Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 7

I'm back with another fall-themed poem; this time, one written in German, which I've translated myself. My translation is close enough to some of the others out there for me to feel confident in it, but I went at it with common sense and a dictionary, the same way I've done other translations. It's another rather pensive sort of poem, which suits today's wooly grey day just fine, I think. I've included the original German poem afterwards, and you can see a bit of what my translation has lost, even if you aren't fluent in German: the original has three stanzas, of three, four and five lines each, all of which were written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). Each of the original stanzas has a rhyme scheme (ABA CDDC EFFEF), which got lost in the translation. If you can read German, you'll see how Rilke played with his line breaks

Autumn Day
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Kelly R. Fineman

Lord: it is time. The summer was so huge.
Put your shadow on the sundial
and let your wind go through the fields.

Command the last fruits to ripen;
give them two more southerly days,
advancing them toward completion, and chasing
the last sweetness in the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house, builds nothing more.
Whoever is now alone, will remain long alone,
will watch, read and write long letters
and wander up and down the alleys,
when the leaves drift.

by Rainer Maria Rilke, Paris, Sept. 21, 1902

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Fruchten voll zu sein;
gieb innen noch zwei sudlichere Tage,
drange sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Susse in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blatter treiben.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 6

Today, I am thinking of Dar Williams's song, "The Beauty of the Rain", which includes these lovely lines: "And you'll know the light is fading all too soon. You're just two umbrellas one late afternoon. You don't know the next thing you will say. This is your favorite kind of day, it has no walls. The beauty of the rain is how it falls, how it falls, how it falls." Need I tell you that it continues to be grey twilight and raindrops here? I thought not.

Somehow, this poem by Christina Rossetti's brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (depicted in the BBC's Desperate Romantics by Aidan Turner - Dear BBC: When will you ship this miniseries over here to the States? I want to see it!) fit today's vibe for me. Also, I enjoyed Rossetti's play with form and inversions, about which I'll say more after the poem.

Here is Rossetti's "The Fall of the Leaf", which was also published at one point as "The Angel of Death". An abbreviated, three-stanza variant of the poem (stanzas 1, 4 & 5) is usually called "Autumn Song", and can be found at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere, but I confess to having fallen for the original version, which he sent to his mother in a letter dated 5 September 1848 - the year that he started studying art with Ford Maddox Brown and had become a member of the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood". Here's the letter, as well as the poem for your consideration.

Tuesday night [c. 5 September 1848]

Dear Mamma,

William having suggested that you might perhaps like a note from me, I hasten to send you the same, which I would have done before, had I possessed any news which I thought would interest you. At present indeed I have not a jot more than then, except of that class which William gloats over & all others scorn. This accordingly I must proceed to retail.

I have returned this minute from the Queen's Theatre in Tottenham Street whither I went with Collinson and Clifton to witness a profoundly intense Drama entitled “Koeuba, the Pirate Vessel,” wherein are served up a British Sailor & other dainties. One of the pirates wore trouserstraps, which I thought was a touch of nature, considering.

Have you seen Christina's and William's rhyme sonnets? The second of C.'s is really good: so is the second of W's. His third is also good, but for the strange word “queer,” wherein I recognize the influence of Christina's powerful mind. His fourth has some very good lines, but is wretched nonsense as it stands.

By the bye, I will transcribe you a howling canticle written by me yesterday in what agony of tears let the style suggest. I hereby declare that if snobbishness consists in the assumption of false appearances, the most snobbish of all things is poetry.

The Fall of the Leaf
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
  Laid on it for a covering,
  And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the spirit gripes Misfortune
At the fall of the leaf in Autumn,
  As one that makes the end more brief:
  And how the mind with the falling leaf
Falls, till its births are mere abortion?

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the clogged Sense, coiled up and stiff
  At feel of Summer's perishing,
  Dares not pass Winter to reach Spring
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift heat of the brain
Hateth because it is in vain
  In Autumn at the fall of the leaf,
  Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems not to have much pain.

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels as a dried sheaf
  Bound up at length for harvesting,
  And how death seems a comely thing
In autumn at the fall of the leaf?

The folio of the Great Cyclographic continues its rounds. It is now with Collinson. Calling on him this evening, and finding that he had no sketch ready & did not mean to make one, I designed an angular saint which we mean to send round under his name, to the mystification and sore disgust, no doubt, of the members in general. I expect we shall end by getting kicked out.

The criticisms are becoming more and more scurrilous. Dennis has helped them materially in their downward course by telling Deverell that his last design is a reversion from Retzsch's outline of the same subject.

