Saturday, May 28, 2016

Radiance, Heights

Selected Poems: 1931-2004Selected Poems: 1931-2004 
by Czesław Miłosz

"Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope."
- from "Incantation", 1968 (p 87)

His poetry runs the gamut of feeling and thought, of nature and man, of beauty and the truth of poetry. The author of The Captive Mind, a great statement about the effects of totalitarianism, Czeslaw Milosz is even better when his daimon inspires him to write poetry. This selection covers his work over more than seven decades beginning with his early days in Poland, underground during the War, and beyond into his time in America. His survival, overcoming the ordeal of war and suppression gives his poetry a nobility that seems palpable on every page. 

The following poem resonates with me along with others of his best from the Selected Poems.  Just as he fought the battle of ideas, the books are durable soldiers going into battle with a simple "We are,";  confident in the knowledge that they are "more durable than we are".  The reference to the dismal twentieth century with its fires and flame is tempered by the optimism of the closing:  "Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights."

And Yet the Books 

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Commonplace Entry

This entry is from "Two or Three Ideas" an essay by Wallace Stevens

"To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences.  It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time;  nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge.  It is simply that they came to nothing.  Since we have always shared all things with them and have always had a part of their strength and, certainly, all of their knowledge, we shared likewise this experience of annihilation.  It was their annihilation , not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.  It left us felling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amicable rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness."  

"Two or Three Ideas" in Collected Prose and Poetry by Wallace Stevens.  The Library of America, 1997, p 842.

Modern Reality

The Poetry of Wallace Stevens

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
― Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter 
To regard the frost and the boughs 
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; 

And have been cold a long time 
To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 
The spruces rough in the distant glitter 

Of the January sun; and not to think 
Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 
In the sound of a few leaves, 

Which is the sound of the land 
Full of the same wind 
That is blowing in the same bare place 

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

What sort of mind is a "mind of winter"?  This is just one of many questions raised upon reading this short poem, one that is nothing if not very deep and opaque, at least upon first reading.  For someone from the northern part of the Midwest the idea of winter and snow is a familiar one, so this poem seems like it should be more simple than it appears. Perhaps that is because the poet, Wallace Stevens, whose image of  the poet he describes thus: 
"He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does be placing it in his imagination. . . The poet has his own meaning for reality,"  and he says this about poetry:
"It is an interdependence of imagination and reality as equals." (pp 25-27, The Necessary Angel)
Stevens's poem is modern in the sense that it is imbued with ambiguity.  The reality of winter or snow or "the listener" of the final stanza is masqued by the metaphors and placement in the poem.  In the short space of fifteen lines the poet takes the reader on a journey from (in) the mind that is seeing the trees and sun to a listener who is hearing "the sound of the wind", yet is reduced to, or left with, nothing by the final stanza.
"Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

One possibility is to look to Stevens the poet for some help in understanding what is happening.  In his poem, "On the Way to the Bus", he describes a journalist confronting a snow scene  as a "Transparent man in a translated world," and finding there "An understanding beyond journalism.  A way of pronouncing the world inside of one's tongue".  (pp 394-5, The Palm at the End of the Mind)  This understanding beyond journalism can be read as imagination; an imagination that is able to behold nothing yet see something.

The ambiguity of "The Snow Man" is something that we can ponder with our own minds and imagine the many senses in which the world of winter, its sounds and sights, might merge with our own understanding of the world.  What we may gain is a bit of poetic knowledge while sharing in the transcendence of the poetic experience.

The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1951.
The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1972 (1971).

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Small Town Lives

Plainsong (Plainsong, #1)Plainsong 
by Kent Haruf

“Often in the morning they rode out along the tracks on Easter and took their lunch and once rode as far as the little cemetery halfway to Norka where there was a stand of cottonwood trees with their leaves washing and turning in the wind, and they ate lunch there in the freckled shade of the trees and came back in the late afternoon with the sun sliding down behind them, making a single shadow of them and the horse together, the shadow out in front like a thin dark antic precursor of what they were about to become.”   ― Kent Haruf, Plainsong

Plainsong is a form of medieval church music that involves chanting; it emerged around 100 A.D. It does not use any instrumental accompaniment, instead, it uses words that are sung. It is this that suggests a structure that orders the story told by Kent Haruf in his beautiful novel. The narration inhabits short vignette-like chapters about a small group of people who inhabit a town set on the stark but beautiful High Plains of Colorado.

It is in the small town of Holt, Colorado, that Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher, struggles to keep his life together and to raise his two boys after their depressed mother first retreats into her bedroom, and then moves away to her sister's house. The boys, not yet adolescents, have a paper route while attempting a normal life of boyhood; yet they have difficulty making sense of adult behavior and their mother's apparent abandonment. In one touching scene the boys bond with an elderly customer and help her as she makes cookies.  A pregnant teenage girl, kicked out by her mother and rejected by the father of her child, searches for a secure place in the world. And far out in the country, two elderly bachelor brothers work the family farm as they have their entire lives, all but isolated from life beyond their own community. While they are isolated, the brothers are not immune to the need to love and be loved.  Their role in the story is central and demonstrates how they are able to grow and redeem lives.  Each of the main characters demonstrate both the potential for human kindness and the consequences of difficulties, both due to their own flaws or those of others.  

From these separate strands emerges a stoic vision of life--and of the community and landscape that bring them together. Through Haruf's spare prose on every page these lives emerge with a beauty and endurance that is impressive. Plainsong is a story of the abandonment, grief, and sorrow that bind these people together. It is also a story of the kindness, hope, and dignity that redeem their lives. Utterly true to the rhythms and patterns of life, Plainsong is a tremendous novel that deserved its nomination for a National Book Award.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A Day in the Life of a Town

Under Milk Wood: A Play for VoicesUnder Milk Wood: 
A Play for Voices 
by Dylan Thomas

"You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.
And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before- dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.
Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood." (p 13)

Under Milk Wood, the “impression for voices” which Dylan Thomas had been trying to finish for over a decade, received its first public reading on this day in 1953. It was still not finished, but Thomas was on tour in America at the time, and the promised Harvard reading went ahead, the author scribbling additions and changes until the last minute. 

It is a unique work that, as a play for radio, incorporates poetry and is imbued throughout with the imagination of a poet. It can be experienced in many ways: as an evocation of a town in a time and place, specific yet universal; but one may also relish the language, the magnificent wordplay from one of the finest of twentieth-century poets. It is this evocative language that makes it a great play for radio and one that begs to be read aloud when you are closeted in your cozy reading room.

There are memorable characters who the reader discovers through brief monologues, poems, or often merely snatches of conversation with townspeople trading one-liners. It portrays a day in the life of Llareggub, an imaginary small Welsh seaside town — Laugharne, say all but the residents of New Quay, the other Welsh seaside town where Thomas lived and wrote in a small writing shed.  Dylan Thomas had much experience with works for radio and this play that gestated for more than a decade was the result of his great poetic gifts.

"The thin night darkens.  A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood." (p 88)

View all my reviews