Archive for the 'poetry' Category

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.

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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.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #6

February 12, 2019

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd— 
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn, the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

This poem, one of Larkin’s finest, I think, was inspired by this tomb; in it, he reflects on the nature of love and the nature of how we perceive reality, as well as how time changes us.

The rhyme scheme is a complex one: ABBCAC, and it’s not always scrupulously observed: if a half-rhyme suits his meaning, he uses one. That, and the six-line stanzas, together with frequent use of enjambment, sometimes from one stanza to the next, create a slow and meditative feel and pace to the poem; you can experience this clearly if you try reading it aloud. So he definitely wants his readers in a reflective mood.

The first stanza describes the ancient tomb: blurred faces and vague habits. We cannot see them particularly clearly, and they appear strange to a modern visitor. (Incidentally, anyone wondering why the husband of a countess is not a count should think about what obscene English word it closely resembles and remember that vowel sounds have shifted in English pronunciation over the centuries…)

We follow the poet’s eye through the slow second stanza, noting, via alliteration, how plain he finds it all, until the sharp, tender shock – what an astonishingly apt example of oxymoron that is – of seeing his hand clasping her hand. His response to the statues, and ours, changes: they have been lying there affectionately holding hands for centuries… or have they?

They would not think to lie so long. To lie there, as statues, or to lie, as in, give a false impression of their affection for each other? The joined hands might just have been a sculptor’s detail thrown off, no reflection of any truth. We cannot know. Is this Larkin the cynic revealing his attitude here?

We are shifted into travel through time in the fourth stanza. Observe how, although the names of the couple are inscribed on the base of the tomb, we are never told them: the couple are always they, for their names can mean nothing to us now, hundreds of years later. I love the image of their supine stationary voyage through time; again the oxymoron can almost pass unnoticed; time flows and people begin to look at the image rather than know or care who the images represent. Alliteration of sibilants, supine stationary, soon succeeding, helps the effect.

Look at the way that carefully-wrought fifth stanza makes the centuries pass: an enjambment leads into it, and another one out of it; brief phrases and lengthy sentences alternate, making the stanza itself seem longer. The endless altered people is effective as we picture centuries of churchgoers making their way to the building, and the way they are altered by time and fashion. The sixth stanza continues the effect through alliteration: helpless, hollow, and the sibilants a couple of lines later: as we reach the present day, it’s the attitude that strikes us, the pose, the couple hand-in-hand and what we read into that in our own time: tenderness, closeness, lovers happily together. And it could well have been nothing like that, way back when.

A lapidary final stanza suggests the poet’s take on his experience, his reflections on love. Time – first word of the line, sentence, stanza: what the poem is all about. Alliteration emphasises: transfigured, untruth. What is the effect of the oxymoron – for I think it is one – of stone fidelity? For Larkin, our interpretation is not what they wanted, and yet it bears a message for us nevertheless: the power of love to transcend time. But he hedges his bets with that superb double almost in the previous line, ever the cynic.

It’s a lovely poem and one of my all-time favourites. And although the tomb exists in Arundel, for me, on a personal note, it always takes me back to the village of my birth, Easton-on-the-Hill in Northamptonshire (but now Cambridgeshire) where in the village church the very well-worn stone paving of the aisle leads to the tomb of a Norman knight and his wife to the right of the sanctuary, set into the wall and labelled in fading Norman French.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #5

February 9, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

Donne Elegy XX

TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED.

COME, madam, come, all rest my powers defy;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Off with your hose and shoes; then softly tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Revealed to men; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet’s paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, my empery;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s ball cast in men’s views;
That, when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array’d.
Themselves are only mystic books, which we
—Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
Must see reveal’d. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to thy midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea, this white linen hence;
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Writing about this poem is a challenge; teaching it was always one, but I did not like to shy away from it, for it is Donne at his finest, his wittiest, his sexiest, too. I would like to know what he made of it if he ever looked back at it, much later in his life, when he was Dean of St Paul’s…

Structurally, it’s a single piece, in rhyming couplets: none of the inventiveness of some of his love lyrics in this elegy. And we have to remember, as we read, that although in our twenty-first century reading, the poet appears to be actually addressing a woman as she undresses, for Donne this may not have been the case: the poem may merely have been a poetic exercise, an extended piece of wit (not humour, but cleverness, a show-casing of knowledge) of the kind that educated young men of the time might be expected to turn out, a poem about a woman undressing. The mistress may be real or imagined.

I’m afraid it can help our understanding of poems like this to read with the smuttier mind of a teenager, deliberately looking for the double-entendres, and I’ll urge you to do that: consider at least the words which I’ve underlined in the text of the poem…

Clearly women wore far more clothes, and far more complex clothes in those days! Almost the first half of the poem is a catalogue of the different garments he watches her remove, and his description of what is then revealed. The reference to Mahomet’s paradise is interesting one: clearly even in Donne’s time people were familiar with the nowadays hackneyed (and perhaps inaccurate) trope of the hordes of beautiful virgins awaiting the blessed in paradise.

We can sense the poet’s eagerness, impatience even, in Licence my roving hands and the line that follows, understandable perhaps, after how long the disrobing must have lasted. O, my America, my Newfoundland: I love this line, so clever, with its topical references to the newly-discovered world across the Atlantic; this is what I mean when I write about ‘wit’. And then follow the slightly less original comparisons with mines of precious stones and empires; jewellery is clearly a distraction to him, as we see from the classical reference to Atlanta’s balls. Pleased that she is finally undressed, he points out how much quicker he was in removing his clothes, as if to set the example and reassure her: if he is naked, why should she be afraid to be? The last line says it all.

