An early reminder that on February 26, we will be honouring Canadian poets. Choose your favourite poet and poems and then post your choices in the “Leave a Comment” box below, or on the CONTACT US page, or email me directly. Please see the SCHEDULE PAGE for submissions to-date.
Monthly Archives: January 2015
Just occasionally in Blake’s engravings there are pictures within pictures, and we get a glimpse of the life he thought images might lead in a better world. The most moving of these visions is Plate 20 of Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. Job has survived his doubts and torments, and is telling the story to his daughters – in an earlier watercolour, they hold the instruments of Poetry, Painting and Music. No doubt the young women are taking their father’s narrative to heart, and in due course will rephrase it in terms appropriate to their arts: the lute and lyre are in the margins of the plate, ready to be strummed. But the first form of the story is visual: Job sits in a circular room – or maybe it is ten or 12-sided – and points towards two frescoed roundels on the walls left and right. Neither is unequivocally an episode from Job’s life – they could be analogous scenes from the story of the Fall – but the square panel over his head must be a version of ‘Then the Lord answered Job out of the Whirlwind.’ (It combines and condenses elements of Blake’s previous engraving of the subject.) As so often in Blake, the balance between positive and negative in the scene as a whole is precarious: Job is central and patriarchal (‘their Father gave them Inheritance among their Brethren’), and there is more than a touch of the baleful exhausted God-the-Father to him, heavy lids, pointing fingers and all. But there cannot be any doubt that the basic form and function of the room, with its echoes of the early 19th-century diorama (it is important that the plate was engraved in 1825), were meant to strike the viewer as wonderful – all-enveloping. Here were images at work.
The twelfth collection from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet continues to demonstrate his intricate, obsessively formalist style. Many of the poems are built around the past and long-held memories, including references to Muldoon’s own earlier work.
Mozart is considered one of the greatest composers of European classical music, having written an astonishing number of works in almost every musical genre during his short life. A child prodigy, he began composing music by the age of five and was touring and performing before royalty within a year. He later settled in Vienna, where he reached the height of his success. At the age of 35, he succumbed to an unknown illness, the nature of which remains a mystery.
I look for words in the dark,
silently describing to myself
the particular conditions of the weather
on the morning I saw you most recently—
the wind, its patterned disarray—
my mind elsewhere, distracted, lyrical,
while the pianist plays an encore.
Mozart was born on this day
257 years ago. All day
I have been ungenerous, resentful,
impatient. In between
movements, no applause
but the old ladies cough loudly, violently.
We cannot last forever.
I loved music before I loved books.
I loved Mozart before I loved you.
Ever wonder what Robert Frost read on the road? Or how about where Neruda found inspiration for his heart-wrenchingly sexy stuff? Love e.e. cummings’ poetry? Well, whose did HE love? Poets often do a darned good job making it seem like their signature voices popped out of nowhere – utterly original, unique, unprecedented! Critic Harold Bloom famously called this the “anxiety of influence,” a fancy phrase for “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” It points out the fact that all authors are influenced by what they’ve read, but many are anxious not to show they owe to much to that reading.
Luckily though, many of our most popular poets have been very open about their go-to writers, naming favourites and major influences in interviews, memoirs, and critical works. I’ve picked just three names for nine of the 20th century’s most popular poets – three writers that each poet read, learned from, and maybe even liked – though there are of course more!
Thanks to everyone who contributed to a absorbing session on W.H. Auden yesterday, and special thanks to Anne Fletcher for leading the assemblage. The topic proved to be so engrossing that we agreed to repeat it later in the year, but with our preferred format of everyone bringing their own favourite Auden poem to read and study. Date to be advised.
Time expired before we completely covered the subject matter, so attached is a PDF of the complete presentation for your perusal: Auden
In the next session on February 26, we will cover Canadian poets. Choose your favourite poet and/or poems and then post your choice in the “Leave a Comment” box below, or on the CONTACT US page, or email me directly.
Featured poems include:
On This Island
O What Is That Sound
The Witnesses (excerpt)
Letter to Lord Byron (excerpt)
September 1, 1939
We, too have known golden hours (excerpt)
A Walk After Dark
Musee des Beaux Arts
Their Lonely Betters
In Memory of W. B. Yeats (final part)
Thanks to Susan Koppersmith for bringing this blog about Auden to our attention: http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=8655
Craig Raine pays homage to the genius of Seamus Heaney in a review of his New Selected Poems
New Selected Poems: 1966–1987 Seamus Heaney
Faber, pp.256, £18.99, ISBN: 9780571321742
New Selected Poems: 1988–2013 Seamus Heaney
Faber, pp.240, £18.99, ISBN: 9780571321711
The impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience. Counterintuitively, we like the imposition of imposture. We connive at deceit, at replication, for the release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins — the brandies of the brain. I once heard Peter Ustinov on a chat show replicate the sound of an electric bell being pressed. Pleasure on a different, even more vertiginous level. The audience was convulsed.
Unless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight in the reader, this drench of dopamine, the poetry is automatically of the second order. (We expect less of our novelists, though great prose writers, such as Joyce or Dickens or Kipling, can also do it at will: Major Bagstock has a ‘complexion like a Stilton cheese, and… eyes like a prawn’s’; Mrs Podsnap has ‘nostrils like a rocking-horse’; Kipling gives us ‘the sticky pull of… slow-rending oilskin’; Joyce has the iron rim of a wheel ‘harshing’ against the kerbstone.) Effortlessly, Seamus Heaney gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark/As he pulls it to.’ As Bloom says in Ulysses, ‘Everything speaks in its own way. Sllt.’ Sllt is the noise made by a paper-slitting machine.
Heaney’s genius is an amalgam of moral complexity and the simple make-over of reality to his readers. He can describe things. He can describe things in a phrase, spray them with fixative — if not Ustinov’s ringing of a bell, then the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped/but it sang too,/a kind of dry, ringing/foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?
James Booth’s new biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love. Bloomsbury Press, 544 pages.
During his lifetime, the poet Philip Larkin tried to manage his affairs, both personal and literary, mostly by saying no. A bachelor librarian who died at 63, Larkin deliberately cultivated an existence with minimal obligations—no wife, no kids, no property, not even a pet. “My life,” he remarked, “is as simple as I can make it.” Notably parsimonious, he rode a bike until he turned 41 and reluctantly bought his first car. (“Oh, dear,” he wrote his long-suffering girlfriend Monica Jones. “Isn’t it alluntypical?”) He would never have owned a house had he not been evicted from a “temporary” new-faculty flat in which he had squatted for 18 years. The move proved so unsettling that he stopped writing.
Larkin’s literary career was equally narrow and controlled. In his prime he published an average of only four poems a year. Later he defended his creative collapse: “Silence is preferable to publishing rubbish and far better for one’s reputation.” He never gave readings or lectures. (He had an embarrassing stammer.) He avoided London literary life. His secretary kept a file of “Refusal Letters,” composed in differing levels of politeness, ready for every possible request—autographs, advice, interviews, biographical information. When the influential South Bank Show paid him to film a television documentary, he refused to appear on camera. The director had to shoot over the poet’s shoulder. Larkin even declined the Poet Laureateship. “I dream of becoming laureate,” he remarked, “and wake up screaming.”