Category: poetry

New at Thermidor: Hesiod

I have a new article over at Thermidor Magazine, in which I discuss not only Hesiod’s works, but his days, as well. More specifically, I give an overview of his epic poem The Works and Days, with a few words on Theogeny as well. If you can’t get enough of the Classics, I also wrote about Poetics, by Aristotle, over there a couple months ago, and I will likely have a follow-up of sorts in the near future.

In addition, I have a post drafted and ready continuing my series on Plato’s dialogues, this time covering Socrates’ Defense, more commonly called The Apology. If you’re new to this blog, I began with an introduction to the series with a short discussion of three dialogues, then covered Meno, and most recently, Euthyphro.…

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The Book of Odes

Anyone who’s read any the Confucian canon’s Four Books will have heard much of the Book of Odes. Confucius and Mencius discuss it and reference it constantly, and Confucius even told his son, “If you do not study the Odes you will not be fit to converse with.” He explains why in another chapter that I’ve quoted and discussed previously, “My young friends, why do you not study the Odes? They will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances. They will aid you in your immediate service to your parents and your more remote service to your sovereign.” The Confucians place so much emphasis on the Odes and their study that one can only have the highest expectations going into the book, but this can also set some false expectations as to what they are exactly. Even Ezra Pound, the great poet, translator, and admirer of Confucius, once expressed confusion as to what exactly the Confucians saw in them.

The Odes, you see, are a collection of 305 folk songs and poems; traditionally Confucius himself is supposed to have compiled them, though there’s much doubt over this. Several were used in a ritual context, as one would expect from the Confucians’ treatment of them, and many do have some moral component, though more often than not, this isn’t explicit. For the most part, though, they’re simply folk songs, and look exactly like one would expect folk songs to look. Most are romantic, some praise famous heroes, a few deal with the hardship of a soldier’s life, and some decry tyrannical government. This is all well and good, and they’re certainly enjoyable, but one can also understand the reservations of people like Pound; it’s as if a great sage urged you to study the great moral instruction of a collection of songs, then handed you a copy of Anthology of American Folk Music. Take, for example, Ode 61, “The River is Broad.”

Who says that the River is broad?
On a single reed you could cross it.
Who says that Song is far away?
By standing on tip-toe I can see it.

Who says that the River is broad?
There is not room in it even for a skiff.
Who says that Song is far away?
It could not take you so much as a morning.…

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The Hunting of the Snark

`Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. `I can explain all the poems that were ever invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’

As I’ve talked about in previous posts, I think the epic poem is the greatest, noblest form in literature. One reason is the discipline required simply to complete writing one at all. Even a short poem demands much from a writer, and extending that over a lengthy narrative makes for an extraordinary quality filter, and is also why there are relatively few epics out there.

Such is the literary batting average for epics that if you wanted to argue that the three most famous epic poets, Homer, Virgil, and Dante Alighieri, are the three greatest writers in the Western canon overall, well, you’d have a powerful case. Now consider also some of the other famous epic writers – John Milton, of course, the authors of Beowulf, of Gawain and the Green Knight, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and G. K. Chesterton, among others, and you have a formidable literary roster. Nonetheless, those of us with truly refined taste in literature know that the greatest of all of these is, undoubtedly, Lewis Carroll.

Well, maybe Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits isn’t the greatest, but it is the one I enjoy the most, which is certainly worth something.

Now, everyone knows about Carroll’s Alice novels, which I wrote about last week, but Snark, though not obscure, and certainly more widely read than, say, Sylvie & Bruno, is generally only popular among Carrollians, and that’s too bad. In short, it’s exactly what one would expect an epic poem by Carroll to look like; imagine “Jabberwocky” extended to the length of a short book (about thirty-five pages in one edition I own), and you’ll be close to the mark. In style, it’s more-or-less a condensed, poetic Alice, and if that sounds appealing to you, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it.

Mervyn Peake’s illustration of the Bellman leading his crew
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The Homeric Hymns

The Homeric Hymns, traditionally attributed to Homer but with much controversy over that attribution, is another one of those works that shouldn’t really need much of an introduction. Since I know I’m not the only one whose formal education has failed me, though, there’s probably no harm in offering a brief overview of this, as well.

