Aasof on Poetry

This week on Facebook: The final selection is an article on the subject of poetry, if not entirely bringing an end to my respite from matters economic and political, at least giving myself a break from them during the August holiday month. The subject of literature is very much influenced by personal tastes, which is reflected in my choice of poems here.

Last week’s post on essays was probably the one area where the subjects of English Literature and English Grammar overlapped when I was at school. Teachers bent on finding a budding essayists or perhaps a poet, expected us all to wax lyrical over all things. Yet, perhaps, the agony of reading terrible essays in English Grammar was nothing compared to the gauche attempts at poetry made in English Literature. I suspect that it was poetry that caused the unwilling writer and the unfortunate reader the most distress.

It’s only now that I have come to appreciate literature in its widest possible context, and that it may be due to the influence of the internet¹. Of course in English Literature the poets read were all long dead and the attraction of the film The Dead Poet’s Society had more to do with Robin Williams than the poetry and prose of long dead poets.

An internet search turned up these two contrasting reviews of the film:

The dead poet’s society has been voted the greatest school film and it is often cited by viewers as one of the most inspirational films of all time. It certainly inspired me at a time when I most needed it.

I’ve never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society. I expect that them’s fighting words, at least in some quarters; at least I hope they are. Because I’m trying to pick a fight here.

It’s interesting that the latter critique wanted to pick a fight and seems to hold the assumption that — having left school — people continue to read poetry, even assuming that they care about its interpretation. I belong to the school of the first critique, not giving a thought to Emily Dickinson remarking: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. 

Most people don’t read poetry, it’s only in my ever increasing dotage that I have begun giving some thought to the interpretation of poetry. When reading poetry I am more inclined to read rhythmic verse, but with an awareness that the poem — in all its forms — is an integral part of a literary milieu. 

Writing this piece led me to the following three poems, the first by Walt Whitman and the second two by William Corbett. Poems that have changed my mind about the type of verse I read, causing further reflections while I journey on my road less travelled.

I know I have the best of time and space, and was never
measured and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut
from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the
public road.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

Walt Whitman

I Was Thirty

I was thirty
I wore a suit
Left over from college
I stood to deliver
Gordon Cairnie’s eulogy
Harvard’s Memorial Chapel
The Canadian flag over his coffin
He had fought at Vimy Ridge.
A man calls
Plans to write a book about Gordon
Unlocks the chest
Who will care
That someone stole the guestbook
At Gordon’s funeral
And that I know who did it?
Gordon came home
From the store that July
Afternoon forty years ago
Sat in his chair
And died there upright
A man who loved poets
The devotion he discovered
Over forty-three years
Running his Grolier Bookshop.
I write this remembering
Tears falling on the keys.

On a Benn Theme

I get around
Boston, still,
Up to the erasures
As if I never looked into
The mirror and shaved
At 9 Columbus Square.
I get around,
Newly, in Brooklyn
Down the blocks where
Hair is an industry,
And I get to my first city,
The parents shopped for mink
letting me free to find
A Nigel Molesworth book.
The scared thrill
Of that two block walk
Jolts me today as I step,
Arm raised, to hail
A hum colored cab.

Two Poems By William Corbett

George Orwell’s essay books vs cigarettes (1946) is essentially about the cost of his book collection and how the factory workers that he spoke at the time would not indulge in such expenditure. Had he told the factory workers that he was a poet, he may well have wandered lonely in a crowd. Perhaps social media has now outed those with a poetical bent but I suspect that, despite social media, poetry is still mainly considered the domain of feminists and the male wuss. Apart from his book 1984, outside of literary circles I doubt that Orwell is remembered for his essays and poetry:

So here are you, and here am I,
Where we may thank our gods to be;
Above the earth, beneath the sky,
Naked souls alive and free.
The autumn wind goes rustling by
And stirs the stubble at our feet;
Out of the west it whispering blows,
Stops to caress and onward goes,
Bringing its earthy odours sweet.
See with what pride the the setting sun
Kinglike in gold and purple dies,
And like a robe of rainbow spun
Tinges the earth with shades divine.
That mystic light is in your eyes
And ever in your heart will shine.

The Pagan by George Orwell

Monday — Can Poetry Change Your Life?   A review of Michael Robbins’s new book, “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” A collection of mostly previously published pieces, some on poetry, some on pop music, some on both, written, as the names suggest, in a critical style that could be called advanced pop.

I live in a time warp — probably the 1940s — so Robbins’ lyrical references mostly mean little to me, but I do agree that lyrics are poetry. The lyrics of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael immediately come to mind, especially Mercer’s The Midnight Sun and Carmichael’s Stardust.

Tuesday — The Trouble with “Finding Yourself”: Maria Popova quotes poet Robert Penn Warren who cast a cautionary eye to the notion of “finding oneself” in his Jefferson Lecture about power, tenderness, and art’s role in a healthy society. Challenging the cultural trend of young people taking “time off” from school or work in order to “get away from it all” and find themselves and considering the role of poetry as a locus of our evolving being:

How does poetry come into all this? By being an antidote, a sovereign antidote, for passivity. For the basic fact about poetry is that it demands participation, from the secret physical echo in muscle and nerve that identifies us with the medium, to the imaginative enactment that stirs the deepest recesses where life-will and values reside. Beyond that, it nourishes our life-will in the process of testing our values. And this is not to be taken as implying a utilitarian aesthetic. It is, rather, one way of describing our pleasure in poetry as an adventure in the celebration of life. Robert Penn Warren

Wednesday — 20 Classic Poems Every Man Should Read: We do ourselves a great disservice when we neglect the reading of poetry. John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, commended poetry to his son John Quincy. Both Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt committed their favorite poems to memory. Ancient kings were expected to produce poetry while also being versed in warfare and statecraft. That poetry has fallen out of favour among men in the 21st century is a recent trend rather than the norm.

click for a (very short) poetry reading

Thursday — Why Poetry Matters: Let poetry matter to you, to your children, and let’s together give it a chance to matter to many more children around the world.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax
Of cabbages—and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings.”

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Friday — A Private trip to a limerick (reprise): I had reason to visit the Republic of Ireland with some European colleagues who, on a trip out, asked me what a limerick was. I said that it was difficult to explain as it was usually rude, often vulgar, invariably used colloquialisms and was a play on words.

Shortly after publishing the above in 2014, I composed a Clerihew on the death of Robin Williams, who played Mr. Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society:

The world will miss you Robin Williams.
You brightened up the lives of millions.
Now that world in tweets of grief
Twitters on, thank God they’re brief

click image for verse and book and essays

One response to “Aasof on Poetry

  1. Pingback: Poetry & other ‘things’! | Aasof’s Reflections

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