book of Short Poems, edited by P.J. Kavanagh and James Michie (Oxford University Press, 1987)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Carrion Comfort: fighting the temptation to be less than human

Carrion Comfort

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

~ Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Between the end of my freshman year and beginning of my junior year as an undergraduate at Gordon College, I must have walked a thousand laps around the campus quad between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and midnight. It was often dangerous and foolhardy, given the hour and solitude, and the epitome of all that is stubborn in me. I may very well have walked a rut into the pavement. I walked in all kinds of weather, mostly alone, and one time nearly met my early demise under a moving salt truck as I determinedly trudged/slid my way around the campus following an ice storm.

I walked mainly because it was something to do. Something I could do other than “not choose not to be.” It was a small, perhaps pathetic (though nonetheless real), action against Despair. I think Gerard Manley Hopkins would have understood this.

I love Hopkins’ use of fighting and fraught language in Carrion Comfort. It is how depression feels sometimes, a fighting for the right words, a wrestling with meaning. Like the three times in the first line repeating the word “not.” It’s the beginning of getting his fight on, even in a stuttering way. That is when depression doesn’t get the better of you, when you can still fight it. And then a fourth time at the beginning of the second line, he does it again: “Not untwist… these last strands of man / in me.”  I hear you, GM. Fight it, man, fight it.

It was during my long walks alone around campus that I discovered that large rodents feasted at the dumpsters (I didn’t get close enough to identify them, but I assume they were rats). I don’t claim to be a subject matter expert on all things Rattus. What I do know by late night observation is they are not particular in their eating habits. You may even say they are carrion consumers. They eat dead stuff, whatever we throw away.

Giving in to despair is succumbing to the temptation to be less than human. Carrion comfort is giving up our particular will toward special action in favor of passive mere survivalist rat behavior. It’s junk food binging at the extreme.

No, says Hopkins (and so said I as I paced and paced the college campus): I can. I can be more than a rat. “I can; / can something” may be my favorite four words in this entire poem. In its still stuttering way, it separates us from the rats. We can have a will that moves toward some specific thing, which in itself is hope and a move toward not choosing not to be.

It is not surprising to me – based on my own experience with the ups and downs of depression – that the next few lines move Hopkins away from despair and into anger. Depression is anger internalized. When we begin to take action against it, the inevitable happens – it moves outward. And Hopkins goes right for the big anger – taking on God Himself, asking, “O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me / Thy wring-world right foot rock?” In other words, why are you roughing me up, God?

And then he eventually finds meaning: “Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” I remember the moment things began to clear for me in college. I had just seen Out of Africa, and there was a scene in it in which Meryl Streep takes coffee beans in her hands, rubs them together, and blows away the chaff (or whatever you call the crusty stuff that comes off of coffee beans). It was an “Ah ha moment” for me. Oh, God, that’s what You’ve been up to. That’s why all this pain. It’s emotional exfoliation.  I get it now.

Ironically, it’s sort of like Neitzche’s often quoted statement, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Of course, Neitzche wasn’t trying to find meaning with or from God, but rather without, which would have led to a very different poem, I dare say.

I love how Hopkins ends this poem with a nod to Jacob’s fighting match with an angel (Genesis 32). Jacob would have his blessing from God if he had to wrestle the Most High over it; even if he had to limp away, bruised, broken, but still blessed, doggonit.  Jacob was many things, but he was no dumpster diving, carrion feeder. He took action.

So when I begin to the see that Black Dog’s shadow around the corner, still, I put on my walking shoes. And limp my way into a blessing.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Marvell's Plate of Petit-fours: To His Coy Mistress

It is a great honor to have my friend and regular muse, Dr. Holly Ordway, filling in as guest blogger this week.  Holly is a writer, speaker, teacher, and Christian apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. She also has a delightful sense of humor and not a small amount of skill in fencing (both literal and figurative), both of which are on display in her post below. You can follow Dr. Ordway's reflections on her website at or on twitter @HollyOrdway.

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

        But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

        Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

-- Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

A plate of petit-fours: that’s what “To His Coy Mistress” is for me. This poem, with its delicately crafted lines in iambic tetrameter, is loaded with images and wordplay that I want to savor like tiny, delicate pastries: here a cream puff, there a little tartlet topped with a delicate glazed strawberry.