Collinson has almost finished his poem of the “Child Jesus.” It is a very first rate affair. He has augmented it with two new incidents, by which addition it is now made emblematical of the “Five Sorrowful Mysteries” of the Atonement. He thinks of leaving to morrow for Herne Bay, with the intention of remaining there a few days. I may perhaps accompany him, but have not yet quite decided.

Having exhausted everything, believe me, dear Mamma,
Your affectionate Son,

G. C. Rossetti

Will you tell William that our literary criticisms have not yet commenced? I see no reason why he should not retain “grey meadows.”

Firstly, do you not love that letter? I know I do. Makes me wish (yet again) that I had a regular correspondence in real letters. And think of the talent in that family - so many poets and artists (since Dante was a painter as well as a poet, and his brother William was a poet, as was his sister, Christina). To be part of such a creative family - and circle of friends - must, I think, have been something indeed.

Secondly, about the form of the poem, which Rossetti called a "howling canticle" - each stanza is rhymed AABBA. The poem itself is a variant form of a rondeau, a French form that is best represented by the marvelous poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae. Here, the repeated phrase is "at the fall of the leaf", but in the second and fourth stanzas, Rossetti engages in an inversion by changing the rhyme scheme and tucking the key phrase "at the fall of the leaf" into the middle of the stanza, rather than placing it at the end. In the second stanza, he even shifts the "in Autumn" to the end of the line, in part to suit his rhyme scheme, but in part for purposes of inversion as well.

Thirdly, despite the morose, almost morbid tone of this poem, I find myself decidedly cheerful after having read it. Why is that? Who can say? Perhaps it's because I admired the form so much. Or because Rossetti's assertions of howling and tears seem, well, fake to me. Or overblown. Or maybe it's because I have so very many lights on here at the house that the weight of the grey rain just cant get me down, even though many of my thoughts, like Rossetti's abortive thoughts, seem doomed to short life span and I haven't managed to get my writing groove back yet. Still, something about this poem - it's willingness to wallow - has me thinking of putting pen to paper. And so I shall.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 5

So, remember back before I landed in the hospital and I started an autumn poetry primer? No? No worries. You can read the prior for entries here if you're so inclined.

Today's a rainy sort of fall day, but even in half-light that has been present all day, the leaves still shine like gems. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called "Autumn" about rain and autumn leaves. It's a lovely little Italianate sonnet with a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBACDCDCD, written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). I love his use of personification in this - can't you picture Autumn standing there like one of the giant robed statues that guard the river in Lord of the Rings, with a moon on her shield and an arm outstretched?

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,
With banners, by great gales incessant fanned,
Brighter than brightest silks of Samarkand*,
And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain**!
Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,
Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand
Outstretched with benedictions o'er the land,
Blessing the farms through all thy vast domain!
Thy shield is the red harvest moon, suspended
So long beneath the heaven's o'er-hanging eaves;
Thy steps are by the farmer's prayers attended;
Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;
And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,
Thine almoner***, the wind, scatters the golden leaves!

*Samarcand: Tamerlane's opulent capitol along the silk route (now part of Uzbekistan)
**wain: an open farm wagon
***almoner: one who distributes alms to the poor

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm nobody!

Today, a reprise post of Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who are you?". In two versions - the original first, and a later version (which is more widely quoted). I confess to liking the way the lines skew in the first version better, and her use of "one's name" in the second stanza, which feels very much like Emily Dickinson to me somehow. As always, Miss Dickinson's poems are best when read aloud, with pauses given at all punctuation points, dashes included, although in this case I think that the dashes in the second line are there to add weight to that "Nobody" in the middle. I sense her landing on it with attitude somehow. (Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I don't put it past Miss D. to have quite an edge to her now and then. Which is why I hear a rather scathing tone when she hits that "Somebody!" at the end of the first line of the second stanza.)

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
by Emily Dickinson

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

And now, the revised poem - not sure if it was Emily herself who revised it, or someone else. A number of her poems were "improved" by editors without her knowledge or approval. Still, since I know that some folks only know the second version, here it is:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you Nobody too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be Somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring Bog!

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Friday, October 23, 2009

a wind has blown the rain away by E.E. Cummings - a Poetry Friday post

Today is a gusty sort of autumn day, the kind that catches you by surprise, being more than 20 degrees cooler than it was yesterday, and filtering what light there is through a fine haze of spidery clouds. So when I signed onto my laptop and saw a quote from E.E. Cummings on my iGoogle homepage, it struck me as perfect for today.

