Archive for the 'poetry' Category

A tour of my library – part two

August 9, 2019

My collection of literature and literary criticism lives in my study, and includes works of reference I used when I was teaching. I have been gradually slimming this section down in retirement, since I have actually finished with a good many of the books and do not expect to have any further use for them. I still write the occasional study guide, and so the collection does come in useful, although I tend to rely much more on my own teaching notes, most of which I’ve scanned and keep on my laptop. I’m most pleased with a collection of Shakespeare texts I built up over many years: a complete set of thirty-five volumes of the Arden Shakespeare Second Series in hardback editions. This may not mean anything to you, but this series was the gold standard in my time as a student and teacher. However, the gem of my literature collection was a treat to myself of a facsimile of the First Folio: pure book porn (if you’ll allow the expression), I love to sit and turn the pages over and marvel quietly.

The fiction section lives in our sitting room, by and large, and fills two alcoves on either side of the fireplace. For ease of searching it’s divided into two sections, works written before 1900 and works written after that date. The pre-1900 section contains many of the classics you might expect, Austen, Conrad, and also quite a few of the Russians. I have a good number of nice editions, particularly those of the latest incarnation of the Everyman’s Library; these are books that I do like to come back to. The modern section is very eclectic, but – as you might expect – with a bias to Eastern European literature on my part. A good number of our poetry books also find their homes on the top shelves: Milton, Donne and other metaphysicals; the modern poetry I used to teach is in my study.

There’s a small selection of my science fiction in my study. It’s the only section so far where I have begun to apply a new criterion: do I definitely want to keep/ re-read this book? If I’m certain, or there’s enough doubt, then I shall keep the book; otherwise I shall part with it. This means that quite a lot of the science fiction is actually in boxes in the loft, because I have no interest in re-visiting it. One book which I am keeping is a not very well-known American utopian novel from 1887, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which envisions a socialist America in the year 2000. The premise is contrived, as often in a utopia, but the vision is fascinating. And my copy is a most bizarre example: it’s printed on very cheap paper which has gone seriously brown, and looks exactly like the original British edition of the novel, except that it’s in a semi-glossy paperback cover, which would not have been possible then. This cover would seem to feature the frontispiece portrait of Bellamy from that first edition. There are absolutely no clues that this is a reprint or facsimile, and it certainly does not look like a photographic reproduction. I bought it new in the late 1970s, and there was apparently an edition published then, but I have no clue who published it. Very mysterious…

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Miroslav Holub: The Fly

July 11, 2019

She sat on a willow-trunk
watching
part of the battle of Crécy,
the shouts,
the gasps,
the groans,
the trampling and the tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyed male fly
from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
as she sat on a disembowelled horse
meditating
on the immortality of flies.

With relief she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled
and only the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies

and only
a few arms and legs
still twitched jerkily under the trees,

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armourer.

And thus it was
that she was eaten by a swift
fleeing
from the fires of Estrées.

I’ve always found writing that tries to look at human events from a non-human perspective fascinating; it often says as much about the writer as the subject. Here (in a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub) we have a nasty and insignificant fly observing nasty and insignificant humans killing each other in battle.

We’re back in the fourteenth century. Yes, it’s the battle of Crécy, but the fly knows nothing about that; probably not watching the battle, not having any conception of what’s going on – we humans think everything is about us. She does fly things: copulates, sits on carrion, lays eggs and gets eaten by another creature who doesn’t know what is going on in the world of humans either (although she is affected by it).

Holub uses the innocent creatures – flies, horse, bird – to put a different perspective on the human events, which he skilfully locates using names, times and places, all human-only aspects of the world.

We see flies as repellent creatures, but what is actually repellent here? There are the gross images of what the fly does, and yet the grossness – dead horse, dead armourer, burning villages – is all human-created.