As one may guess from the title, this is a collection of poems praising several of the Greeks’ various gods. They vary greatly in length, the first few going on for over a dozen pages in my edition, but most of them fit easily onto one or two pages. The longer ones tend to be narratives, like Hymn II (to Demeter), and Hymn III (to Apollo), usually covering the god’s birth and one or two other tales. The rest are short hymns of praise, recalling to the audience the god’s accomplishments, things sacred to him, and so on. For example, here’s Hymn XXIV, to Hestia:

Hestia,
you are the one
who takes care of the holy house
in sacred Pytho, the house
of the archer Lord Apollo,

soft oil
flowing forever from your hair.

Come into this house,
come, having one heart
with wise Zeus,

and be gracious to my song, too.…

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A Brief Introduction to Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets

Whenever I think of English poetry, the first style to come to mind is something like the Cavalier poets. For me, their work is the good stuff; no multi-page bouts of navel-gazing in free verse here. Nope, this is good old-fashioned metrical writing with regular rhyme schemes, and what does a good Cavalier write about? Put simply, the good life – the love of beautiful women, a comfortable home in the country, close friends, duty, and at times, the loss of those things.

Of course, the Cavalier poets were a fairly large group and thus did have some variety in tone and subject; Norton Critical Editions’ Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, the compilation I’ve just finished reading, includes eighteen different writers, making it a solid introduction to the breadth of the school. Jonson is, deservedly, the most famous, and fairly representative for the rest. For example, here’s the first part of “To Penshurst,” which was the first “country house” poem in English:

Thou are not, Penshurst, built to envious show
Of touch, or marble, nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water: therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy Mount, to which the dryads to resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set,
At his great birth, where all the Muses met.
There in the writhéd bark are cut the names
Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames.
And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke
The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s oak.
Thy copse, too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer
When thou wouldst feast, or exercise thy friends.

That one is fairly long, but personally I tend to prefer short poems with a strong image, similar to what I discussed in the Hyakunin Isshu. Of course, Jonson could do that, too:

Swell me a bowl with lusty wine,
Till I may see the plump Lyaeus swim
Above the brim;
I drink as I would write,
In flowing measure, filled with flame and sprite.

“Lyaeus,” by the way, is Bacchus; Jonson and some of these other poets, but again, not all, are rather fond of references to Classical literature and mythology. Often context is sufficient to get the gist of a poem even if one isn’t familiar with these references, but be ready to check with footnotes somewhat often on some of these.…

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La Vita Nuova (75 Books LXVII)

Writing about Dante’s non-fiction Monarchia not once, but twice on this blog, and once at length on the main site, made me want to revisit his poetry. I haven’t had time to tackle The Divine Comedy this year, but was able to get through the fairly short La Vita Nuova over Christmas weekend, when not visiting with my kinsfolk.

La Vita Nuova is a bit of an odd work; the poetry makes up the centrepiece, but the work as a whole is autobiographical, and concerns Dante’s relationship, such as it was, with Beatrice. His love for Beatrice is famous, and plays a large part in The Divine Comedy, but as intensely felt as it was for Dante, from the outside not much seems to have come from it. They never really do anything together, barely so much as even a short conversation, and Dante deliberately hides his love for at least the first part of this story. If anything, the style of the book reminds me of the Hyakunin Isshu, which I just wrote about, in that it’s essentially a collection of occasional poems that Dante wrote capturing or commenting on moments with Beatrice, her friends, love in general, and so on. Basically, as the hundred poets would write a tanka as almost a matter of course whenever something subjectively interesting happens, Dante does the same but typically in sonnet form.…

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One Hundred Leaves (75 Books LXVI)

There are only two groups of Americans who are likely to know about the Hyakunin Isshu, literature enthusiasts who’ve taken an interest in Japan, and fans of the comic and anime Chihayafuru. I’m certainly the former and like the latter enough to have imported the French edition, so Frank Watson’s One Hundred Leaves: A New Annotated Translation of the Hyakunin Isshu seemed like a must-have to me.

If you’re not in either of those groups, the Hyakunin Isshu is an anthology of one hundred poems, each by a different poet, compiled by poet and critic Fujiwara no Teika around 1237. For readers, myself included, who don’t have a lot of experience with Japanese poetry, Watson does offer a few things to help us out. There’s a short introduction on appreciating this style of poem, annotations explaining the intricate wordplay that characterises these works, and a “literal” translation of each poem to supplement the main translation. He also includes the original versions, both in Japanese script and English transliteration, for those who either know a little Japanese or want to read them out loud. Finally, he also provides a painting from traditional Japanese art to complement each poem. Unfortunately, a few aspects of the presentation do fall short of the ideal. The pictures are in black-and-white with no indication of the title or artist, and it’s sometimes hard to see what the picture has to do with the poem it ostensibly illustrates. Not all poems have annotations, either; some stand on their own well enough not to need much explanation, but it would be nice to at least get a short biographical note about the writers. The annotations also get a little repetitive; for example, he explains several times that the image of “wet sleeves” indicates wiping away tears.…

