Fictive Things Wink as They Will

Needed some sere severe poetic discourse (to replace one headache with another).  Don’t fret over what seems obscure here but relish the nuggets that hit you where you live. The bold type is my emendation. For all his pompous learning, Stevens was a prankster and a tease.  Bold type is mine, not the poet’s, to repeat repeatedly.

      “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”

By Wallace Stevens

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk, [love this]
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.
[Um...Sooo...the point is that there is no point except the pointless point we posit just for the heck-fun of it? Okeedokey. Fine. Where's my old rosary?]
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The Personal Library

library nyrThis week’s New Yorker. 

If only I were that composed and organized!!!

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Survivors and Connivers

Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, the paradigm Chaucer followed for the Canterbury Tales,  Canterbury_TalesB some years after the Italian’s opus, during the darkest days of the Black Plague in Europe.

The Black Plague decimated Europe while it raged. It was spread by a virus carried by rats (yuk, yes). The nobility and anyone with two cents worth of sense fled to the countryside to ride it out for it seemed to be most virulent in the cities, Rome, Venice, Florence and so on.
In the idyll of the beautiful Italian countryside these favored few gathered in small communities, idealized the pastoral life, indulged and amused themselves while the poor and less fortunate (generally “dirtier”) perished by the millions, and– according to the mighty story teller Boccaccio– entertained one another endlessly by telling stories and tales.


As it comes down to us the Decameron is obviously no extemporaneous half-baked amateurish series of tales for Boccaccio was one of the first major popular Italian stem-winders who actually wrote in the language of the common man (e.g., not Latin).

“The Decameron (Italian: Decamerone), subtitled Prince Galehaut (Italian: Prencipe Galeotto), is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived the Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.” (Wikipedia)

“The Black Death arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the Black Sea. The people who gathered on the docks to greet the ships were met with a horrifying surprise: Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill. They were overcome with fever, unable to keep food down and delirious from pain. Strangest of all, they were covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus and gave their illness its name: the “Black Death.” The Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the mysterious Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe–almost one-third of the continent’s population.” black death

Recent events have reminded me of the origin of these masterpieces: when unaccountable plague ravaged Europe, still the human impetus toward creativity in the darkest times persists and produces lasting beauty and inspiration.

My fav in the Canterbury Tales? “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” but they are all worthy.

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T.S Eliot Lite

Stumbled on this on You Tube, for what it’s worth.  Was looking for him reading his lecture “The Music of Poetry.” Not there.  Figures.

TS Eliot Lite

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“The Second Coming”–Circles or Lines? Cyclical or Linear? – History, Life and “Us”

w-b-yeatsI had a fascinating exchange of emails with a gifted poet recently about a poem he had written entitled “Circles.”Initially, I had mis-read the poem, missed his intent and allusions (happens to all of us on off days ;). And I am not authorized to quote from it it, let alone print it in its entirety here, but the exchange got me thinking about metaphors and images and (yes) symbols in Poetry.

Yeats and his winding gyres, an image/symbol which so obsessed him and which formed the driving engine of some of his most provocative poems, immediately came to mind.

No, not exactly circles per se for there are process and progression in a gyre as Yeats conceived them.

Here is a clever by half explanation of what he was up to:

Yeats’ View of History

Different cultures have differing notions of the shape of history.  Yeats’ own personal myth of history borrows from several different models:

The Ancient Attic Greek (as well as the classic Chinese and ancient Semitic) notion of history is one that is essentially circular.  History is conceived as either essentially static, moving through a yearly cycle, or cyclical in the sense of a “Great year” a centuries-old cycle where various ages of humanity eventually repeat older patterns; thus, the “golden” age is followed by the “silver,” “bronze,” and “lead”.  This is eventually followed by a new golden age, etc.

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The Modern Enlightenment notion of history from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century was one of essential progress.  History is moving in a singular direction, increasingly improving in matters of knowledge, science, lifestyle, freedom, etc.

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Christianity’s view of history can be thought of as a spiral.   It recognizes that human beings tend to replicate the mistakes of the past and that humans continue to be fallen beings, yet it also recognizes that history has a direction and a final end.  God has promised to return and renew all things.

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Naturalistic evolutionary theory is often associated with the Enlightenment view of history, but strictly speaking, it does not judge whether something is good or evil; rather, it understands history to be a wave: things change and they move in a certain direction, but this is not necessarily for the better.  It simply is.

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Yeats conceptualized history as a series of interpenetrating gyres.   Historical eras overlap, one ending as the next one begins.  He believed that these gyres or eras of history tended to fall into roughly 2,000-year periods.  While one tends to dominant, the other is always implied and weakly present.  He believed that a new “rough beast” was coming to replace Christianity and that the ideal time to live would be when the two gyres were at the midpoint of change.  He believed that Byzantium in the year 1000 A.D. represented this ideal time. yeatshistory.bmp (197958 bytes)
Yeats’ notion of history is clearly present in his poem “The Second Coming.”  A new era is upon the world, one that is displacing the old Christian one.  The second coming that the poem refers to is not that of Christ’s return but of a “rough beast” that will replace Christendom.
“All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one.” — T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding




William Butler Yeats 1865-1939

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Personally this kind of grand conception of history and our lives fails to move me or convince me one way or another.