Even through translation, the horrors of the battle and its consequences come over vividly: the actions of battle in three nouns and two participles; the disembowelled horse, the blue tongue of the armourer. Limbs twitch jerkily as the whisper of decay – what a marvellous image! – softly circles (notice the alliteration there) the bodies…

And the poet is not only alert to the irony of the humans’ situation in all this, but to the fly’s too: moments after apparently reflecting on her species’ immortality, she is eaten… and yet flies are everywhere, omnipresent, and after any war will no doubt abound, for a while.

Not a great poem, not brilliant in terms of technique or use of language, but clever enough to make a reader pause, see something from a perspective s/he would otherwise never have thought of using, and reflect briefly before moving on: for me that’s the essence of a poet’s art, something I can’t do and the poet can.

John Donne: The Apparition

June 30, 2019
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent

A nasty poem from John Donne? Surely not? But yes: the woman has rejected him and his advances, and gone to bed with another man, and he wants her to suffer for it.

Look at the power, the vitality, the sheer energy of the opening line: she is a killer, who has done for him by spurning him; when she learns he’s dead she will imagine he’s gone for good and so will stop harassing her, but he will return as a ghost… The multiple alliterations of the second line, through enjambment into the third, seem to help to create that false sense of security in her.

The ghost labels her feign’d vestal, suggesting she rejected the poet to hold on to her virginity for someone else, and that this was a lie, anyway; her lover is not as good a one as he would have been. The image of the sick taper winking – flickering as if it was about to go out, like an expiring candle – is a vivid visual picture. She will be scared, and perhaps seek to waken her partner. Here comes another put-down: he’s tir’d and asleep, with more than a hint of not being able to perform sexually, and will feign sleep when she tries to wake him. There’s a lot of pretending in this poem: her pretended virginity, his pretending to sleep; what about the notion of his shrinking from her: are we meant to imagine what may have shrunk? I think so.

The imagery used to describe her fear at the sight of the ghost – aspen wretch, in a quicksilver sweat – are also visual: she will end up looking more ghost-like than the poet’s ghost!

He taunts her further: he won’t say now what he will tell her then, when he appears as the ghost, in case that undermines the shock effect he intends; he’s over her (allegedly, although I suspect we are invited to think about what he means by my love is spent) and intends her to suffer; he wants her to realise what she’s missed out on…

It’s all a pose, of course, not a poem about a real situation, a real woman or a real rejection. In Donne’s day, any educated man should have been capable of turning out a poem about a rejection. Donne successfully brings out all the anger and spite felt by a man at being rejected sexually, in a poem that manages at the same time to be extremely unpleasant and extremely clever. A consummate artist.

 

Carol Ann Duffy: Education for Leisure

June 23, 2019

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

 

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

 

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

 

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

 

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

 

As I seem, for some reason, to be channelling Carol Ann Duffy at the moment – my post last autumn on The Wound in Time has been my most popular post ever (I would love to know why) – I thought I’d write about another of her poems which I’ve always liked a lot.

Duffy always inveighed against Thatcherism and its consequences, especially for those overlooked by society, and here she gets inside the head of an asocial misfit who feels he has no future in Britain. It’s shocking, powerful, and always provoked debate when we studied it in class in preparation for GCSE.

There’s nothing complex about the language, form or structure of this poem, reflecting the thoughts and mindset of the speaker perhaps: five simple, four-line stanzas and no discernible rhyme-scheme; the narrative is linear. So how does the poem work, and where does it derive its power from?

Immediacy in the opening line: today, and the idea of killing, muted a little by something, then ratcheted up a notch by the full stop, pause and subsequent one-word sentence Anything. The rhyme with the previous word helps the effect, too. The first person is emphasised throughout: count the recurrences of I, me, my. Look at how the I comes at the start of sentences and at the beginnings of lines: extra emphasis there. And there is power in the determination to play God. Nothing special about the day except that the speaker seems to have reached breaking-point: the image of boredom stirring in the streets is vivid, oxymoronic, fits in with the character of the speaker which is gradually built up.

Violence at the start of the second stanza, as well as a disgusting image. The Shakespeare reference is wonderful (King Lear: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods | They kill us for their sport), reflecting the speaker’s condition, and startling up, perhaps, with the idea that he’s not an unintelligent young man, having studied and understood some literature… then flinging the other language back at us in a witty comparison. We’ve all written our name in mist on glass at some point in our childhood; the speaker breathes out talent. What is Duffy doing with her character here?

