Friday, January 30, 2009

Epigrams - a Poetry Friday post

I've posted about epigrams before, including this one by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

But I was feeling the need for something short and to the point today, so epigrams seem just the thing. An epigram need not rhyme, although poetic ones often do. An epigram is a short, clever, usually witty statement that is memorable. Here is an epigram from Benjamin Franklin, writing as Poor Richard:

Early to bed and early to rise
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise

Franklin used repetition (early to), internal rhyme (healthy and wealthy) and alliteration (wealthy and wise) as well as end-rhyme, virtually guaranteeing that this would be memorable after only one hearing.

For those of you who read Latin, here's quite an old one:

Admiror, O paries, te non cecidisse ruinis
qui tot scriptorum taedia sustineas.

For those of you who don't read Latin, here's a translation: "I'm astonished, wall, that you haven't collapsed into ruins,/since you're holding up the weary verse of so many poets." Funny, yes?

William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" is composed almost entirely of phrases that can be pulled out as epigrams.

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider said these, the first four lines of the poem:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Hannibal Lecter quoted the next two lines in Red Dragon:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

Small sentences, small words - but mighty in their content and staying power.

Got a favorite epigram?

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Doth the Little Crocodile by Lewis Carroll

Yesterday was the birthday of two men I consider geniuses (in actuality, and in their fields): Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known under his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Today, a short poem by Lewis Carroll from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

How Doth the Little Crocodile
by Lewis Carroll

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

This poem is a parody poem of a well-known "instructional" poem at that time, "Against Idleness and Mischief" from a book called Divine Songs for Children by Isaac Watts, a noted Nonconformist hymnwriter. It begins "How doth the little busy bee/Improve each shining hour,/And gather honey all the day/From every opening flower!", and ends with exhortations to be diligent and avoid Satan. You can read the full text here. Carroll's poem is still widely anthologized for children these days, whereas the Watts poem has fallen out of favor.

I've been hearing the Overture from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) in my head, and think I will go put on the CD of one of my favorite of his symphonies, "The Haffner", Symphony No. 35, K. 385, and then spend some quality time with the copy of The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition that hubby got me for the holidays.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Keats and Frost and song

Believe me when I say that the title of this post is 100% accurate as to content today. The long story version is that I've just read an interview (from which I will be quoteskimming come Sunday), in which Keats was mentioned. And I thought (as I so often do) "F*ck me, I love Keats", which happens to be a line spoken by Hugh Grant's character in the first Bridget Jones's Diary movie, but also happens to be true. My next thought was "Why not share some Keats today?", and I fumbled about and came up with this sonnet, usually referred to as "Bright Star". But during the reading of it, the little man in the upstairs fileroom started to clamor about Robert Frost and choral music since, twice upon a time, I've been in choruses that have performed choral settings of certain Frost poems (known as Frostiana, music by Randall Thompson, by the by).

Today, you get Keats's Shakespearian sonnet - a love poem that is entirely swoon-worthy on its own, plus Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star" in both poem and choral form. Plus discussion in analysis. I am totally the Crazy Eddie of poetry this morning: Everything must go!

Bright Star
by John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite*,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No— yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever— or else swoon to death.

*Eremite: a hermit, particularly a religious recluse who lives alone in the wilderness

Discussion of the Keats poem

In this single-sentence sonnet, Keats fixes his attention on a star in the sky, wishing that he had the ability to be as steadfast and watchful of the woman he loved (almost certainly Fanny Brawn at this point in his life). Keats is such a drama queen that he wants to lie with her forever, "pillowed on her breast" or else swoon to death. The poem, which is written using the Shakespearian sonnet form, uses iambic pentameter and the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme. The volta or "turn" in the poem comes at the start of line 9, when Keats turns his attention from the star up in the sky to describing how he wishes to be able to have that star's immortal constancy in order to stay with his beloved.

Note how Keats begins the poem by addressing the star in the sky, but when he reaches the volta, he pretty much ceases to address the star, and talks to himself. Were this a performance on the stage, the actor might start his recitation by looking up to the star and gesturing, but he would almost undoubtedly turn his attention from the star to a more inward performance by the start of the 9th line, or else he might have a conveniently placed woman on a chaise lying about with whom to conclude the recitation.

I should note that this poem is sometimes referred to as "the last sonnet", because it was for quite a long time believed to be the final sonnet Keats wrote before his death. Some dispute as to whether that is correct exists, but it does appear to be one of the last poems he completed before his death, even if it was drafted earlier than first believed.

