Category Archives: History
Ut pictura poesis, Horace wrote sometime around the year 19 BC: as is painting, so is poetry. Few ideas have had longer careers in the history of aesthetics than this dictum. It has inspired much elaboration and also much disagreement; the Earl of Shaftesbury huffed and puffed, in his unfinished treatise of 1712, Plastics, to say that ‘comparisons and parallels between painting and poetry’ are ‘almost ever absurd and at best lame, constrained and defective’. He did little to slow such comparisons down.
For his family, choosing 100 poems from a long career, was weighted with memories
Five years after the jolt of Seamus Heaney’s unexpected death we are back at a moment. Back with Heaney, whose poems resonate with the rhythm of the lives of those he touched – casual reader, familiar student, his close-knit family. The public, the private; at this moment, two interlinked events. Nobel laureate and beloved public figure; family man and generous friend. The archive of work he donated to the National Library of Ireland in 2011 is being spun into a significant exhibition. And his family – his wife, Marie, and three children, Mick, Chris and Catherine, long adults now – have chosen 100 poems from his life’s work for a collection. Because they have made the selection, the poems echo publicly and privately. This is a moment all right, after an interval, luxuriating in his words.
Mick Heaney, who is also this newspaper’s radio critic, talks about looking at his father’s poems again and making these choices now. “To the general reader, which would include me in poetry terms, 100 poems has you well covered. But also, in the process, a poem can spark different things, and you can be drawn in for different reasons.”
For Duke Ellington
that day began with a shower
of darkness, calling lightning rains
home to stone language
of thunderclaps, shattering, the high
blue, elegance, of space & time
where a broken-down, riderless, horse
with frayed wings
rode a sheer bone, sunbeam
road, down into the clouds
spoke wheels of lightning jagged
around the hours, & spun high up
above those clouds, duke wheeled
his chariot of piano keys
his spirit, now, levitated from flesh
& hovering over the music of most high
spoke to the silence
of a griot-shaman-man
who knew the wisdom of God
at high noon, the sun cracked
through the darkness, like a rifle shot
grew a beard of clouds on its livid, bald
face, hung down, noon, sky high
pivotal time of the flood-deep hours
as duke was pivotal, being a five in the nine
numbers of numerology
as his music was one of the crossroads
a cosmic mirror of rhythmic gri-gri
so get on up & fly away duke, bebop
slant & fade on in, strut, dance swing, riff
& float & stroke those tickling, gri-gri keys
those satin ladies taking the A train up
to harlem, those gri-gri keys
of birmingham, breakdown
sophisticated ladies, mood indigo
get on up & strut across, gri-gri
raise on up, your band’s waiting
thunderclapping music, somersaulting
clouds, racing across the deep, blue wisdom
of God, listen, it is time for your intro, duke
into that other place, where the all-time great
band is waiting for your intro, duke
it is time for the Sacred Concert, duke
it is time to make the music of God, duke
we are listening for your intro, duke
so let the sacred music, begin.
Listen to Duke Ellington play “Take the A Train”
On June 28 we will read and discuss poetry inspired by music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.
(For Dwight Macdonald)
Under the too white marmoreal Lincoln Memorial,
The too tall marmoreal Washington obelisk,
Gazing into the too long reflecting pool,
The reddish trees, the withering autumn sky,
The remorseless, amplified harangues for peace –
Lovely, to lock arms, to march absurdly locked
(unlocking to keep my wet glasses from slipping)
To see the cigarette match quaking in my fingers,
Then to step off like green Union Army recruits
For the first Bull Run, sped by photographers,
The notables, the whores … fear, glory, chaos, rout …
Our green army staggered out on the miles-long green fields,
Met by the other army, the Martian, the ape, the hero,
His new-fangled rifle, his green, new, steel helmet.
