‘Huesca’ by John Cornford

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

John Cornford (who incidentally was the great grandson of Charles Darwin and son of the poet Frances Cornford) joined the International Brigade to fight Franco’s fascists early on in the Spanish Civil War, just like numerous other writers and poets such as Orwell and Auden.

You may recognise the first line of this poem as a quote from Karl Marx (from his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) where he stated that religion was “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, the soul of the soulless situation, and the opium of the people.” Marx went on to say that criticism of religion had “plucked the flowers on the chain not so that man shall bear the chain without consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” It is not surprising that Cornford, a committed communist and atheist since his Cambridge days, should find inspiration in Marx for a poem. Nevertheless, this particular quote is one that, though it doesn’t quite excuse religion (it is an oppressive “chain” to be “throw[n] off”), does seem to accept it as being founded on Man’s necessity for light, comfort, morality and truth in a brutal world (a “living flower”).

Huesca, perhaps despite initial appearances, however, is not a political poem. Its opening is musical, romantic – almost chant-like – with the three repetitions of “heart”, and particularly that repeated, breathless “h” sound bathing us in a beautiful whispered effect. It is addressed to Cornford’s girlfriend, Margot Heinemann, and expresses his longing for her and everything she seems to represent (gentleness, clarity, grace, kindness…); everything that is missing amid the “heartless”, chaotic hell-world of War that he is enduring.

I find it fascinating that the poet has used that quote from Marx, originally used to describe Man’s religious impulse, to address his lover. So far removed from her, and the tranquil bubble of England, has she become for him like a saint to pray to – an ideal? This poem does read like a prayer, I think. Amid the terror of battles and constant anxiety and fear, the thought of her is the “pain” in his side, the “shadow that chills [his] view”. These lines seem to me to deliver the idea that Cornford (convinced as he was of the rightness of the cause he was defending, and determined as he was to fight for it) could only waver in tenacity when thinking of Miss Heinemann back at home. She was what he had to lose, his only reason, it would seem, for not being ok with becoming a martyr.

Cornford was killed either on or on the day after his 21st birthday in 1936. He died while fighting on the Cordoba Front. Knowing this, I find the end of the piece even more touching: “Remember all the good you can;/ Don’t forget my love”. The way this last line breaks with the regular rhyming sequence that precedes it (the unremarkable, quaint abab) rhyme scheme, is very effective. Here, the poet’s honest fear – the cracks and trembling in his voice – comes through because it contrasts so with the sing-song and rhyming of the rest of the poem. In this last line, I can almost hear the machine-gun fire going off behind him, and the cries of soldiers coming from all around. Stripped of rhyme, reality is more patent. The music has died, and suddenly we are left with only Cornford and his lover – his earnest voice begging her not to forget him.

John Cornford

John Cornford

‘Sky within us’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh, not to be separated,
shut off from the starry dimensions
by so thin a wall.

What is within us
if not intensified sky
traversed with birds

and deep
with winds of homecoming?

Rilke must be a sister-soul of Rumi. There is (I think) a tingling stillness about his poetry that also pervades Rumi’s verse, and, like Rumi, he loves to confuse and cross-infuse spirituality with human love. His wisdom, so beautifully expressed (and here so beautifully and musically translated) continues to stun me as I weave through the wonderful Letters to a Young Poet and his poems, which I have been reading on and off for the past few months.

Sky within us is to me extraordinary because of its understanding of many forms of eternity and many forms of love. For me, this piece can be about knowing God, attaining the sublime through art, or attaining perfect love in its human form. Rilke begins with the timeless cry of Man’s soul: “Oh, not to be separated”. Isn’t much of human endeavour an attempt to shake off our sense of separation? When we create religions, or search for God, aren’t we seeking to sever a barrier between ourselves and eternity (or at least some higher truth or purpose)? And when we write poetry, or paint, or sculpt, or compose music, aren’t we doing the same thing, as well as trying to connect with others – to break barriers and truly communicate – which is so hard? And when we fall in love, and have strong connections of love with others, aren’t we continually fighting against the distances, walls and seas between us, endlessly trying to understand and be understood – to get through to the soul that’s seemingly encased within the body of the other?

As Rilke points out, the barriers we long to break are “so thin” – we are always so tantalizingly close to bliss. Rilke understands this, and he also understands that there is greatness in us. He called the poem Sky within us. He tells us that we contain “intensified sky/ traversed with birds // and deep/ with winds of homecoming”. What a beautiful image. Though we are endlessly searching to break through to something exterior, Rilke suggests that perhaps eternity, higher truth and purpose, love and the ability to communicate and connect to others, are in fact already very much within our reach – and exist in our own incredibly powerful minds, within our souls.