Choose Something Like a Star
by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to the wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

This 25-line poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line), and uses a complicated nested rhyme scheme (AABAABCBDEDEFGGFGHIIHJKKJ), although one could fairly characterize the final eight lines as stanzas set in envelope rhyme. The starting 17 lines use a nested rhyme technique that is quite similar to what T.S. Eliot used in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", posted here the other day, and rest assured, that is no coincidence.

Discussion of Frost's poem

Frost specifically references Keats's poem within his, both by addressing a star in the first place and by specifically talking about the steadfastness of the star and "Keats' Eremite". Were this poem to be performed on the stage, there'd be no fainting couch around, and the speaker would essentially be arguing with the star for a good 17 lines. Because it's not until the final 8 lines of this poem that Frost stops addressing the star directly. Yet there, at the start of the 18th line - "And steadfast as Keats' Eremite" - is a volta, where the poet stops hollering at the star and turns to his audience to address them directly.

Now, Frost's poem is actually quite lovely on its surface. It purports to be about a star in the night sky, and the speaker asks it questions, seeking answers, and the star tells us precious little about itself. "It says 'I burn'./But say with what degree of heat./Talk Fahrenheit. Talk Centigrade. Tell us what elements you blend." The speaker wants facts and specifics, something he can wrap his head around.

But, to quote Eliot from the other day, "That is not it at all,/That is not what [he] meant, at all." Frost, you see, told at least one of his classes that the "star" to which the poem is addressed was a contemporary star in the world of poetry: T.S. Eliot. Frost is being his usual cantankerous self, criticizing Eliot for his highbrow ways and for combining elements (Sanskrit, Hebrew, mythology, pop culture and more) in his poems in a way that many average folk found incomprehensible. In "On Extravagance: A Talk", Frost doesn't straightaway acknowledge Eliot, but gets around to it. In discussing this poem, he says

By that star I mean the Arabian Nights or Catullus or something in the Bible or something way off or something way off in the woods, and when I've made a mistake in my vote. (We were talking about that today. How many times we voted this way and that by mistake.)

And then see little personal things like this.... (Do you know the real motivation probably of it all...? Take the one line in that, "Some mystery becomes the proud." Do you know where I got that? Out of long efforts to understand contemporary poets. You see, let them be a mystery. And that's my generosity--call it that! If I was sure they meant anything to themselves it would be all right.)

On the one hand, Frost is challenging other contemporary poets to speak more plainly in their writing. On the other, if one wants to be "generous" (and I sincerely doubt that Frost was being generous, but let's play along): he's saying at the start of the poem that Eliot is pretentious and proud and obscure. That's Eliot's choice and he's welcome to it. But Frost goes on to challenge Eliot (and possibly other contemporary writers) to "say something to us we can learn/by heart and when alone repeat." After flinging out the challenge a second time, the star says only "I burn", and doesn't elucidate further. Frost says, in essence, that that is a telling response. Dispensing with the clever use of intertwined rhyme that Eliot frequently uses, Frost turns to the reader for the last eight, settled lines. Referencing Keats, a master of the sonnet form, and using what is essentially two quatrains of envelope rhyme, Frost settles into a more staid form himself to present the argument that choosing his sort of poetry (more formal in the traditional sense than that of some of his contemporaries), one can stay their minds "and be staid."

He's a curmudgeon, but man can he turn a phrase.

To hear a lovely choral setting of the Frost poem sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and with amazing images from the Hubble space telescope, check out this video on YouTube. (Sorry - the owner disabled embedding so I couldn't make this easier on you.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Last week's Poetry Friday host, Karen Edmisten, posted the poem "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur, noting that she usually posts it about every four months. Today, I'm reposting one of my all-time favorite poems (I have many, so don't ask me to rank it), "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot.

I posted the poem once before, back in September of 2006, and I think it's worth posting again, particularly because it ties in with Praise Song for the Day from the inauguration the other day. How so, you ask? Well, on Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Alexander was a guest on The Colbert Report, and he quoted from Prufrock: "I hear the mermaids singing, each to each,/I do not think they will sing to me." You can check out the whole interview below, and, geek that I am, I transcribed the whole thing. Read the transcript, watch the interview, and read the analysis of the poem below.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T.S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all: —
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

*If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you.
from Inferno by Dante

Stephen Colbert interview with Elizabeth Alexander, Wednesday, January 21, 2009

SC: I have a general question about poetry. It's something that worries me. Poems aren't true, are they?