Where two or three were heaped together, or fifty,
Mostly white-haired, or bald, or women … sadly
Unfit to follow their dream, I sat in the sunset
Shade of their Bastille, their Pentagon,
Nursing leg and arch-cramps, my cowardly,
Foolhardy heart, and heard, alas, more speeches,
Though the words took heart now to show how weak
We were, and right. An MP sergeant kept
Repeating , “March slowly through them. Don’t even brush
Anyone sitting down.” They tiptoed through us
In single file, and then their second wave
Trampled us flat and back. Health to those who held,
Health to the green steel head … to the kinds hands
That helped me stagger to my feet, and flee.
In Praise Of The Poetry Of Elizabeth Jennings
by Dana Gioia
The English poet Elizabeth Jennings had the peculiar fate of being in the right place at the right time in the wrong way. Her career began splendidly. Her verse appeared in prominent journals, championed by Oxford’s new generation of tastemakers. Her first publication, Poems (1953), launched the acclaimed Fantasy Poets pamphlet series, which would soon present the early work of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Geoffrey Hill. Her first full-length collection, A Way of Looking (1955), won the Somerset Maugham Award and became the Poetry Book Society recommendation. She was the youngest poet featured in the first Penguin Modern Poets volume (1962). Meanwhile Jennings achieved enduring notoriety as the only female member of “The Movement,” the irreverent and contrarian group that dominated mid-century British poetry. By age thirty, Jennings was a celebrated writer.
“To be lucky in the beginning is everything,” claimed Cervantes, but Jennings’s luck did not hold. In the great expansion of universities and literary publishing following World War II, her Movement peers gained academic appointments, lucrative book deals, and critical esteem. Jennings’s career stalled. Her fame as a Movement poet proved a dead end. She never belonged in that Oxbridge boys’ club. She shared The Movement’s commitment to clarity and traditional form, but her politics were to the left of their mostly conservative stance. Deeper than politics, however, were two fundamental differences between Jennings and her peers. “I was a woman and also a Roman Catholic,” she later observed, “which meant that I wanted to write about subjects which were simply uninteresting to most Movement poets.” Her emotionally direct verse, which pondered love, art, and religion, had little in common with their detached and ironic attitude toward experience.
The above image is an anonymous German engraving from 1635. An hourglass rests by the back foot of the smiling skeleton. A broken arrow sits beside it and there is another one in the quiver. It was a piece of art designed to hang at eye level so that the arrow—the one locked and loaded into the crossbow—was pointing directly at the viewer. In very old French, the inscription reads:
“Ma flesche (asseure toy) n’espargnera personne
Vous danserez trestout ce balet, que je sonnne”
( “My arrow (I promise you) spares no one
You will all dance the ballet of which I sing”)
Danse Macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra, written in 1874 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It started out in 1872 as an art song for voice and piano with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis, which is based on an old French superstition. The text comes from the poem “Égalité, Fraternité…”, part of Jean Lahor’s (a pseudonym of Henri Cazalis) “l’Illusion”. An English translation of the poem follows:
Zig and zig and zig, Death rhythmically
Taps upon a tomb with his heel;
Death at midnight plays a dance air,
Zig and zig and zig on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is gloomy,
Groaning comes from the lime trees;
White skeletons move through the shadows,
Running and jumping under their large shrouds.
Zig and zig and zig, everyone is moving,
We hear the bones of the dancers banging,
A lascivious couple sits upon the moss
As if to taste ancient pleasures again.
Zig and zig and zag, Death continues,
Scraping without end his harsh-sounding violin.
A veil has fallen! The dancer is nude!
Her partner squeezes her amorously.
The lady is said to be a marchioness or baroness,
And the crude gallant a poor cartwright —
Horrors! And look, she gives herself to him
As though the churl were a baron!
Zig and zig and zig, what a saraband!
What circles of the dead, all holding hands!
Zig and zig and zag, we see in the crowd
King frolicking with peasant!
But shh! Suddenly the dance is over,
one pushes, one takes flight: the rooster has crowed;
Oh! A beautiful night for the poor world!
And long live Death and Equality!
Listen to Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà play Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by a piece of music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.