I will end with the extract below from in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I thought was quite appropriate when thinking about this poem.

“A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

birds-and-blue-sky

‘Forgetfulness’ by Hart Crane

Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless, —
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.

Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, — or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, — white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.

I can remember much forgetfulness.

In his essay General Aims and Theories (1925) Hart Crane quoted Blake’s lines “We are led to believe in a lie/ When we see with not through the eye”.

Forgetfulness is a poem that certainly offers us a vision of experience seen through the eye, by which I mean that Crane has tried (to quote his own words in General Aims) to establish the poem as “free from [his] own personality”; it is “a stab at truth” – its aim is “not toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an innocence (Blake) or absolute beauty”. Rather than telling us what forgetfulness is, he invites us to inhabit forgetfulness, and to discover via our own senses what it is. He offers us the possibility of perceiving the truth and essence of things rather than their arbitrary, disposable, surface forms.

Crane admitted that it is probably impossible to write a poem that sees purely through and not with the eye (for the ‘I’/’eye’ always has something to say!), however, he tries to realise his ideal of poetry by choosing his terms of expression “less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associated meanings”, thereby creating what he called a “‘logic of metaphor'”, which “antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension”.

Forgetfulness is a poem that presents us with a world that wants understanding through the senses and (very appropriately) through our own memories and associations. Of course, the notion of forgetfulness can have various interpretations. Initially, I thought of it in terms of forgetfulness in old age – afflictions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – and for me this gives an extremely poignant reading of the poem. However, we might also think in terms of deliberate forgetfulness – the purposeful forgetting of painful memories or past happiness that cannot be recovered. There is also room, I think, for reading this piece as being about choosing to forget (or rather ignore) certain literary conventions or traditions. This latter concept was something that Crane was much concerned with, as I will discuss later.

“Forgetfulness” begins the poem “is like a song/ That, freed from beat and measure, wanders”. I love this opening; this is such a unique and brilliant notion – that forgetfulness can be something beautiful and uncontrolled. Crane here certainly evokes a lack of logical coherence, but he also suggests a liberation from the constraints of structure and the prison of Time. There is also an ambiguousness (principally brought about by the word “wanders”) about whether the forgetful person is sad and lost or just happily, obliviously drifting. The overwhelming sensation for me in this first stanza is that the poet favours the latter option (notice the words “song”, “freed”, “wanders”, “bird”, “outspread”, “unwearyingly”…)

The idea of forgetfulness being a “bird whose wings are reconciled,/ Outspread and motionless” could be read negatively in the sense of passive resignation, however, reconciliation is necessarily a positive thing – a coming to peace – and this and all my senses tell me Crane is suggesting more of a relaxing into the gentle currents of forgetfulness, allowing the mind to travel – to “coast… unwearyingly” on the wind. The word “motionless” is very important. A lack of motion of course denotes an absence of progression. But there is a strange, deceptive stillness about this image; the bird is gliding or “coasting” – and this is not an image of letting go or of resignation but of allowing oneself to be carried.

This stillness is the same that I feel in the mention of the “rain at night” – a moving, wakeful, secret stillness. There is also an undeniable feeling of loneliness here, delivered by the “old house in the forest” and “a child”. These symbols of loneliness are importantly disparate, however the loneliness of age and the loneliness of a child are quite similar in the respect that both children and the elderly can be isolated by being unable to communicate or by inhabiting a different (emotional) world from those around them. I do not think that these images of the old house and the child are purely negative, however. There is something rather quaint or romantic about an old house in a forest – something secret and wonderful – like the “rain at night”. A child, too, is not only connected with loneliness – far from it – children give up images of wonder, joy, and again – secrets. A secret, exclusive, fleeting and wonderful world.

Crane also describes forgetfulness as “white” and “white as a blasted tree”. I love these images. White delivers the obvious notion of purity and innocence (easily reconcilable with the image of the child). It also makes me think of a blank page, a terrifying vision of what it might be like to remember nothing at all – when all memory has gone. But white is so different from blackness – white is not nothingness, it is not annihilation – it is something beautiful, clear and pure, something good. It is not non-being, it is not death. Even the “blasted tree”, which injects the notion of a victim here, is not such a terrible one because it is white. A black, blasted tree would be burned, but this one is white and retains its beauty, its purity.