EA: Well. . .

SC: They're made up, right? Like, they're made up. 'Cause I recently read this thing called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", which is about a guy in his mid-40s, like I am, and he's facing his mortality and he's got a sense that no matter what he's achieved in his life, he's never really gonna be great.

EA: Do you like that poem?

SC: That's not true, right? That's not true?

EA: It's not true in the sense that the newspaper is true, it's not true in the sense that journalism is . . .

SC: Well the newspaper is never true. Have you read the New York Times?

EA: Well, uh, meant to be true. It's not true in the sense of the strictly factual, but a poem should be in some way emotionally true, true to the language that it has, so that's why, for example, "J. Alfred Prufrock" might speak to you because there's something in the poem that resonates, that feels true to you, and that's how people connect with poems.

SC: He says that "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think they sing to me". They're, are - They're still singing to me though, aren't they?

EA: (Laughs) They are, if you want them to be, but . . .

SC: Desperately.

EA: I know, I know, I know. But that's your experience with the poem, so the point is that phrase, that language, is . . . off enough, it is decentered enough from the way that you hear language every day that it makes you stop and think about what that could mean, so . . .

SC: Okay, let's talk about meaning for a second, let's talk about meaning for a second, okay? Okay. Metaphors, okay? What's the difference between a metaphor and a lie?

EA: Laughs

SC: Okay, because, you know, 'I AM THE SUN, YOU ARE THE MOON!' That's a lie, you're not the moon. I'm not the sun, okay? What's the difference between a metaphor and a lie?

EA: Well, that was both a metaphor and a lie. So, the two are not necessarily exclusive. A metaphor is a way of using language where you make a comparison to let people understand something as it relates to something else, and that's how we use the language to increase meaning.

SC: Well, why not just go, say, say what you mean, instead of dressing things up in all this flowery language like, you know, the great romantic poets, you know 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' Why not just say 'You are hot, let's do it'?

EA: Laughs

SC: 'Let's get it on! Okay? I got a mountain in my pants', and that is not a metaphor. That is not a lie!

EA: But that's a metaphor.

SC: No it's not. It's not, lady. It is not at all.

EA: (Laughs and fans herself)

SC: Now listen, listen. Let's go to your poem

EA: Line by line

SC: Beautiful, beautiful. But no 'explicate it line by line', no. The poem is "Praise Song for the Day". Let's talk about it. Is this a "praise song" for the day, or are we praising song for the day? Is praise there a command?

EA: No. It is a "praise song", which is a form of poetry, an ode if you will, that is often written in various West African countries, it's made its way here. It's a way of praising, not to say "gold star", "good job", but rather to name something that we take joy from, that we rejoice in, so that's what a praise song is. It's a form.

SC: And you called it "an occasional poem"

EA: Yes

SC: What is an occasional poem, is it a "sometimes" poem?

EA: An occasional poem is a poem written for an occasion. So obviously yesterday's occasion was the inaugural. It could be for a graduation, it could be for a wedding, any occasion.

SC: So its context is associated specifically to that event.
EA: Exactly.

SC: Like the lyrics to "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome"

EA: Well there you go.

SC: We don't need another hero. We don't need to know the way home. All we want is life beyond Thunderdome. It really only makes sense when you're at Thunderdome.

EA: And you see, that's a very good example of the occasional poem that actually doesn't resonate beyond the occasion. So if you look at those words, what you want to do is mark the occasion, but write words that will last afterwards, and be useful afterwards in some kind of way.

SC: Your poem was marked by, I would say, the commonality of experience that you were naming in it. Why not soaring rhetoric? Why not just light up the crowd with, you know, with one of your metaphor lies, like "Barack Obama is a blazing star of hope"? Why not that? Why not really, really gild him with these words?

EA: Well, I don't think he needs gilding, and I think that actually what's been so powerful about his campaign and now, hopefully, his presidency, is that even though he is the leader, it's about the people. It's about many people feeling invested in changing this country and looking to something better, and working for it. So, he said, "it's not about me, it's about us."

SC: If poetry is in some way about economy of language, could I suggest a poem that might have gotten to the heart of it a little quicker?

EA: (Nodding) Please, please do.

SC: Hickory dickory dock, we elected a guy named Barack. Think about it?

EA: I'm gonna think about it.

