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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

The Spell of the YukonStuck at home last Thursday, felled by one of the many ailments that seem to be going around, I was feeling too weak to read so instead I settled down to watch Discovery channel’s “Klondike” miniseries, which I’d recorded when it aired earlier in the week.  Set during the Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th Century, it’s not a particularly memorable program, unless you enjoy spending six hours admiring Richard Madden’s hair (I certainly do), but it did serve to remind me of all the very bleak history books and historical novels I read during my preteens about life in the North during this period.  In this cheerful frame of mind, I picked up one of the most enduring books about (at least in part) the Klondike gold rush: The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Verses by Robert Service.

Published in 1907, The Spell of the Yukon contains Service’s two best known poems: “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.  Their Kipling-esque rhymes have made them favourites for generations of school children forced to learn something to recite in class and no matter how verse-averse you are, I’ve yet to meet any Canadian who doesn’t at least know the first haunting lines of “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Though other verses may be more well-known these days, my favourite piece in the book has always been The Spell of the Yukon, the lament of a miner who struck it rich and then went south to enjoy his wealth, only to find himself yearning to return to the place where he made his fortune:

I wanted the gold, and I sought it:
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy – I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it –
Came out with a fortune last fall, –
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No!  There’s the land.  (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it:
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth – and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kind of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

This is not sophisticated poetry but it is captivating, exciting stuff with a very strong sense of place. This collection deals with wanderlust in general but the bulk of the poems are based on Service’s time in the Yukon. He captures the excitement and energy of the place but also the dangers, both physical and spiritual, that await: “No spot on the map in so short a space/ has hustled more souls to hell.”

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I am not drawn to poetry.  I was never one of those sentimental adolescents who spends hours scribbling their feelings in verse and, aside from a brief infatuation with Tennyson, was never particularly drawn to the works of any major poet.  So what compelled me to pick up Summoned by Bells by John Betjeman, a memoir in blank verse from 1960?

I actually got on with it much better than I had expected.  I had liked what I had read of Betjeman’s work before – light verse being my only poetic preference – but really knew very little about his early life, except that his teddy bear had inspired Sebastian’s Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited.  Here, he covers the years leading up to his departure from Oxford (“failed in Divinity!”), which suits me perfectly: childhood memoirs are always my preference.

Betjeman is so good at creating very personal and very vivid images with his poetry, this passage about his beloved teddy bear (Archibald Ormsby-Gore) being a perfect example and one of my favourite excerpts from the book:

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond the deep, like never-ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down.
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe.  One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

Blank verse is an interesting format for memoir and I did learn a lot about Betjeman’s early life – there was a terrifying nanny, a father disappointed by his son’s disinterest in joining the family business, a few darling nursery school love affairs, and some miserable years at school – but I longed for more detail.  And in prose.  I cared far more about the facts that I did about the style in which they were conveyed, which has always been my problem with poetry.  Where the prose writer would indulge in expansive detail, the poet practices artful restraint.  It is an impressive skill but not one I can fully appreciate, not when I am so nosy as to long for more information!

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In 1940, Behind the Lines by A.A. Milne was published as a diary of the first nine months of the war, written in light verse.  That makes for about as strange a book as you would expect, war and light verse not always being the most obvious companions.  But like any wartime diary, there is something terribly fascinating about it, particularly since Milne is not afraid to express strong opinions and attaches to each poem explanatory notes that give further insight into his feelings at the time.

Some focus on domestic affairs – the chore of drawing the blackout curtains (and mislaying the pins), the confusion of travelling by rail when conductors no longer call out the name of the next station, or the horrid scarcity of salted butter (a favourite topic for Milne through the years – he loathed unsalted butter, likening it to Vaseline) – while others turn a sharp eye on the government and its foes.  He is particularly good with poems about Hitler’s Germany, his passionate hatred of Hitler serving as his muse.  “Unity”, about a meeting of Hitler and his associates, was my favourite poem in the book and the one that most perfectly matches form with subject as he imagines the inner thoughts of and petty rivalries between Goering, Goebbels, Ribbentrop, et al.  His commentary is particularly pointed in these poems; in “The Supermen”, he ridicules Hitler’s fantasy of Aryan dominance and the superiority of the German mind when the Führer has so restricted their freedoms that these “supermen” have no chance to think for themselves:

A race of supermen indeed!
Who may not talk or think or read,
Or hear what all the world has heard,
Till Teacher kindly gives the world.
Their wonder-brains!  so ill-designed
To use the functions of the mind
That any thought remotely free
Unsettles the machinery.
One doubtful rumour from the Dutch
(It seems) would disengage the clutch;
One broadcast message from the Turks
Would absolutely crash the works;
One leaflet from a British plane
Would pulverise the wonder-brain!

