Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Weird John Brown

Tony Horvitz mentions a poem by Melville as one of the reactions to Harper’s Ferry; I never realized that Herman Melville wrote poetry, but it seems that he wrote quite a lot of it! His poem about John Brown is so fitting, so chilling:

The Portent

Hanging from the beam
Slowly swaying (such the law)
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

I feel I should have linked to the Langston Hughes poem I referenced in my previous post which I found here: Rhapsody in Books – John Brown


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The fanatical John Brown was a complex mixture, and Horwitz creates a nuanced portrait of a driven man who failed at everything except martyrdom. While waiting a month to be executed, he seemed finally content, the path of righteousness clear before him, and his message finally being heard and disseminated. Horwitz contends, and it seems to be true, that Brown’s failed raid was the flint that sparked the Civil War 18 months later. Horwitz describes a belated but powerful groundswell of support for Brown across the North which hardened the South’s sense of injustice and brought the idea of secession from the fringes to the mainstream. I have to say that Brown’s sacrifice of himself, most of his sons and followers, and his cold-blooded execution of farmers in Kansas was shocking, but not more shocking than the atrocities of slavery. It does make you think about terrorism in a slightly different way, and his willingness to die for the cause brought even theoretical and passivist Northern abolitionists out of the closet, so to speak.

Brown said himself that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” and it is hard to see how slavery would have ended without the dreadful conflagration of the Civil War, which his actions may have hastened. This book was not as entertaining as “Confederates in the Attic,” but it added to my knowledge of the intellectual climate and political power-structure in the country before the Civil War. In fact, I think I might have liked it better if it was about all of the pre Civil War factors leading up to the shots fired at Fort Sumter, a kind of “Proud Tower,” for that event. Horwitz added a fascinating literary footnote: Lewis Leary, one of Brown’s doomed followers, left behind a wife, Mary, who remarried and became Mary Langston. She raised her grandson, Langston Hughes, on stories of the raid. His poem, “October 16, 1859” begins: “Perhaps you will remember John Brown…”

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It happens to be the 204th birthday of Edgar Allen Poe, born this day in 1809, in Boston (join The Poe Foundation to celebrate, today at 3:00 pm). The Writer’s Almanac starts off today’s segment with an excerpt from “The Raven,” which is of course well known to everyone, but, when considered with a fresh eye and ear, startles with its strangeness and dark lyricism. I recently had such an occasion for reconsideration when watching The Last Days of the Raven at the local library. This is an appropriately strange movie that stumbles around a bit attempting to combine the biographical and artistic threads of Poe’s short life. Brent Fidler’s performance as Poe rises to genius when Poe’s feelings for his stepfather mix with a manic retelling of The Telltale Heart where the lines of fiction and reality blur most chillingly, and especially when he recites “The Raven.” That alone makes the movie worth seeing.

Part of the library film night was to start a reading group of Poe’s works and Matthew Pearl’s novel, “The Poe Shadow.” Apparently, Poe was a gleefully harsh literary critic in whose footsteps I will not be following, but I rather wish Pearl were a better writer. I like his topics, but the plots seem so clunky and badly-constructed, the characters wooden and two-dimensional, the prose banal and repetitive. Still, I read his previous work, “The Dante Club,” and will probably finish this one so it’s not all bad. Just disappointing.

There’s a story in Lowell that Poe wrote “The Raven” while upstairs at the Old Worthen, and it is certain that he visited our fair city a few times as a lecturer on poetry. However, his visits to Lowell were in 1848 and the poem was written in 1845, so it’s probably just an urban myth. Too bad!

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TC – Poetry

I’ve embarked on a new Teaching Company Course How to read and Understand Poetry, taught by William Spiegelman  It is lovely to listen to and think about poems while commuting to work, facing another day of drudgery.  As Goethe said, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture,  and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” 

Professor Spiegelman has a good speaking manner, which a teacher ought to have if he or she can possibly manage it.  He is not quite so puckish and funny as McWhorter, but so far anyway he sticks to the topic and does not intrude upon it.  More to the point, I was immediately struck by his assertion that poems are not about ideas.  He tells a story of the painter, Degas, mentioning to his friend, the poet Mallarme, that he would like to write poems as he had so many ideas.  Mallarme replied, “My dear Degas, poems are not made of ideas, but words.”  A simple, even obvious, statement, but one that bears thinking about, for it is the choice and setting and arrangement of words that makes a poem what it is more than what the poet is trying to say, which according to Spiegelman, can be boiled down to half-a-dozen or so main ideas – love, death, living, etc.

His first poems are a pair by Wordsworth, the much-loved “I wandered lonely as a Cloud” which he amplifies with some biographical details about Wordsworth and then “The Reaper”which I had never read.  It would be helpful to read each poem first (which he suggests), because unlike the first poem which I know well, my unfamiliarity with the second made it somewhat hard to follow.  The poems themselves are not included in the bibliography so it will take some effort to hunt them up.  He then did Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” which I know by heart and spoke beautifully of the restful, dreamy rhythms of the poem.  He mentions that Yeats had been reading Thoreau and was influenced by him in writing this poem but adds that his seeker after simplicity is far from being practical, his vision is idealized, not pragmatic.  He states the longing of the poet to get away from the modern world, but I think he misses something of central importance.  The twice-stated, “I will arise and go now”, seems too forceful for the rest of the poem and you get the feeling that he is not actually going to fulfill this ambition, that he is lying on a couch, inert, and will not summon the will to do what Thoreau did, that he will after all stay “on the pavements” grey.  The next poem is by another favorite of mine, Edna St Vincent Millay.  As Spiegelman notes, she is not so well-regarded these days, but I have loved her since junior high, reading “we were very tired, we were very merry, we went back and forth all night on a ferry.”  I love many of her poems, but do not remember this one, “The Buck in the Snow.”  The language and imagery are stunning.  It’s a fine example of her genius and from a simple snowy scene with deer in flight reaches to the very “strangeness” of life and death.

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Reading connections

I love the game of literary references, how one thing leads to another, for instance, I had never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before my TeachCo course.  I read the New Yorker cover-to-cover (well, almost) every week.  So, in a recent issue (in October?), there was a reference to Bonhoeffer in a letter from a reader.  That’s the kind of thing that gives me a thrill!  Here’s another example:  I am listening to a Rumpole book on CD, in a low moment, Rumpole turns to the Oxford Book of English Verse that is always by his bedside, “the old Quiller-Couch edition,” to recite lines of his favorite poem (…Great God!  I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.)

Then, when I finished The Iliad last night, closing the book on the burial of Hector, I wanted to read once again the poem by Keats, “On Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Finding it easily on www.bartleby.com, I have copied it below,

MUCH have I travell’d in the realms of gold,  
  And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;  
  Round many western islands have I been  
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.  
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told          5
  That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:  
  Yet did I never breathe its pure serene  
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:  
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies  
  When a new planet swims into his ken;   10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes  
  He stared at the Pacific—and all his men  
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—  
  Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Here is the reference for the poem:  Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900. So, life for the dedicated reader can become a series of branching paths of endless fascination!

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