Perhaps it’s part of the charm of this poem that I don’t remember when or where I first encountered it. All I know is that somewhere along the line, Marvell sweet-talked himself into becoming one of my favorites!
In the opening line, the poet-narrator announces boldly, “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime”: surely an appeal to haste! Yet he then spends the next eighteen lines, almost half the poem, lazily elaborating on all that he would do if they had, indeed, all the time in the world... and so I come back to this poem again and again, to savor, leisurely, the images Marvell gives me.

Take, for instance, “My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow.” I imagine the growth of ivy up the walls of a building: slow, persistent, curling its tendrils around a window frame here, a corner there: Love, quietly insinuating itself into the heart of the beloved. And this heart’s ivy may be slow, but it’s bold, taking no heed of distances. The territory claimed by Love is indeed “Vaster than empires.”
In the middle part of the poem, the poet shifts gears: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” What a great line! One minute, we’re strolling by the banks of the river, to “pass our long love's day,” and now Time is hurrying near, the chariot-wheels rattling. I picture an ornate, gilded chariot, with little decorative wings attached onto the side. It can’t be a functionally flying chariot, or else the poet wouldn’t be able to hear it coming - it would just be “Whoosh! Time is upon us!” That’s part of what I love about this poem - the subtle ridiculousness of it, the combination of frivolity with seriousness.

For a moment it seems like this confection has turned sour: he tells his lady that she’s only going to get older, lose her beauty, and die; worms will turn her “quaint Honour” to dust. Oh, dear. Impatience has spoiled romance... but wait, is that a teasing note? “Worms shall try / That long preserv’d virginity: / And your quaint honour turn to dust...” - the poet seems to be working up to a fierce condemnation of his mistress’s recalcitrance - and then “...And into ashes all my lust.” I can imagine the poet laughing at himself here, as he brings the build-up crashing down with the deflation of his own erotic impatience.

The lines that sum up this section are deadpan funny: “The grave's a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace.” It’s as if he’s giving us a line from a real estate advertisement - a very fine and private place, perfect for lovers! - and then dryly pointing out that most likely not much is going on there!

Perhaps it’s because I delight so much in the humor and playfulness of the poem that I find the conclusion oddly moving. Marvell has been laughing at himself throughout the poem, yet in the closing lines, I feel keenly that he’s captured a certain real urgency in the face of time, a desire that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex. Rather, I hear the echo of longing for all that life and love and beauty promise, with the fulfillment just out of reach. “Now let us sport us while we may...”

Hurry, he says, hurry! Life is short! And yet this hurry-up poem is one that always gets me to slow down, as I savor the delicate pastry-bites of this line, or that line. Marvell, you are a marvel!


Marvell: Poems. Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets. (New York: Knopf, 2004)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Warming to Frost: Appreciating humor in a New England Winter

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
~ Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

I have not always appreciated Robert Frost’s poetry. Maybe I find some of it too hard, or too cold, or too sad.  Like New England, my “discovered country,” where I have lived over half of my life after emigrating here from upstate New York, Frost’s poetry can leave me with a distinct sense of alienation. (Unless you have made that move, you cannot appreciate the sense of being an outsider, even from a state away.) 

But like New England, some of Frost’s poetry is delightful in a wise and funny way. Like Dust of Snow, New England surprises with a crow that simply will not allow us to take ourselves, or the rueful circumstances of our days, too seriously. Although this winter lacks any serious effort at snow, there have been many mornings in winters past in which a spit of snow has sneaked past my collar and down my neck.  Who needs caffeine when you have such a wake up? And who can get too worked up over the myriad inconveniences of life when the free gift of slush down the neck will do the trick?

This poem also endears itself to me for its resemblance (through my lens) to haiku. Over the past few years, I have immersed myself in haiku. I’ve written hundreds – maybe thousands, really­ – of micro-poems, and have read whatever I can get my hands on about the Japanese poets.  Except for the rhyme scheme, the first half of Dust of Snow makes me think of a haiku. It shares with many of the great haiku its sense of season and of a single moment in nature. Try looking at it with different line breaks, and see what I mean:

The way a crow shook
down on me the dust of snow
from a hemlock tree

The second half is a bit more like senryu, which is like haiku, but less about nature and seasons, more about the human experience (and usually laced with a good dose of humor).   Indeed, the human experience is full of moments such as these, when we need to be saved by a thoughtless crow from our own sense of rue. We need the cold dusting to remind of where we fit in the whole order of things.

Perhaps I am beginning to warm to Frost’s wit. Maybe I just miss the snow.

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost’s Poems, Introduction and Commentary by Louis Untermeyer, (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1985