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“All I Ever Want to Write About” – Dylan Thomas on Mortality

While telling a friend about a new poem he’d been working on, Dylan Thomas commented that he would use the title “Deaths and Entrances” for both the poem and the collection “because that is all I ever write about or want to write about.”* Though Thomas did, of course, write about several other topics, he did use mortality as the topic of many of his poems. His treatment of the subject, though, changes drastically over the course of his career, beginning with satire and moving through anxiety, resistance, and finally a graceful acceptance.

Thomas’s first major poem to deal with the topic of death is “After the Funeral.” Like many of Thomas’s poems, this one was inspired by an actual event, in this case the funeral of his aunt, Ann Jones. It was written gradually between February 1933 and March 1938, and because of its shift in attitude during the writing process and because it is a relatively early poem is an ideal place to start for considering Thomas’s changing treatments of mortality.

The first part to be written, roughly the first third of the poem, treats the funeral almost sarcastically, and focuses on the hypocrisy of the mourners. Thomas describes their expression of grief hyperbolically, making them appear ridiculous with their “mule praises, brays” and “salt ponds in sleeves,” and a “desolate boy,” possibly Thomas himself, “who slits his throat” in grief. Even the deceased is not treated much better, described bluntly and without any sentimentality or romanticising as “dead, humped Ann.” The satire may be interpreted as a precursor to his later rejection of the appropriateness of traditional funeral practices, but the mourners’ actions so far are more vaudevillian than anything else.

However, the tone of the poem soon changes abruptly. Even though the proceedings are “magnified out of praise” and thus inappropriate for Ann, in the very next line after the parentheses the narrator proclaims himself to be “Ann’s bard,” which has very romantic, traditional connotations, and as though the narrator viewed himself as a knight in shining armour. The style of the rest of the poem is almost Romantic, with references to nature (“meek as milk,” “ferned and foxy woods”), and more elevated language as he creates a “monumental / Argument of the hewn voice” in honour of Ann. In moving from “dead, humped Ann” to this more admiring treatment, he turns from satire to elegy, as though he changed his mind halfway through the poem on whether traditional religious ceremony is appropriate for the ugliness of death.…

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Long Thoughts on a Short Verse

The first thing most people notice when they read Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is how amazingly short it is – just two lines, plus a title. By making the work so brief, Pound successfully denies the reader a sense of closure or fulfillment after finishing the poem, which emphasizes the work’s implication of the anonymity and listlessness of the people in the titular metro station. Although Pound certainly could have made the work longer and more developed, the work is ultimately strengthened by denying the reader any development of its central idea.

The primary result of Pound’s denial of closure in “In a Station of the Metro” is the sense that the poem is just a passing observation of a morning commuter. First, one should notice that the full poem consists of a sentence fragment. This gives the impression that the work is incomplete, that the writer has either just started or just now had the inspiration to write. This effect is significant to the poem’s theme because it implies that even the poet does not have the time or motive to fully develop what sounds like a very promising start to a work.…

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“For a Few Thousand Battered Books” – Ezra Pound and the First World War

This post is a revised version of an essay I wrote a few years ago; I’m posting it here in honour of Pound’s upcoming birthday. Please forgive its length – I’ll go back to my normal style shortly after this. For now, think of it as a preview of the literature-focused website I mentioned working on in last week’s post.

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Though many poets write about social, political, and economic issues, few have made such matters as integral to their work as Ezra Pound. Literary criticism would always form a large part of his prose work, like ABC of Reading, but he wrote at least as much on economics and politics, like ABC of EconomicsJefferson and/or Mussolini, and segments of Guide to Kulchur. Even in his poetry, references to historical figures like John Adams and Sigismundo Malatesta outnumber artists.

The apparent catalyst for Pound’s concern with socio-economic matters was the First World War. Prior to the war, most of his writing deals directly with encouraging a revival of the arts, and poetry in particular. After the war, beginning with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he began to seriously consider the war and its causes, and his conclusions on the nature of and relationship between politics, economics, and the arts would shape his poetic and prose output for the rest of his career, especially in his epic poem The Cantos.…

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