Explication and analysis here

The short-form explanation of this poem is that the speaker, Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock, who lives in a London of the early 20th century polluted with sulfurous smog, is getting dressed to go to a party, where he will see a lady to whom he would like to declare his love. He talks to his reflection as he gets ready to go, projecting what his evening will be like in the rooms where "women come and go,/talking of Michelangelo." And he worries. What if the woman turns him down, or, worse yet, mocks him? Rather than face the possibility of rejection, he opts not to venture out at all. He stays in his rooms, facing a future full of regret wondering whether he dares to eat a peach, growing old and rolling his trousers at the bottoms. Poor guy.

Prufrock misses his chance to declare his feelings, and perhaps find real love, because he cannot bring himself to put himself out there. As a good friend once pointed out, he's worried about both his emotional and perhaps also his literal impotence, as when he asks, "will I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" He's a very careful man. You can tell this from the line, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." A coffee spoon, for those of you who do not carefully pay attention to silverware, is significantly smaller than a teaspoon. He is a man who worries. What will people think of his appearance? The insect metaphor - that if he declares himself, he will be an insect, formulated (anesthetized) and pinned to the wall on display - is brilliant. How clinical, how horrible, to think of being a specimen pinned up for all to see and discuss.

The poem is beautifully unified by quite a lot of end rhyme. It doesn't follow any obvious, fixed pattern, yet it is there, and by being there, the poem feels much like music when read aloud. In the end, I find myself feeling sorry for Prufrock and his missed opportunities. As I said in 2006, "the pity one feels for Prufrock is tempered by disdain for his decision not to act. Because it becomes clear that when we don't act, it's not just inertia (an object at rest remaining at rest). Because we are not objects, we are subjects -- we act (or choose not to). And so, for today, I will not measure out my day with a coffee spoon. I will not roll my trousers. I will go out into the day, and greet it. And I will hope it greets me back."

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Friday, January 16, 2009

To My Dear and Loving Husband - a Poetry Friday post

Today, another poem by Puritan poet, Anne Bradstreet, who emigrated to Ipswich, Massachusetts in the 1630s with her husband, Simon Bradstreet, a Cambridge graduate who eventually became Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts. Anne and her husband had eight children, despite Anne suffering from some paralysis, possibly as a lasting effect of smallpox. She wrote in the Elizabethan tradition, as her mastery of rhymed couplets and iambic pentameter show. A volume of poems was published in England during her lifetime. Shortly after her death, a volume of her work (containing today's poem) was published in America. A third collection of religious poems was published in the 19th century.

I started reading more Bradstreet after a dear friend confessed a massive crush on Anne, and I completely see why. Happy birthday, B!

Today's poem is a beautiful love poem, methinks. I don't believe I know too many women who are as content in their marriages as Anne seems to have been, gauging from this poem, but it is decidedly something to aspire to.

To My Dear and Loving Husband
by Anne Bradstreet

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

T4 by Ann Clare LeZotte

On one of my trips to the marvelous Children's Book World with in the fall, I purchased a small novel in verse. And I do mean small: it's approximately 5 x 7 inches, and it's very slim at 112 pages. Each page contains a lot of white space due to the nature of the poems contained thereon, making it a quick read for the adept reader, and exceedingly appealing to the reluctant one.

T4 was the name of the program that existed in Nazi Germany from about 1939 to 1943 that was designed to eliminate disabled individuals from German society. It took its name from the address of its headquarters, Tiergartenstrasse 4. Using a series of poems attributed to a fictional deaf Catholic girl named Paula Becker, LeZotte explains not only the threat of the T4 program and the terror felt by its intended victims, but also, on a more personal level, some of the challenges of being deaf, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, when some people still thought it could be cured by filling a person's ears with hot wax.

I found the book utterly engrossing and quite well done. The T4 program is one aspect of the Holocaust that has not been given nearly enough space in books, and this novel does much to rectify that situation (as well as mentioning the efforts to eradicate the gypsy population, as well as the Jews).

The author is herself deaf, which doubtless informs her writing. The first poem in the book is not so much a part of the text, but is, instead, an introduction (although it was not labelled as such, and may therefore confuse some younger readers).

Here's that opening poem, which gives you an idea of the masterful poems found in the book, and establishes what is going on, while referencing its place among other poems and poets, from William Blake to William Carlos Williams.