Before you read the poem at all, I encourage you to read it aloud. I think you'll appreciate the sound of the poem better, and get a better a sense of its motion that way. (I grant you I could be wrong.)

a wind has blown the rain away
by E.E. Cummings

a wind has blown the rain away and blown
the sky away and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand. I think i too have known
autumn too long

          (and what have you to say,
wind wind wind—did you love somebody
and have you the petal of somewhere in your heart
pinched from dumb summer?
          O crazy daddy
of death dance cruelly for us and start

the last leaf whirling in the final brain
of air!)Let us as we have seen see
doom’s integration………a wind has blown the rain

away and the leaves and the sky and the
trees stand:
        the trees stand. The trees,
suddenly wait against the moon’s face.

Now the thing is, most folks think Cummings was quite the experimenter. And I suppose he was, but I'd like to draw your attention to the form of the poem you just read: It's a sonnet. It is, more specifically, a Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed ABABCDC'DEFEFGG' (where the little "prime" marks indicate the use of slant rhyme, rather than perfect line, as in "somebody" with "daddy" and "trees" with "face". The poem doesn't look like a Shakespearean sonnet at first because he's split the fourth line and tacked half of it onto the second quatrain, and because of some of the other indentations and punctuation added in there. But it is decidedly a Shakespearean sonnet and, what's more, most of it is in iambic pentameter as well (five iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM).

So Cummings may have been quite adept at experimenting, but he often worked within established forms in doing so. I love that about him. And I've only recently developed a real interest in his work, having known over the years a mere handful of his poems ("love is more thicker than forget", "i carry your heart with me", "maggie and milly and molly and may" and "in Just-spring").

I like the motion of this poem, and how it seems to spin down and across the page - something Cummings accomplished through careful word choice. I also like the imagery, and his phrase "o crazy daddy of death" - to me, he's speaking of Old Man Winter, but I suppose it could be Time or the Hermit or the Crone, depending on one's perspective. Because of Cummings's language, I picture the Reaper spinning his scythe across the landscape, leaving only those trees in front of the moon. I'd be interested in knowing what you make of this poem.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 4

I was admiring the photographs that Robin has up at her blog - all those beautiful aspens turned yellow for fall. Of course, seeing a yellow wood such as that called Robert Frost to mind:

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I discussed this poem at length in a post I wrote last August, if you are interested in either its form or the discussion of its origin (and how Frost intended it to be ironic, not earnest).

Today in South Jersey, we have a wind advisory. The wind chimes are chiming, the leaves are rustling and the acorns are thwacking the deck. I only hope that the wind doesn't get too ambitious: I'd like for the leaves to stay on the trees until they turn, and the trees (and their branches) to stay where they are.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 3

Today, a poem by Louise Glück. Glück writes quite a lot of seasonal poetry, and has written an extensive amount set in the fall. This one comes from her recent release, A Village Life, and is called "Harvest". It was featured at The Writer's Almanac the other day, which is where I'll be sending you to read the balance of the poem. It's not what I'd call a cheerful poem, yet I couldn't help but like its imagery.

by Louise Glück

It's autumn in the market—
not wise anymore to buy tomatoes.
They're beautiful still on the outside,
some perfectly round and red, the rare varieties
misshapen, individual, like human brains covered in red oilcloth—

Inside, they're gone. Black, moldy—
you can't take a bite without anxiety.
Here and there, among the tainted ones, a fruit
still perfect, picked before decay set in.

Read the rest here.

On a sunny day like today, when the leaves are only just starting to turn and the grass is still visible and green, it's difficult to believe that winter is creeping up on us, yet with the temperatures in the 40s here at night and the shadows grown so long on the lawn, I know it must be so.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 2

Today's poem is "To Autumn" by John Keats, whose life is currently onscreen in the movie Bright Star, which I've not yet seen but will get to this week (by hook or by crook). (Check out the New York Times review if you've not yet heard about this film.)

I first posted this poem earlier this year during my National Poetry Month series on "Building a Poetry Collection". You can read more in-depth analysis and discussion at the earlier post.

To Autumn
by John Keats


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
  And still more, later flowers for the bees,
  Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

There seems to be a paucity of swallows around here, but the starlings have been noisily on the move, and the crickets (which were mostly gone for the past few years) have been back in our area again, playing their wee violins.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 1

I am certain that I am not alone in enjoying the change of season. When it comes to cycles, Autumn is the season that usually sets me to pondering the turning of time. And pondering often brings me to poetry (the writing and reading of). So, for the next while, I figured I'd share some of the autumn-related poems that I love. I'm considering making a little scrapbook sort of thing with them - sort of like a commonplace book - or a homemade anthology, if you prefer.

Up first: two Fall poems by Miss Emily Dickinson.