Of the poems focusing on England, the more personal ones are the best, perhaps because they come closest to being a true diary (as opposed those that give more general commentary on society).  Part of what I like about Milne is that in all of his books you get to glimpse him.  And how better to get to know a person than to hear them voice their frustrations, as Milne does in “Weather Report”, lamenting that the local weather is no longer printed in the paper thus stealing the pleasure he used to get from knowing how the temperatures at his home compared to those in nearby villages and towns:

For in the happy days of old
One scanned the news to see
If Littlehampton were as cold,
Or Looe as hot, as we.
But now comparison is gone –
Not least of Hitler’s crimes
Is that he put the kybosh on
The weather in The Times.

I crack the still unrationed egg,
I carve the rationed ham,
I know it’s cold in Winnipeg
And cold in Amsterdam;
I munch the sparsely-buttered toast,
I stir the tasteless tea,
But know not (what intrigues me most)
The min. at Brightlingsea.

What is most interesting, to me at least, is Milne’s commentary on the moral implications of the war.  A lifelong pacifist, he had written Peace with Honour in 1934 detailing his beliefs and explaining why he was averse to war, or at least war as the world had known it up to that point.  But war with Hitler was another thing entirely, as he makes clear in “To America”:

Well, are you coming in?
It’s a fight between Good and Evil,
It’s a fight between God and the Devil.
Where do you stand today?
Which are you for?  You have chosen, yes,
But is it enough for men to bless
The men who fight, and to turn away?
Is it enough for women to cry,
And to say “Poor things” when the innocent die?
Is it enough to give your prayers,
And then – go back to your own affairs?
It’s a fight for all that you counted dear,
It’s a fight for all that you fought to win:
The fight is on, and the issue clear:
Good or Evil,
God or the Devil…
Well, are you coming in?

This idea of Good versus Evil comes up repeatedly and, knowing that other pacifists or conscientious objectors would have something to say about his apparent change of heart, he addresses them directly in one of his notes:

…I think that there is a difference between refusing to “use the sword” to defend oneself, and refusing to use it to defend the innocent and helpless.  I cannot believe that, if Christ in His journeys had come across a sadist torturing a child, He would have been content to preach a parable.  The Conscientious Objector does believe this.

Frankly, the majority of the poems are forgettable and a number feel laboured and are quite awkward to read.  Yet, every so often, there is one that pops out at you and it is those ones that make this book special, along with Milne’s reflections about the circumstances under which they were written.

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Last Tuesday, Stefanie over at So Many Books reviewed If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson and I immediately placed a hold on it at the library.  I’ve come across bits of Sappho before, scattered in random texts, and have always been intrigued, meaning to pick up a full volume devoted to her.  Here, finally, was my chance.

As Carson tell us in the introduction, “of the nine books of lyrics Sappho is said to have composed, one poem has survived complete.  All the rest are fragments” (p. ix).  The fragments as they appear here range from almost complete verses to only one or two words.  It’s the shortest fragments that are perhaps the most intriguing, the briefest phrases that have no context and which tempt you to imagine the story around them.

It’s a beautiful collection: romantic, nostalgic, thoughtful…Rather than attempt to analyse them here, I’ll leave you with a few of my favourites.  May you spend your Sunday as I have mine, dreaming about ‘many and beautiful things.’