Hear the Voice of the Poet
by Ann Clare LeZotte

Here the voice of the poet!
I see the past, future, and present.
I am Deaf, but I have heard
The beauty of song

And I wish to share it with
Young readers.
A poem can be simple,
About a cat or a red

Or it can illuminate the lives
Of people who lived, loved,
And died. You can make
People think or feel

For other people, if you
Write poetry. In T4, the facts
About history are true, and
My characters tell the story.

The simple, spare poems convey so much, without infusing too much emotion into the text itself; that part is left to the reader to infer. Here, for example, is a poem entitled "Doctor Bouhler", about one of the directors of T4:

Doctor Bouhler

Insisted the deaths
Should be

He didn't want
The patients
To know what was
Going to happen.

But they died of
Lethal injection
And starvation.

Simple, clear expression of the facts is, in this instance, more upsetting than a poem describing a reaction to that news, I think.

A well-done verse novel, recommended for middle grade readers, elementary and middle school libraries, and public libraries, as well as for anyone with a Holocaust collection.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White - a Poetry Friday post

Whether true or not, it's been reported that Alfred, Lord Tennyson once said that others may have written better poetry than he, but none had written poems that sounded better. He may be on to something there, because he was certainly (as I have commented before) a master of assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), alliteration (repetition of consonants) and, well, repetition, as well as onomatopoeia (use of a word that imitates the sound it describes). And he crafted poems that were designed for performance, or at the very least, to be read aloud. All those devices he uses make his lines easier to memorize, and enable a speaker to sound like a true orator.

Today's poem is actually a small section of a long work entitled The Princess. The premise of The Princess is that a group of seven college students, on holiday, get involved in a discussion with a few females about issues such as women's rights - and, more specifically, the education of women - as well as the need for education of the poor. Tennyson (quintessential Victorian that he was) felt the need to make clear that women should not be treated the same as men, nor should they aspire to the same careers or positions as men, and his poem was criticized as anti-feminist. That said, The Princess does champion the notion of teaching women history, science (as then understood, which included phrenology, which is, if memory serves, how to understand human nature by reading the bumps on one's skull), socialism (then a word for learning how to understand society and the roles within it), math, geography and languages. And if one reads some of it, one gets the idea that Tennyson realized that women were largely treated like cattle - and may not have approved. But truly, I digress.

Today's excerpt from The Princess is usually referred to by its first line. You should know that its my opinion that this is an erotic, sexual poem, a position which I'll set forth in full. But first the poem, and then the conversation.

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry* font:
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë** to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

*porphyry: a purple-red stone containing crystals throughout, coming from a quarry in the eastern desert of Egypt that was rediscovered in 1823 (during Tennyson's lifetime).

**Danaë: a character in Greek mythology, who, after being locked up in a subterranean chamber made of bronze by her father, was euphemistically "visited" by Zeus in a shower of gold rain (no - I do not want to call it a "golden shower"), thereby conceiving Perseus. Those of you interested in astronomy are likely aware that the Perseid meteor showers derive their name from Perseus, because they appeared to come from the constellation of Perseus.

Let's look first at form

A first reading of this poem gives you the impression that it is written in rhyme, but that is not actually correct. In fact, the end rhyme that you see is actually just the word "me", repeated. The poem is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), but the frequent use of the end-word "me" makes it seem like it rhymes, as does the near-rhyme in the final four-line stanza of the words "up" and "slip".

The poem is broken into five stanzas: the first and fifth contain four lines, and the middle three contain two lines each.

Analysis of the poem's structure and meaning

Why the five stanzas? Well, the first and fifth stanzas are bookends, I think. The first sets the scene (it's evening! in a garden!), but it also makes clear that this poem is addressed to someone (whether male or female is unclear, but the notion that it is a lover, or a person that the speaker would like to have as a lover, comes clear as we go along).

The second stanza talks about two things: seeing a white peacock in the night garden, and how the woman he sees glimmers in the moonlight/starlight like a ghost. It's an interesting construction, because he is talking to a person, but in this stanza, it sounds as if he's talking about her instead.

The third makes another comparison, and this is where things get really, really interesting. In the first line, he says "Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars". Taking into account the story of Danaë that I summarized above, he means that the Earth is open to being (for want of a better term) fertilized by the stars in the night sky. He quickly follows that with "And all thy heart lies open unto me." Romantic, definitely. Erotic, too, if you ask me.