Could he be a genius? The real issue is he’s one of many to whom society has not given a chance, for whatever reason. Then we’re back with his desire, intention to make an impact, but he doesn’t know how: something’s world will be changed, though. There is a growing sense of the sinister as the cat avoids him.

More violence: destruction of the goldfish, in the bog: that monosyllable, as well as the slang, the vulgarity of the word, heighten the sense of menace. He has been marauding against dumb creatures so far, but we sense something more. Again a glimpse of his intelligence, as he quotes the Bible: I see that it is good. ‘And God saw that it was good’ is a phrase repeated several times during the creation story in Genesis.

There is the old ritual – which I remember well from my own student days – you had to go to the local employment office to sign on as available to work, in order to receive unemployment or supplementary benefit if you weren’t actually working. Remember the speaker has talent, is a genius: he has an autograph!

Alone back home. Has he done for the budgie now? The radio-station fails to recognise the superstar, and the presumably seven-second delay means his words are never actually broadcast. Then the menace becomes real as he goes out: are the glittering pavements meant to remind us of Hollywood? The final half-line is superb, the perfect ending via the shift in the personal pronoun as the speaker connects specifically, individually with the reader: I touch your arm.

In many ways this seems a rather simple poem. The genius is in the brief but vivid creation of a character and a specific situation or moment; the poet faces us with something we would never have thought to imagine or visualise for ourselves, and briefly we share her creation, her vision and perhaps her anger at the hopelessness of the speaker’s situation. The language is straightforward, economical, and clever at times. Ultimately, however, I think the apparent simplicity of the poem is deceptive: I certainly couldn’t have written it…

Keats: On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

June 19, 2019
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

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;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 

This is another of my all-time favourites. It’s about an epiphany, a sudden moment of revelation, awareness of something not known or understood before, and it works through a comparison that develops throughout the poem. Chapman was the first translator of Homer into English, in the early seventeenth century (1611); before that it was assumed you were educated enough to read the original in classical Greek. And if you couldn’t, like the young Keats, tough, until translations came along; as a young poet he would surely have wanted to read the ur-poet’s work but couldn’t access it until he got hold of Chapman’s version. You can find it online.

Keats likens his exploration of the world of poetry to the travels of the Spanish conquistadors to the New World in the sixteenth century in this Petrarchan sonnet, the octave describing his travels through the world of poetry, and the sestet the effect the discovery of Homer in translation has on him, the wow-moment. The rhyme scheme is regular: count it out, mark it up and see.

The opening quatrain outlines the extent of his familiarity with the poetry, perhaps mainly of western countries. The poets are imagined as countries and islands, and the richness of the poetry is referenced in the gold and the kingdoms, the heritage going back centuries perhaps also alluded to through obsolescent words like bards and fealty. Poets are loyal to Apollo, god of the muses of inspiration… He’s heard about Homerdeep brow’d the adjective traditionally applied to him in history, in the way that all the epic heroes also had their own epithet, which helped summon up the character in the imagination of the listener – but never been able to actually read any. He knows of the poet’s demesne – another archaic word – and finally encounters it with the aid of Chapman.

Keats then wants to make us aware of the powerful effect on him of reading Homer. The two lines which compare it to an astronomer discovering a new planet are superb, close as the poet was in time to the recent discovery (1780) of Uranus by William Herschel. No new planet had been discovered since ancient times; even Homer knew about Saturn. The new planet swimming into his ken is lovely: the planet reveals itself to the astronomer, rather than he finding it, we have both discovery and revelation here.

But the Cortez image is even more powerful. You need to look for the isthmus of Darien on a map of Central America, and think about what actually happened: nobody knew the Pacific Ocean was there! It’s vast, and has never been seen before by a westerner. Cortez and his men climb a mountain and – WTF? There it is, as far as the eye can see in every direction. Look at star’d: why is that good? Why is it better than gazed, for example? It’s often helpful, I’ve found, when you are considering a poet’s choice of a word, to look at what s/he might have used instead, and reflect on why they went with what they chose.