Isn't she beautiful there? That's how my good friend Kevin Slattery saw her when he created his "Four Seasons of Emily Dickinson". I have a print of her that I purchased from his online store. The quote on the left side of the image comes from the following Dickinson poem, about which I've posted before:

Autumn — overlooked my Knitting —
Dyes — said He — have I —
Could disparage a Flamingo —
Show Me them — said I —

Cochineal* — I chose — for deeming
It resemble Thee —
And the little Border — Dusker —
For resembling Me —

*Cochineal is a red dye derived from beetles found in Mexico, and the subject of an excellent nonfiction book I once read entitled A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield. Cochineal is rare among red dyes, since it doesn't usually fade during washings. Notice that Emily assigns cochineal and the center or her work to someone else, and a "dusker" (darker, greyer) color (and a little border) to herself.

This next Dickinson poem appears to have become a bit of an annual tradition for me. I first shared it two years ago, and reprised it last year as well:

The morns are meeker than they were —
The nuts are getting brown —
The berry's cheek is plumper —
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf —
The field a scarlet gown —
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

This second poem always reminds me of a pin that I own, which is a piece of costume jewelry in the shape of a maple leaf. I don't generally wear the appropriate attire for the pin, but I believe the next time I pull out one of my wraps, I'll put my trinket on.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Banned Books Week wrap-up

img src="" align="right" hspace="5">Today is the final day of "Banned Books Week" here in the U.S.

The name of the event is, as many of you are already aware, misleading. The books that are being talked about are not books that have been outlawed throughout the land. And trust me folks, there are books that have been banned from entire countries.

For example, let's talk about the publishing history of one of D.H. Lawrence's most famous novels, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Lawrence wrote the novel in the late 1920s, but it was so racy that it wasn't published in Great Britain. Until 1960. And then, Penguin (the publishing house) was put on trial for distributing obscenity. After being found not guilty, Penguin issued a second edition of the book the following year, which it dedicated to the jurors in the obscenity trial. The prosecutor probably didn't help his case all that much when he the jurors whether it was the sort of book they'd want "your wife or servants to read."

Great Britain wasn't the only country to completely ban the book: Australia did, too. And not only did they ban Lady Chatterley's Lover, but they also banned a book about the British obscenity trial about the book.

The United States banned it from 1930 until the early 1960s, when a court case managed to overturn the ban. (Copies that had been smuggled into the country were distributed for a time by the now-defunct Gotham Book Mart, in violation of the prohibition.)

If you haven't read the book, allow me to tell you why all those governments got their knickers in a twist? The book is, at least in part, about a working class guy banging an aristocratic lady, and it uses a significant number of words like "fuck" and "cunt". The book is about more than that, of course, and examines class relations along with quite a lot of other issues, but the descriptions of sex and the terms used were enough to make the book more regulated than quite a number of deadly weapons for a while.

And it all comes down to this: There are, and always will be, people who believe that ideas are dangerous things. There are Sunday School teachers who don't want children to ask them "why" or "how come" sorts of questions, parents who want to rely on "because I said so", politicians who'd really rather you not look into their rationales, etc.

Books are notorious for looking at ideas. And a lot of times, what novels - and particularly those that are on the list of challenged books - look at are ideas. Most novels (and some nonfiction as well) provides answers to this question: Is there someone else like me out there?

And a lot of the books on the challenged/banned list try to explore that and answer those questions.

How do I come to terms with a serious loss? and Can we ever truly know the other people in our lives are examined in the challenged Looking for Alaska. Because there's a reference to a blow job (gone humorously wrong), it's been challenged in places.

What if it turns out I might have feelings for someone of the same sex? is a key issue in The Bermudez Triangle, which has been challenged for that reason. Because a small subset of parents believes one ought NOT have romantic or sexual interest in a person of the same sex, those parents figure nobody's kid - not theirs, not yours, not mine - ought to be able to ask that question. Or rather, that they ought not be able to find a book that looks at that question.

What if I've been abused by someone in my peer group? is a question found in Jo Knowles's Lessons From a Dead Girl, and it's come under fire in at least one school district because . . . well, I have no real idea why. Because it's a hard topic, and it's not pretty, and some parents would rather it didn't exist so if they don't have the book there they don't have to think about it, I suppose.

To those out there who think that challenging a book is okay, I say this:

If you want to stick your head in the sand and avoid these questions, fine. Don't buy the books. If you want to stick your kids' heads in the sand, I suppose that's your prerogative. Don't buy the books, and police what they read, and don't let them read the books either.

Your judgment is your own, and it is not superior to that of anyone else. You deserve no jurisdiction over the rest of us and what we read, so keep your sandbox at home and stop trying to bury books that might just answer questions for people in need.

Starting next week, a series on autumn-related poetry. I promise it will be far less ranty.

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