‘The good morrow’ by John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a
dream of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one,
and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.

This is the first poem by John Donne that I have posted on this site, and it is a beautiful and spiritual love poem. Donne lived from 1572-1631 and is probably the most famous of the metaphysical poets.

The good morrow begins with the speaker reflecting on what his life was like “before we loved” — before he loved the woman to whom this poem is addressed. The answer to this question is that his life was meaningless, before her. He may have enjoyed “country pleasures” before, but these were merely physical, and “childish”. My favourite lines in the whole poem are at the end of this first stanza: “If every any beauty I did see,/ Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a/ Dream of thee”. Any love the poet thought he felt before her — any liaisons he may have had before he met her — they were “but a/ Dream of thee”. They were not real, and only a shadow of what love can be.

Stanza two goes on to describe how this woman has become the speaker’s entire world, and the spiritual bond that they enjoy together. Their souls are “waking” — coming alive — because of this love that has opened their eyes and filled them with joy. They have no “fear”, and their “little room” becomes “an everywhere”. They may spend their time cooped in one small room together, but being together in this space means that it is more than enough. Donne goes on to write that he no longer cares about sea farers discovering new worlds (as was literally happening in Donne’s day, as the Americas and other new lands were being discovered.) The discovery of new worlds means nothing to the speaker in this poem, for he possesses his own new world: his lady.

When we arrive at the final verse, Donne writes beautifully about seeing himself reflected in the eyes of his lover, and she in his: “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears”. This third stanza fascinates me because there seems to be a desire for equality with his lover, which was perhaps unusual in Donne’s era. As he states, “Whatever dies was not mixed equally”. If the two love each other in equal measure then their love will not fade; “If our two loves be one, or, thou and I/ Love so alike than none do slacken, none can die”. I adore this ending to the piece, as it describes so beautifully how the spiritual marriage of minds and hearts can create an unbreakable bond of love.

‘How it is’ by Maxine Kumin

Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

This poem was written about the poet Anne Sexton, after her suicide in 1974. Maxine Kumin was a contemporary and close friend of Sexton.

How it is is the first poem that I have read by Kumin, and it struck me particularly because, although it is about a poet that I admire enormously for her craft, here we see grief for a friend — for someone who had holes in her pockets, got parking tickets, and chatted over “vodka and ice in the kitchen”. This is a poem not for a literary myth or persona, but for a real person — a “Dear friend” — and it is this quality that makes it most interesting and touching for me.

The poem begins and ends with Anne Sexton’s “blue blazer”, and I think this has great significance. Kumin writes that she wears it “a month after your death”, and that it is full of memories (the holes and parking tickets mentioned above.) I think that the image of her donning this blazer could be read to represent Kumin donning the literary clothing and habits of her friend; she writes poetry to inhabit the world that Sexton did, in an attempt to retrieve something of what she has lost.

In the second stanza, Kumin imagines an attempt to ‘rewind’ time, past “the last day of your life”, to a time when her old friend was alive. She runs “the home movie back to a space/ We could be easy in”. Interestingly, this space is the kitchen, with “vodka and ice”. I love this image of  the two women chatting at a kitchen table, drinking vodka, their words “like living meat”. The conversation is their sustenance — and more than that — it is alive and exciting.

The final verse acknowledges the public reaction produced by Sexton’s act of suicide: “you have excited crowds/ with your example”. Kumin’s response to this phenomenon is fairly dismissive, though it seems to show some contempt, too. She describes these crowds as swelling “like wine bags, straining at your seams”. This image gives me the impression that Kumin is resentful of there being a form of ‘grief’ from a public who did not know the ‘real’ Anne Sexton, but that she is also nonetheless a little fearful of their changing Sexton in some way (“straining at your seams”).

Maxine Kumin tells us that she will be “years gathering up our words” — piecing together the real memories of her friendship. Perhaps it is difficult to remember the true voice of her friend, Anne, when the voice of Sexton’s poetry is so present, powerful and enduring. At the end of the poem, she puts on the “dumb blue blazer of your death”. This image is one that I find incredibly moving, firstly because there is anger here. By calling Sexton’s death “dumb”, Kumin is expressing her anger at an act that seems so incredibly futile — her suicide was “dumb” because it said nothing — all it did was silence her. And perhaps Kumin puts on the blazer because she does not want the poetry, but rather the voice of her friend. The blazer is empty — “dumb” — it cannot speak with Anne’s voice. Although Sexton lives on through her poetry, the person is gone, and it is that person who Kumin grieves in this poem.