For me, life, mine and LIFE, are highly circumstantial, unpredictable and too complicated and surprising to reduce to such neat schemes.

True, on many days I seem to be moving in, locked inside of, circles, yet something always happens eventually–a poke in the eye, a surprising new thing, an airtight refutation of a “truth” I had relied upon all of my life, to keep me wide eyed, hopefully nimble and light on my feet.

Yeats’ gyres and his schematic are more complex than I have feebly described here, and if you are interested in pursuing this–or circles and circling–you will find many resources online and in print, enough to keep you busy and absorbed for the rest of your life.

The “Rough Beast,” though? “The Second Coming?” Something prophetic about all that given this year’s news, this WEEK’S news, wouldn’t you say?   Creepy.

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The Music of Poetry: Prosody

OK, soapbox time. Maxed out. Had my fill of the effulgence of tone deaf poetry lately.

Most poetry written today exhibits a tin ear on the part of the poet and dooms it from the get go.

The problem with much poetry today as practiced by contemporary “poets” is that it has divorced itself from its traditional “tools,” tools reinvented and modified in every age to suit the times and zeitgeist, essential tools which make poetry have an actual impact on the reader, which make a lasting impression on the reader. Yes, which allows the poems to survive and become part of our cultural heritage.

Somewhere along the line in the 20’s and 30’s wannabe poets got the idea that “free verse” was a license to slap down any psychological eructations that occurred to them in short stubby lines–or interminably long lines– and call it poetry.  Most of it is DOA today, but hordes keep trying to make a lasting impression without taking the time to listen, time to hear the inherent music necessary in the birthing of real poetry.

No, it doesn’t have to rhyme or follow a strict stanza scheme, but language has musical qualities when managed by a talented poetic mind. And these rare types listen to the sound of the words in their head and get them down on paper in a way that make their thoughts “sing.”

Prosody. It’s what make poetry pleasurable. It’s what makes a poem memorable. It’s the verbal “music,” the appropriate sounds and pacing to the subject the poem is dealing with.

The rhythm, the beat, the pace, sounds soft or hard.  Fancy terms have been invented for its elements: meter, stanza, rhyme schemes, assonance, dissonance, enjambment, run on lines, alliteration, fricactives, plosives … ad nauseum.

Every great age of poetry from Homer onward has had it favored “forms,” forms involving all of these elements, but which the talented poet doesn’t have to think twice about because it comes naturally to him or her. It’s in the bones and psyche. When he or she writes the right melodic combinations just happen.

It helps though to know the terms, elements and why they matter.

The term lyric (as in lyric verse and the lyrics of a musical piece) dates from the ancient Greeks when poems used to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Today in poetry lyric refers to any short poem whatever the rhyme scheme (if any, usually not), meter (beats and stresses in a line) or stanza form.

Most “poets” today write easily dismissed lyrics, whether they know it or not. Most haven’t a clue about the tools of their trade, known in aggregate as prosody:

In linguistics, prosody (pronounced /ˈprɒsədi/ PROSS-ə-dee, from Greek προσῳδία, prosōidía, [prosɔːdía], “song sung to music; pronunciation of syllable”) is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the form of the utterance (statement, question, or command); the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or by choice of vocabulary.

I have volumes of examples to prove my points here but this is enough for now.

I will close with a Seamus Heaney ditty that masterfully uses all the musical tools without any conscious thought or obvious stanza scheme:


By Seamus Heaney

for Philip Hobsbaum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966

More to come :)

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“Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them” – Why Bother with Poetry?

moore toadThis poem by the contentious, straightforward major American poet Marianne Moore came to mind tonight and I thought it was worth sharing.
Cogently and succinctly she takes on the common objections and antipathy of the general public to the reading of poems that are any more complicated and indirect than “I Think I Shall Never See a Poem as Lovely as a Tree.”  The first line has stuck in my mind since I first encountered it many decades ago.
As Flannery O’Connor so notably said, “Art is not for everybody;” it takes thought, reflection and a certain intuitive gift to appreciate it.
Poetry in the Twitterizing-haiku hamstrung, Facebook friend age, really separates the sheep from the goats when it comes to the aesthetic sense and seriousness of purpose , whether the arts are visual, aural or words on a page (or on YouTube).  Poetry takes time and thought to write and time and thought to “get” and savor.
Nothing new, really, historically.  But Marianne Moore will always seem fresh and new–profound-as will great poetry.
Love this little defense of poesy and the phrase “literalists of the imagination.”
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful. When they become so derivative as to become
   the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand: the bat
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to 

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician--
      nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
      a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
      result is not poetry,
   nor till the poets among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”--above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness and
      that which is on the other hand
         genuine, you are interested in poetry.

From Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg.

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore

Born in 1887, Marianne Moore wrote with the freedom characteristic of the other Modernist poets, often incorporating quotes from other sources into the text, yet her use of language was always extraordinarily condensed and precise
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