Consider the picture of Cortez’ men looking at each other, and the expressions on their faces as they realise. The power of the single word silent, at the start of a line, the last line, with a pause following it, needs to be taken on board properly; the rest of the final line merely locates them, it’s a let-down after the shock: you are meant to feel as stunned as they are.

There’s a good deal more to find in the language and sounds of this poem if you take the time; again I think it’s a brilliant example of just how much can be packed into such a small space. What Keats wants you to understand and to experience is that sudden flash of realisation, and if there has been one for you about anything in your life, then that will help you get what he means.

Shelley: Ozymandias

June 17, 2019

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

I’ve always loved this poem. It says so much, as well as demonstrating a great deal of what poetry is especially good at. And you cannot fully grasp all of it without hearing the poem, so if necessary, read it aloud…

It’s a Petrarchan sonnet, fourteen lines divided into an octave and sestet, though the rhymes are not perfect and the rhyme-scheme is not self-contained within octave and sestet. Look carefully and you will see what I mean. The emphasis shifts from the statue itself in the octave, to the inscription and then reflections on it, in the sestet.

Now see how the poet distances himself from everything: he meets a traveller, so everything is received secondhand rather than personally encountered. What does traveller suggest, nowadays? And back in the early nineteenth century? What is an antique land – why has the poet chosen that word? The speaker reports the traveller’s words. Only the statue’s legs are still upright. Look at vast. How big is vast? These legs of stone | stand in the desert: those two alliterative monosyllables gain considerable power and effect from the enjambment. The caesura slow things down further. There’s further emphasis through another alliteration: sand | Half sunk. Consider shattered – listen to the sound: what is the effect? Is it onomatopoeia?

The traveller now describes the features that can be seen on what’s left of the face – a cruel ruler, it seems: cold command is quite explicit, with the hard ‘c’ sounds and the ‘o’ both long and short; alliteration abounds in the poem but never feels contrived, I suggest. The passions carved into the face are still familiar today, it is suggested; stamped hints both at the features of the face and the idea of power repressing it subject people. Economical use of language, and again the onomatopoeia in the word adds to the effect…

Words on the pedestal are still legible – note the alliteration of the letter ‘p’, quite subtle but pulling the line together. Do you know who Ozymandias was? Nor do I, though we could search for his name and get information. King of Kings, allegedly. The next line is sheer beauty, through the emptiness of the boast and the double meaning which our king will never have been aware of. Despair, at the power of what he achieved, or the ruin to which he and they have been reduced by time. The next half line falls leadenly, three two-syllabled words followed by the full stop and caesura: how powerful is that? Where are all these works to have driven the viewer to despair?

The concluding two and a half lines are truly magical and have to be heard to enjoy the full effect, particularly through the repeated use of long vowels, which magnify the lapse of time and its destructive power for me. What about colossal? How large is that? Is it bigger than vast, which we had earlier? The alliteration of boundless and bare enhances the effect, and then in the final line we have lone and level, and sands stretch, and I can’t help feeling too that all the sibilant ‘s’ sounds throughout the poem are meant to suggest all the sand…

An enormous amount can be crammed into a very short space in a good poem, where the words and the sounds are so carefully chosen to contribute their part to the overall effect. You might try to imagine how long a piece of prose might be needed to achieve anywhere near the same effect or same level of description. And that’s before you reflect on what the poet has sought to have his readers think about: time, eternity, erasing human vanity and achievement, our smallness in the face of the vastness of the universe. If you didn’t read the poem aloud, do it now: use the punctuation to help you know where to pause, because the enjambments in the poem are also important in maintaining the flow of the verse as you read it, and creating and sustaining a reflective tone throughout. Good, isn’t it?

On a poet laureate

May 20, 2019

Last autumn Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem which reflected on the armistice which ended the Great War. The poem moved me greatly and I wrote a post about it; it has turned out to be the most popular post I’ve written in the last year.