AnneSexton

‘The Tay Moses’ by Kathleen Jamie

What can I fashion for you
but a woven creel of river-
rashes, a golden
oriole’s nest my gift
wrought from the Firth –

And choose my tide: either
the flow, when, watertight
you’ll drift to the uplands
my favourite hills, held safe
in eddies where salmon, wisdom
and guts withered in spawn,
rest between moves – that
slither of body as you were born –
 
or the ebb, when the water
will birl you to snag
on reeds, the river
pilot leaning over the side
Name o’ God!‘ and you’ll change hands:
tractor-man, grieve, farm-wife
who takes you into her
competent arms 

even as I drive slamming
the car’s gears,
spitting gravel on tracks
down between berry-fields,
engine still racing, the door wide
as I run toward her, crying
LEAVE HIM! Please,
it’s okay, he’s mine.

This is a poem by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, which I listened to on The Poetry Archive today (you can listen to it too, here: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=192). 
The poet says that she wrote The Tay Moses when she was expecting her first son, and was feeling apprehensive about the new arrival and addition to her household. I like this poem because it seems to me to be very brave in its emotional honesty; it is not acceptable in our society for women to express these sorts of feelings and I just think it was brave to publish this. 

She begins the poem by imagining making a little Moses basket for her baby, from reeds from the Tay river (“wrought from the Firth”). In the poem, she puts the basket and baby in the river, choosing her “tide”, and nonetheless making sure that the basket is “water-tight”. I love the language here, with the “woven creel of river” and the “golden oriole’s nest”.

We follow the poet’s imagination as the basket with the baby drifts “to the uplands”, “held safe in eddies”… until it gets caught somewhere and is rescued by a “tractor man” and his “farm-wife”, who takes the baby in her “competent arms”. The image of this capable farmer’s wife taking the baby into her strong, motherly arms, is something that seemingly triggers the protective instinct in our mother-poet, for she is suddenly racing to get her baby back. I love the urgency of the language describing this, as she is “slamming/ the car’s gears” and “spitting gravel on tracks”. This is such efficient, evocative language and I think it’s really clever. You can hear the regret and the frantic desire to undo the situation her imagination has produced. The poem ends with the poet running to her child, crying “LEAVE HIM! Please,/ It’s ok, he’s mine.” 

I love the nightmarish/dreamlike quality to this poem, and the way that letting that Moses basket float down the river is like the poet’s mind running off with her fears that she won’t be a good mother. At the end, I love how the way she races to salvage her child and her urgency to take him back from the “competent” farmer’s wife is like her mother’s instinct retrieving her fearful mind that was running away with a crazy notion. In the end, she salvages everything, undoes the nightmare she has dreamt up in a panic, and realises how much she already loves her child. 

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‘All things will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Clearly the blue river chimes in its flowing
Under my eye;
Warmly and broadly the south winds are blowing
Over the sky.
One after another the white clouds are fleeting;
Every heart this May morning in joyance is beating
Full merrily;
Yet all things must die.
The stream will cease to flow;
The wind will cease to blow;
The clouds will cease to fleet;
The heart will cease to beat;
For all things must die.
All things must die.
Spring will come never more.
O, vanity!
Death waits at the door.
See! our friends are all forsaking
The wine and the merrymaking.
We are call’d–we must go.
Laid low, very low,
In the dark we must lie.
The merry glees are still;
The voice of the bird
Shall no more be heard,
Nor the wind on the hill.
O, misery!
Hark! death is calling
While I speak to ye,
The jaw is falling,
The red cheek paling,
The strong limbs failing;
Ice with the warm blood mixing;
The eyeballs fixing.
Nine times goes the passing bell:
Ye merry souls, farewell.
The old earth
Had a birth,
As all men know,
Long ago.
And the old earth must die.
So let the warm winds range,
And the blue wave beat the shore;
For even and morn
Ye will never see
Thro’ eternity.
All things were born.
Ye will come never more,
For all things must die.

 

This poem is supposed to be read in partnership with the previous poem I posted yesterday, Nothing will die. Today’s poem, as you can tell from its title, is a lot darker, though I don’t think that it’s necessarily sadder, in the final analysis.

You will notice that this poem contains many of the same elements as yesterday’s; we still have the “stream”, the “wind”, the “clouds” and the “heart.” However, in the shadow of mortality hangs heavy over this poem, and we are constantly aware that the time will come when the stream will “cease to flow”, the wind will “cease to flow”, the clouds “cease to fleet” and the heart “cease to beat”. From the perspective of this poem, nature is not an unending cycle, but rather something heading inevitably for its definite end; “Spring will come never more… Death waits at the door”, writes Tennyson.

The piece becomes quite harrowing as we get into an actual physical description of death. The jaw “falling”, the “red cheek paling”, “Ice with the warm blood mixing” and “the eyeballs fixing” are all images that made me feel very cold as I read this. Death, in this poem, is long drawn out (the passing bells ring “Nine times”) but the departing souls are “merry”. Perhaps it is their awareness of mortality that spurs them to partake of “wine” and “merrymaking”, and their hearts to beat “in joyance”… I think that it is our awareness of death that encourages us to enjoy and savour life, as well as to make progress as a species.

For me, the defining notion in this poem is this: “The old earth/ Had a birth… and the old earth must die”; “All things were born… all things must die.” This is the exact opposite to the ideas presented in Nothing will die, where we see a cyclical world that was never created, and will “never fade” — where there is no death, but only change. Here, the earth was created and so must die — it is not eternal. This world is full of suffering, sadness, and death, but there is also joy and passion, and perhaps love (the poem ends with, “Ye will come never more”).

I find the contrast between these two poems (today’s and yesterday’s) really fascinating because to me they evoke the contrast between a belief-system that includes reincarnation, and one that does not. Our beliefs about life after death or otherwise surely make a huge impact on the way we live our lives. I’m wondering if life feels more precious if you feel this life is your only, fleeting chance to experience this world, or if feeling part of an unending cycle is something that brings great peace… but that’s a conversation for another time! What do you think?

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‘Nothing will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
Ever will be
Thro’ eternity.
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.

This in an early poem by Tennyson, which appeared in his first book (Poems, chiefly lyrical) published in 1830. I like this poem, and the poem that will follow it tomorrow (the cheerfully titled, All things will die). I thought it was most appropriate to post them consecutively because they seem to go together. They present entirely contrasting perspectives on the world and on existence, and I think it is really interesting to compare the two.

In this first poem, Nothing will die, the speaker seemingly believes in a world that is in constant motion, constant change, always going “Round and round,/ Thro’ and thro'”. The world depicted is one where nature never tires of its cycles: “The stream flows,/ The wind blows,/ The cloud fleets,/ The heart beats,/ Nothing will die.” I love the way Tennyson uses this energetic rhythm here to reflect the rhythms of the natural world (I also love ‘fleet’ as a verb!) Life moves constantly through the seasons, always coming full circle to Spring, which fills it “with life anew”.

The defining statement in this poem, I think, is “The world was never made;/ It will change, but it will not fade.” This is a beautiful expression of the idea that if the world was never created/’born’ then it need not end; if something is born it must die, but if something simply exists, without being born or created, then it can be said to be eternal. Our notions of God (in most religions, I think) tell us that he is uncreated and can never die (i.e. he is eternal.) I like this idea of death not existing, but of it simply being a change, and part of a continual cycle.

I think that this poem could also be read as being a poem of denial – the voice of one so afraid of death that he tries to convince himself that ‘Nothing will die’. Read in this way, the rhythm of the poem seems feverish and frantic – a mantra to convince oneself of a fantasy. However, I don’t personally read it like that.

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‘i carry your heart’ by E.E. Cummings

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

I am always astounded by this poem; it is sort of perfect, and I love it deeply. It always reminds me that language is alive and must be allowed to breathe, and inspires me to be creative and brave with it.

This is an understated, incredibly touching (and slightly quirky) love poem. Cummings’ technique has always fascinated me, with his disregard for capital letters (and often syntax), his poems at first glance are perhaps disconcerting because they appear unordered. But, his poems are actually very carefully crafted to give their whimsical and childish or unschooled appearance.

I am obsessed with some of the phrases in this poem, like “i want no world” and “it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant” and “the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart”. Basically, I’m obsessed with the whole thing, but these are just the gems in it that I can never forget.

The other night, I was reading the foreword to ‘is 5’ (a collection Cummings published in 1926) and it was fascinating (he wrote the foreword). I thought I would share some of it with you. Here are some excerpts that I found both amusing and intriguing:

“At least my theory of technique,if I have one, is very far from original;nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words,by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk,viz. ‘Would you hit a woman with a child? – No, I’d hit her with a brick.’ Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.”

“my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately,however,I should prefer to make almost anything else,including locomotives and roses. It is with roses and locomotives(not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls,that my ‘poems’ are competing. They are also competing with each other,with elephants,and with El Greco.”

HEART

‘A noiseless patient spider’ by Walt Whitman

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

This is another beautiful, profound and spiritual poem by Whitman. I love the use of the image of a spider launching its “gossamer thread” to create a bridge through the air in order to venture into the “oceans of space” surrounding it. This image is then beautifully likened to the Soul — the soul of any person, yes, but also the soul of the Poet — as it is ceaselessly “musing, venturing, throwing,- seeking the spheres, to connect them”. I love this last phrase because it has definite connotations of the poetic process, of making bridges and letting down anchors…”till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere”.
spider

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