Does the poem work, as a piece of erotic fantasy? Or is it pornography? Those are not throwaway questions, but serious considerations, and started off lively discussions in some of my classes with sixth-formers. I don’t see it as pornographic because in the end I can see no exploitation of the woman here; nonetheless I’m not totally comfortable that, as in some other of his love lyrics, only the man gets to speak: the woman’s voice is imagined and her consent therefore assumed.

Valentine’s Day poems #4

February 8, 2019

Andrei Voznesensky: First Ice

A girl freezes in a telephone booth.
In her draughty overcoat she hides
A face all smeared
In tears and lipstick.

She breathes on her thin palms.
Her fingers are icy. She wears earrings.

She’ll have to go home alone, alone,
Along the icy street.

First ice. It is the first time.
The first ice of telephone phrases.

Frozen tears glitter on her cheeks —
The first ice of human hurt.

The telephone booth dates this poem just a bit, in the days of ghosting and dumping by text…

Pathetic fallacy goes a long way to making this an effective poem: to be told you are not wanted in the depths of winter feels so much harsher than if it were a sunny summer’s day. It’s another translated poem, and I’ve no idea where I first came across it, although I do know of a different translation, which I don’t find as effective as this one. I first found it many years ago when putting together an anthology of love poetry for a GCSE class, in the days when teachers were allowed to do that sort of thing.

Bald statements, all of them, in this poem, almost dispassionately reported: filmic in the way the picture gradually builds up for the reader. And reinforced by the use of the present tense: it unfolds before us, we are there as it happens: we see the hurt.

Images of cold, outside and within: she freezes, in a draughty coat, her fingers icy; the street is icy, too. She weeps, and it’s so cold her tears are frozen tears. Through the bald words shine the feelings: she hides, she must go home alone – note the effect of the repetition.

Relationships end, someone ‘finishes with’ or ‘dumps’ someone: get over it, some may say. But there’s always the shock of the first time this happens, and that is what the poet wants to share with the reader, to have us experience, or re-live. In the fourth stanza, first occurs three times.

Carefully chosen phrases: she wears earrings. Why tell us this, at this particular point? Is it perhaps a slight hint that she has made an effort to look right, prepared herself for going out on a date? The first ice of telephone phrases: the insincerity behind the awkward words used when someone says they no longer want to see you. Telephone phrases is good: there’s the clumsiness of foreign phrasebook language hinted at here.

Feelings come through in that last line, where emotion is verbalised for the first time: human hurt, emphasised through the alliteration, too.

I like the way the poet crams in so much when you slow down enough and think fully through what he’s saying, and I like how cleverly the translator has given us it in English.

Valentine’s Day Poems #3

February 7, 2019

Pete Roche: Somewhere on the Way

I wanted to say a lot of things:
I wanted to say how often lately
Your bright image has wandered through
The dusty old antique shop of my mind;
I wanted to say how good it is
To wake up in the morning
Knowing that the day contains
Something that is you.

I wanted to say a lot of things:
I wanted to talk about
The changing colour of moments,
The silent secret language
Of bodies making love.
I wanted to say that you
Are always only as far from me
As thoughts are from thinking.

I wanted to say
I love you
In fourteen foreign languages
But most of all (most
Difficult of all) in English.

I wanted to say a lot of things,
But they all seem to have lost themselves
Somewhere on the way; and now I’m here
There’s nothing I can say except
Hello, and –
Yes, I’d like some coffee, and
What shall we find to talk about
Before the night burns out?

It’s not a brilliant poem, but over the years, especially in my younger days, it spoke to me. It’s about fancying someone and finding the courage to break the ice, and say something meaningful that will move the contact along, into a relationship, perhaps; not everyone will have experienced this problem, but if you have, you will recognise it…

Here is someone who sees the object of his interest regularly ‘the day contains | Something that is you’; he (?) ‘wanted to say’ – notice how many times this phrase is repeated, as if he’s been so many times on the verge of opening his mouth to speak and then lost courage: each stanza begins with those words. Does he feel too boring for her? ‘your bright image’ is contrasted with his ‘dusty old’ mind. Glad to see her every day, he is unable to get any further.

His mind isn’t dusty and old: he imagines ‘The changing colour of moments’, and this image suggests there is something interesting about him, which would make a good opening. And of course, he is thinking about sex, although again his words suggest that there is more to him than just getting her into bed: ‘The silent secret language | Of bodies making lovehints at rather more feeling or consideration, I think.

The short stanza about all the foreign languages is a youthful romantic idea, and he is clued up enough to know that English would be the hardest, as it’s their language and the distance of a foreign language would be taken away: he would be taking a big step.

I wanted to say a lot of things’ suggests over-thinking and a lack of spontaneity, or an inability to take a risk, which is what the situation requires of him. In the final stanza he’s clearly with her again, and tongue-tied again; the pause suggests she’s said something to him – what? – something encouraging perhaps, the old chestnut of being invited in for coffee hinting that she is perhaps open to his being a bit more forward? And will he find the words?

It’s a rather sad poem, yet agonisingly true to life for some people. What the poet has succeeded in doing here, I think, is articulating that scenario clearly enough to make a reader pause and take in its full significance, and that’s enough.

 

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