24A

you will remember

for we in our youth

            did these things

yes many and beautiful things

36

 

I long and seek after

 

54

 

having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak

 

120

 

            but I am not someone who likes to wound

rather I have a quiet mind

 

 

125

 

I used to weave crowns

 

 

147

 

someone will remember us

                                    I say

                                    even in another time

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I don’t read poetry.  I want to, I try to, but my success rate is embarrassingly low.  My form teacher in Grades 7 and 8 was a very serious Byron devotee, so much so that she wrote a book about him (Byron Tonight: A Poet’s Plays on the Nineteenth Century Stage by Margaret Howell).  We were even conscripted into a letter-writing campaign for the conservation of Newstead Abbey.  Being twelve years old, we had no interest or knowledge of Byron and I can’t say that the frankly odd associations from that period have ever disappeared.  The Romantics in general are not for me, I haven’t been able to stomach Tennyson since I was an overly romantic preteen, and Beat poetry leaves me cold.  There have been a few exceptions: Dorothy Parker most notably, but my prejudice against the form remains.

However, after reading Verity’s review last week, I knew I had to give It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst a go and I’m so glad I did.  The edition I was able to obtain from the library was not a lovely Persephone one but an ultra-retro, orange and black one from 1970 (for ‘retro’, read ‘hideous’).  Even that was not able to mar my enjoyment!

It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty is a short book of deeply domestic poems, dealing with very personal struggles to adjust to life as a wife and mother.  They are hilarious.  Dated at times, yes (oh tranquilizers, your days are long gone), but the essentials, the things that make the poems so touching and recognizable, do not change.  The fear of moving to the suburbs and losing your identity as an urbane city-dweller?  More than covered, beginning with “The Suburbs Are Good for the Children.”  The mother who, even after you’re married, keeps reminding you about that nice bachelor she knows, who is so much preferable to you spouse?  That’s Freddie of course, universally known as “A Good Catch.”

And even though they made me laugh out loud, many of the poems also resonated emotionally, like “Married Is Better”, as I am still the bachelor-girl who, deep in her heart, believes that “married is better”:

And married is better
Than the subway plus a crosstown bus every morning,
And tuna on toasted cheese bread, no lettuce, at Schraff’s,
And a bachelor-girl apartment with burlap and foam rubber and a few droll touches like a Samurai sword in the bathroom,
And going to the movies alone,
And worrying that one morning you’ll wake up and discover you’re an older woman,
And always projecting wholesome sexuality combined with independence, femininity, and tons of outside interests,
And never for a minute letting on
That deep in your heart you believe
Married is better.

Whether you enjoy poetry or, like me, are deeply skeptical of it, I urge you to give this volume a try.  It’s very short but delightful and was immediately added to my “To Purchase” list.  Me.  Buying a book of poetry.  The mind boggles.

I couldn’t resist ending this post without an excerpt from my perhaps my favourite poem in the book, “True Love”:

It is true love because
I put on eyeliner and a concerto and make pungent observations about the great issues of the day
Even when there’s no one here but him,
And because
I do not resent watching the Green Bay Packer
Even though I am philosophically opposed to football,
And because
When he is late for dinner and I know he must be either having an affair or lying dead in the middle of the street,
I always hope he’s dead…

…It’s true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn’t let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.

 

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Considering Poetry

Last night I watched The Edge of Love, a mediocre film examining the triangle between Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley), Caitlin Thomas (Sierra Miller) and Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys).   As I said, the film is nothing special but it did make me realise how little I know of Thomas’ works or, really, of most poets. 

It seems that very few schools focus much on poetry these days.  I can recite only 10 or 12 poems by heart (including the very juvenile, though sublime, poems from those most excellent books, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six).  In Grade 4, we had to do poetry recitation every Friday, each student memorizing one poem a month, but, aside from once or twice at the high school level, I was never asked to memorize and recite again, perhaps because we studied very little poetry, focusing instead on literature.  What a huge change from my grandparents’ or even my parents’ school days.

I’ve never really attempted to pursue a study of poetry on my own either (aside from the normal, angst-ridden teenage years, alluded to in previous posts).  I am all too quick to pass judgment on the style, considering it too flowery or too dramatic for my much more subdued tastes.  However, after the movie, after listening to all of that beautiful poetry, I think maybe it’s time to reevaluate this insane prejudice.  And, though I don’t generally approve of audio books (loving the act of reading more, usually, than that which I read), I think I might appreciate poetry best when heard, rather than read.  Like this:

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