The institution of Poet Laureate is a bizarre and curiously English one, and Duffy has just come to the end of her tenure of that office. I have followed her career as a poet, and also as our national laureate, with interest. She and I were students at the University of Liverpool at the same time in the mid-1970s. Our paths never crossed, however, because I read English and French and she read Philosophy. Her poetry featured heavily on GCSE English Literature specifications for many years when I was teaching – along with that of Simon Armitage, who has just been named as our next Poet Laureate – and I really enjoyed teaching it. She wrote with a voice that many students could tune into, and each year Duffy would appear at Poetry Days set up for GCSE students, to read and talk about her poetry. Sometimes she was clearly bored and doing it for the money, at others she came alive and brought her poems to life, engaging with the students who came away with an even deeper appreciation of her writing.

The Poet Laureate is an official, national poet who traditionally is expected to write poems for state occasions, royal occasions, significant national moments; over the years many of them wrote sycophantic tosh which has fortunately been long forgotten. Carol Ann Duffy has been different, I think. She has certainly written poems to coincide with the kind of occasions that you would have expected a Poet Laureate to mark or commemorate, but she has never been doting, grovelling or twee; she has always taken an interesting and thoughtful angle on whatever occasion she has marked. And this brings me back to the poem The Wound In Time, written for the centenary of the end of the First World War. No triumphalism, in the sense of ‘we were on the winning side’. No pride in our nation or our armed forces. Instead, a recognition of a world-wide calamity, acknowledging that it still affects our world today, and a calm and deep respect for the memory of the millions who were killed. Writing a poem to commemorate that event would have tasked any poet, and Duffy rose to the occasion.

A Corner of A Foreign Field

March 2, 2019

61qpI7in3oL._AC_US218_I thought I’d worked the Great War out of my system, for a while at least, with all the reading and re-reading I did over the last four years of the centenary. But this book was a present which I really enjoyed. Normally I avoid anthologies, but this was an interesting collection of poems, many of which were obviously the usual familiar ones, but there were also a goodly number which I hadn’t yet come across, despite my wide reading over many years. And the photographs, all taken from the Daily Mail archive of the war years, were wonderfully clear and well-presented.

What struck me: the number of poets blaming the older generation for the carnage, the real anger of many of the women, even if their poetry was not particularly good, and the sense of lasting trauma in many of the poets. It’s a truism about war which bears every repetition, that the older generations are the politicians and generals who make the disastrous decisions, and it’s the young who feel immortal because they are young who go off to be slaughtered. It’s the women who make the munitions and who lose brothers, sons, lovers, husbands. And once it’s all over, everyone quickly forgets, except the poor sods who were there and who saw it all and came back, to live with their memories for the rest of their lives…

Poems which particularly spoke to me: you can surely hunt them down online of you are interested: Now That You Too Must Shortly Go The Way, by Eleanor Farjeon; Warbride, by Nina Murdoch; Women At Munition-Making, by Mary Gabrielle Collins; The Ridge 1919, by Wilfred Gibson; To Germany, by Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Now that you too must shortly go the way
Which in these bloodshot years uncounted men
Have gone in vanishing armies day by day,
And in their numbers will not come again:
I must not strain the moments of our meeting
Striving for each look, each accent, not to miss,
Or question of our parting and our greeting,
Is this the last of all? is this—or this?

Last sight of all it may be with these eyes,
Last touch, last hearing, since eyes, hands, and ears,
Even serving love, are our mortalities,
And cling to what they own in mortal fears:—
But oh, let end what will, I hold you fast
By immortal love, which has no first or last.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #8

February 14, 2019

Elizabeth Jennings: One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

I find this a very sad poem; I can’t decide why: is it because it’s a truthful picture of what the speaker sees as her parents falling out of love, or because the speaker cannot see beyond the superficial?