The fourth makes both the romantic and the sexual intent clear in my books (not that I've seen a lot of discussion of this poem as having anything to do with sex, but that's only because historically, folks liked to give Victorians credit for not talking about sex. As we know, however, that's not really the case, and many "repressed Victorians" were horndogs, or at least keen enough observers of human nature to know what was what.) That fourth stanza again? "Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves /A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me." The sliding meteor and shining furrow, in conjunction with the earlier reference to Danaë is not, I would argue, accidental, but is again a sexual reference. That said, it's also a reference to the Perseid meteor showers, which rain down on the earth from "the stars", with tails that could appear to leave (for the moment) a furrow in the sky. Going back to the reference to Danaë, however, those meteors come streaking toward earth like golden rain, fertilizing their target. In this stanza, it's the poets thoughts that have been fertilized. (Again, this works on two levels - he's thinking about the unknown female subject of the poem, but he's also thinking fertile thoughts, if you catch my drift.) Also? Traditionally the word "furrow" goes with "plowing" and "plowing" is a euphemism for intercourse. So.

The fifth stanza is the closing bookend - four lines for additional weight, to balance the four that started the poem and set the scene. Here's the payoff, as it were (pun intended). In the first two lines, he talks of how the water lily folds "all her sweetness up/And slips into the bosom of the lake". First off, water lilies don't really submerge, to my knowledge, and given the keen interest in botany that prevailed during Victorian times, Tennyson probably knew that, which means that he was taking license for a reason. That reason? To show a complete yielding of the female, who is not merely submerged, but completely possessed by the the lake. The final two lines are spoken directly to the person who was addressed at the close of the first stanza:

So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Wow. So lovely. And still, erotic. And quite possibly a reference to the notion of two becoming one, although with the phrase "be lost in me", it seems to intimate a sense of sexual abandon, I think.

I love this poem for its surface beauty, for its gorgeous word choices, and for the way it sounds when you read it aloud. And I love it even more for its erotically charged imagery and secret meaning. How 'bout you?

Friday, January 02, 2009

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

First the poem, then some chat.

by Lewis Carroll

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

I did not learn this poem as a child, which is a shame. Also, a bit of a shock, since as an adult I learned that it is one of my mother's all-time favorite poems. I never even knew she had favorite poems!

As I was looking through my Annotated Alice, I spied this poem. I was sure I'd posted it before, but I was wrong. I've posted a review of a picture book edition illustrated by Christopher Myers, and I've posted about nonsense poems before, but I've never posted the text. And 2009 seems like a good time to remedy that situation.

Form and function

The poem opens and closes with the same stanza: what starts as an introduction forms almost a benediction at the end. Each stanza is cross-rhymed (ABAB). The first three lines of each stanza have 8 syllables (4 roughly iambic feet), and the fourth line has 6 (3 feet). The poem was intended by its author to be a condemnation/satire of pretentious poetry, a poke at literary critics, and a sort of warning along the lines of "how not to write a poem", but it quickly earned its own reputation, and is one of the best-known and widely-referenced poems in the English language (to the extent that all those portmanteau and nonsense words count as English).

Why this poem rocks for kids

During school visits where I've come in to teach kids about poetry, I frequently open my presentation by reciting (nay, performing) this poem from memory. I do this for several reasons: 1) it's fun; 2) I love this poem; 3) nothing grabs kids' attention more quickly than launching into something that makes them pause long enough to say (or think) "what the hell?", because when they pause, they fall silent and start listening and paying attention, trying to sort things out - it's so much more fun (and interesting) than opening with "now boys and girls, please quiet down so I can lecture you"; and 4) this poem makes kids feel really smart.

But wait, Kelly, you say - what's with that last one? Didn't you just acknowledge how confusing and strange this poem is? You betcha - and yet, if you sit and listen to it all the way through, you can sort out the story. I have confidence in you, you see, because kids as young as first grade have sorted this one out for me. Now, not all first and second graders get it all the way right, but as a whole, a class of kids will totally get this poem, which has lots of action (some of it mildly horrifying, which is better still). And they adore the wordplay in it. In some cases, the younger kids are better with the portmanteau words and nonsense words in the poem than older kids or grownups are. My theory is that this is so because there are just so many, many words that they don't yet know the meaning of that they don't spend as much time thinking "hey! that's not a real word!" Also? Because I actually do perform the poem as opposed to simply reciting it, I incorporate "standing and thinking" poses and swashbuckling and head-carrying actions into what I'm doing, so the visual cues probably help, too.

While I do not have a large cast, and I generally pantomime carrying a severed head, this skit from The Muppet Show does a pretty good job at reflecting the actions described in the poem: