Borges in His Poetry

BY ALASTAIR REID

Borges in His PoetryTo talk or write about Borges has almost as disturbing an effect as reading him, for we are at once drawn into his disquieting dimension, the creating and fixing of which is his greatest accomplishment as a writer. The mind is made to quiver over tangible paradox. The effect of reading him hangs on beyond the written word, as a kind of vertigo (the Spanish word is asombro). I like best Leonard Michaels’s summing up of him as “a master of controlled estrangement”, for it underlines this effect, which Borges wears like an aura. We are not allowed to escape his ironies, for they are ours as well. For him, language—most of all in its ultimate refinement, literature, whether it be prose, poetry, or essay—is the supreme irony, in that it attempts to contain and perpetuate ideas and perceptions, an attempt which, by its nature, must inevitably mock both reader and maker.

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Song

T. S. Eliot

If space and time, as sages say,
    Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
    Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
    While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
    Though sages disagree.
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 The flowers I sent thee when the dew
    Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
    To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
    Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of love be few
    Yet let them be divine..

Song-ts-eliot“Song” was published in The Harvard Advocate on June 3, 1907.

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The Hummingbird Never Came

R. S. Thomas
The hummingbird never came back
The Hummingbird Never Came

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THE SPIRIT OF THE STAIRCASE

by Lavinia Greenlaw

THE SPIRIT OF THE STAIRCASEIn our game of flight, half-way down
was as near mid-air as it got: a point
of no return we’d fling ourselves at
over and over, riding pillows or trays.
We were quick to smooth the edge
of every step, grinding the carpet to glass
on which we’d lose our grip.
The new stairs were our new toy,
the descent to an odd extension,
four new rooms at flood level
in a sunken garden – a wing
dislocated from a hive. Young bees
with soft stripes and borderless nights,
we’d so far been squared away
in a twin-set of bunkbeds, so tight-knit,
my brother and I once woke up finishing
a conversation begun in a dream.
It had been the simplest exchange,
one I’d give much to return to:
the greetings of shadows unsurprised
at having met beneath the trees
and happy to set off again, alone,
back into the dark.

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One Long Poem

HEATHER TRESELERElizabeth_Bishop-2[Elizabeth] Bishop’s confessional peers made it easy for her to be miscast as a cautious dowager. In the late 1950s and ’60s, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, among others, boldly capitalized on the mid-century zeitgeist of domestic rebellion, writing poems that explored alcoholism and suicide, incest and infidelity, nuclear bombs and non-nuclear families—subjects that many Americans still regarded as taboo. By contrast, Bishop’s poems had a “Cordelia-like” quality, as Seamus Heaney described it: a sense that secrets were held in abeyance or dimly glossed as she rendered natural tableaux, ekphrastic meditations, and impersonal love poems, offering the reader startling moments—“the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust”—without the full, wearying poignancy of what it took to arrive at them.
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Bishop indeed avoided what she termed “the tendency . . . to overdo the morbidity” that became common as confessionalism—or Robert Lowellism—came into vogue, spearheaded by her close friend and correspondent. Lowell’s Life Studies was published in 1959, offering portraits of his Beacon Hill childhood and bipolar episodes, his dread of Eisenhower, and his drunken nights with Delmore Schwartz and a taxidermied, rum-pickled duck. A few years later, Sexton, Lowell’s student, electrified the Boston poetry scene with her rock band and poems about suburban despair—thrilling audiences with her well-dressed rebelliousness, chthonic verse, and lean good looks. The poetry reading had not been so sexed up since W. H. Auden had read at Harvard in his scuffed-up bedroom slippers.
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Bishop did not approve. Writing to Lowell from her expatriate residence in Brazil in 1960, she asserted that Sexton’s poems “had a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing. . . . They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first.” Aware of how a poet might capitalize on gender, class, and family name, Bishop largely steered clear of autobiographical conceits and political critique in her first collection, North & South (1946). Later, as her poems engaged more directly with the plights and pleasures of the individual, they never showed up with a bassist, a menstrual cycle, or an aristocratic clan primed for desecration. Alongside the confessionals’ striptease, Bishop appeared reliably clothed.
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We’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Anne Sexton on July 27 and that of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28.

 

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Your Favourite Poem(s) on June 22

Your Favourite Poem(s) on June 22A final reminder that this Thursday, June 22, we will once again share and discuss some of our favourite poems. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for this year’s list, with links to texts.

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The Computer is Unable

R. S. Thomas

The Computer is UnableThe computer is unable

to find God: no code

number, no address.

Technology stalls

without the material

we provide it. There must be

some other way. ‘Try

looking,’ says the eye,

‘Try listening’ the ear

answers. I stare into distance:

nothing but the gantries

where art is crucified in

the cause of new art.

I have heard amid uproar

in London the black redstart

singing among the ruins;

so I strain now amid

the times’ hubbub for fear

the still, small voice should

escape me. ‘Is he dumb?’

Wrong language. ‘Am I

impatient?’ I resort once

again to the word processor.

But where a poem in his honour

should emerge, all in bud

like a birch tree, there is only

the machine’s repetitions,

parallel tramlines of prose

never to come together in praise.

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The Old Stoic

by Emily Brontë

The Old StoicRiches I hold in light esteem,
   And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream,
   That vanished with the morn:
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And if I pray, the only prayer
   That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
   And give me liberty!”
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Yes, as my swift days near their goal:
   ‘Tis all that I implore;
In life and death a chainless soul,
   With courage to endure.

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Cramming for Success

James Wood

Cramming for SuccessThomas Hardy: Half A Londoner by Mark Ford Harvard, 305 pp, £20.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 73789 1

Human character, we know, changed on or about December 1910, but it had already changed on or about December 1863, when Baudelaire published his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. In the course of writing about the journalist-illustrator Constantin Guys, Baudelaire leaves the salon and goes out into the street, away from art criticism to urban digression. He mentions Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, whose narrator, recovering from a recent illness, sits in a London café and watches the human traffic through the window. Artists are like convalescents, Baudelaire adds: nervously alert, grateful for the slightest detail, omnivorously curious. And the convalescent is like the child, who sees everything as if for the first time, drunk on novelty. Inspiration, Baudelaire continues, ‘has some connection with congestion’. Guys is such an eternal child, and the urban crowd is his domain: ‘he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling … He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone.’ From this, comes a further generalisation: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’
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I was often put in mind of ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ while reading Mark Ford’s study of Thomas Hardy. Ford doesn’t mention it (though he does refer to Baudelaire’s flaneurial poems), perhaps because that manifesto is too obvious, or too obviously theoretical: he prefers to build his case patiently, historically, in solid empirical sediments, beginning and ending with biography, a form often maligned or ignored in academic criticism. But Ford realigns our sense of Hardy, moving him from Wessex fields to London streets, and offering a transformed writer: less the time-torn pastoral tragedian than a painter of modern life.

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Read also: Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner by Mark Ford review – how the capital shaped Hardy’s Wessex
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Listen to Mark Ford discuss Thomas Hardy’s sense of being torn between two worlds

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Via Crucis

R. S. Thomas

Via CrucisIt is a perpetual

coming-to from the dream’s

anaesthetic to be brought

face to face with reality’s

mural, where through gaps

in the traffic we perceive

nature mustering its forces

for a last stand. This

is time’s Appian way,

where the skulls of its victims

are ablaze still: a syphilitic

Schubert, a deranged

Van Gogh; Bruno, and Pascal

crackling at the mind’s

stake, and high above

all on mankind’s tree

the would-be redeemer shrivelling

under his radioactive halo.
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Listen to Via Crucis by Franz Liszt (1879)
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Piano version played by Reinbert de Leeuw

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