It’s a strange and difficult situation to put oneself in, thinking of one’s parents as lovers. I used to ask my students to do this, when we were studying a range of love poetry, and the initial reaction was always ‘eeeuw!’ Understandable, of course, but one of the things I wanted them to visualise was the idea that love inevitably changes and evolves over time, and that’s not something easily perceived by teenagers in the first flush of exploring their own emotions and sexuality. Youth can only, and probably should only, understand youthful passion. And depending on your age, reader, you will understand some of this or not…

Lying: in bed, untruth, or both? separate beds = single beds = no sex = no love. One sleeps, the other reads, together yet apart. What a sad picture. Yet, from the third line of the poem, if we read carefully, the poet is no longer merely seeing, but interpreting, fantasising: because they are in separate beds, they are emotionally separated.

It is a slow and reflective poem, the effect created by the line length, stanza length and rhyme scheme as well as the occasional enjambment.

The second stanza seems to start positively cruelly, I feel, with the alliteration of flotsam – suggesting wreckage, debris, rubbish, and former, and the lapidary monosyllables of How cool they lie. This reading of a deeper meaning and significance into something that is only superficial comes to an abrupt halt, however, with the idea that it may not be lack of feeling but too much. We are again faced with something that the poet cannot confirm, but at least she does entertain it, and we are looking at love changing over time, no longer perhaps so reliant on physical and sexual contact to affirm itself, the sense of connection coming more from the years of intimacy on so many different levels: one of those things that it was hard to get teenagers to imagine…

The idea of chastity will horrify a generation just beginning to enjoy the world of sex; one’s whole life is not necessarily just a preparation for that, but for the end of everything… another perhaps gloomy thought that rarely occurs to the immortals.

The poet works slowly and thoughtfully to a resolution in the final stanza, the repeated strangely acknowledging her inability to comprehend. The sounds of the stanza soften, calm, and the image of time itself’s a feather | Touching them gently is a very effective one, recognising the bond and the vulnerability of the couple. The sobering effect of the final old/ cold rhyme perhaps brings us up short, but I think the idea here is as much for the poet herself and her own future, as about her ageing parents. The image of Whose fire from which I came I find peculiarly touching. Here is a poem to make us all think about the nature of love and time.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #7

February 13, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

e e cummings: i like my body

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

 

In my reading experience, erotic is difficult to do well: witness the Bad Sex Awards every year for toe-curling writing about sex. I happen to think e e cummings succeeds in this poem; you’ll either agree with me or not.

There is a certain childishness – in choice of vocabulary, as well as in phrasing – that works well, and is arresting, given that he’s clearly writing about an adult subject. The repetition of i like, for instance, and again and again and again.

Is the poem about the poet’s discovery of sexual pleasure per se, or the special pleasure with this partner? Reflecting, I think it is the way the words and ideas jar so often that I find particularly effective, particularly convincing: It is so quite new a thing… that so quite new is repeated in the final line of the poem, and it’s not the way one would phrase an idea in normal (?) English: we stop, or slow down and wonder, what exactly does he mean by this? Muscles better and nerves more what? i like its hows.

I have always considered that one of the things that mars attempts at erotic writing is over-explicitness: a certain amount needs to be said, but there has to be scope for the imagination to work, for our own fantasy to come into play. Perhaps this is why I have always found the sexual passages in D H Lawrence novels so unutterably creepy: he overdoes the description. So here, for example, the kissing this and that of you is rightly unspecific.

If you look carefully, the poem has fourteen lines, so it could be described as a (very informal) sonnet, that archetypal love poem form; Shakespearean perhaps, with the separate final two lines, although they aren’t a couplet… maybe that’s stretching it too far! But there is rhyme – your/ more, and part-rhyme – comes/ crumbs. And there is internal rhyme in the last line – you/ new, as well as the me/ you opposition. I particularly like the images of the shocking fuzz of your electric fur, and the eyes big love-crumbs.

I think e e cummings here is trying to convey the excitement of a new relationship, a new body being discovered, the pleasure in the unfamiliar. The lower case ‘i’, and absence of any capitalisation, is an e e cummings characteristic, as it were, and the ‘i’ here helps suggest a certain innocence, a total involvement in the pleasure of the moment to the exclusion of anything else.

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