Taking the image of the blank page now (that dreadful “white”), I would like to discuss the way in which I think this poem is exploring the notion of using new forms of (or rather formless) poetry. Crane writes that forgetfulness may “stun the sybil into prophecy,/Or bury the Gods.” When I read these lines they instantly struck me as concerned with the writing of poetry. If “forgetfulness” is ignoring old conventions (the “beat and “measure” we were freed from in the first stanza) then I think Crane is saying here that choosing to use free verse will either stun – shock, stimulate – the poet into “prophesy” – make him a visionary poet – or else “bury” him. Using free verse – abandoning the crutch of strict form – separates the ‘men from the boys’ as it were (or the true poets from the amateurs).

Hart Crane saw himself as the direct inheritor of, and was enormously influenced by, Walt Whitman, the great master of ‘free verse’. As he set out in General Aims and Theories, “it is part of the poet’s business to risk not only criticism – but folly – in the conquest of consciousness I can only say that I attach no intrinsic value to what means I use beyond their practical service in giving form to the living stuff of the imagination”. Another poet who would have agreed with Crane was of course Keats (“if poetry does not come as easily as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all”).

I think I will end this post, however, with a quote from Allen Ginsberg, another inheritor and spiritual brother of Whitman, who wrote in his essay When the Mode of the Music Changes the Walls of the City Shake (1961) that

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

This for me really encapsulates all that I wanted to say about Crane’s poem. Whether we are talking about an elderly person suffering from dementia, somebody purposefully forgetting a painful memory of violence or lost love, or else the chosen forgetfulness of ignoring certain poetic forms or constraints, what lasts, what matters; what will never be consumed is the “Voice out of the burning bush”. That voice is love and it is the human spirit.

 

Hart Crane

Hart Crane

‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ by Guillaume Apollinaire

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

 

Here is my translation:

Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
And our love
It must remind me
That joy always comes after pain.

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Hand in hand let us stay face to face
Whilst
Under the bridge of our arms race
Eternal gazes, the weary waves

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Love goes by like this flowing water
Love goes by
How life is slow
And how Hope is rough

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

The days and weeks pass
Neither time past
Nor love returns
Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

This poem has been chiming in my head like a song on repeat for the past few weeks. I live near the Pont Mirabeau, and had read this poem a long time ago, but it had never really meant much to me. However, crossing the bridge the other day I noticed that there is a plaque with the first verse and refrain of this poem inscribed on it. I noticed how the music of the rhyme of the refrain reflects the magic, hypnotic banality of the river’s slow movement, and so I dug up the poem as soon as I got home.

I have tried to translate it as faithfully as possible, but found it difficult to recreate the music and rhyme of the French… For me, Le Pont Mirabeau makes me think about the unending torrents of people that flow through Paris every day. I often think about this, especially when I see old footage of horses and carriages, or men in tailcoats and top hats walking along the Rue de Rivoli or admiring the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The city hardly changes at all, but the people – so flimsy and fragile – live out there lives and loves here, die, and are then replaced by other lives and stories that begin and end. It’s like the water under the solid, seemingly unmovable Mirabeau Bridge.

There is certainly a sadness to the poem, and in the idea of love and time flowing past, as unretreivable as the river flowing under the bridge. But I also find something consoling in the resolute solidity of the bridge, which ‘remains” despite the days going by. Though life (and perhaps love) is transitory, there is still art – what we create and leave behind us – which is immortal. To my mind, the bridge in this poem represents the poem, the painting, the symphony, the building, the city – which man creates as a flag to his experience.

The Pont Mirabeau

The Pont Mirabeau

 

The plaque on the Pont Mirabeau

The plaque on the Pont Mirabeau

 

‘The Scholars’ by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

This poem from The Wild Swans at Coole means a great deal to me because it reminds us that poetry is an Art and a passion before it is anything else. In this piece, Yeats evokes the blinkered academic, furiously analysing – “edit[ing] and annotat[ing]” – the dry pages of tomes full of poetry that was “Rhymed out in love’s despair” by “Young men, tossing in their beds.” The Scholars is a spot-on, well-aimed jab at literary critics, but also a very pertinent comment on the nature of poetry.

I love the contrast between the bald heads – those “Old, learned, respectable bald heads” – and the young poets rhyming out “in love’s despair”. Notice how the scholars don’t seem to have bodies; they’re just heads. The “young men” are living their lives, and experiencing every moment of it intensely. Their writing is what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The way the scholars are described as annotating and editing suggests they manipulate the verse to fit their purpose (which critics often do).

“All shuffle… all cough in ink”, Yeats tells us. The shuffling certainly amplifies this idea of quiet living – blinkered living – and the coughing brings to my mind a person that almost ignores the needs of his body because he is so deeply buried in his books. “All think what other people think”; these scholars seem to be dictated to by tradition, and pressure about what is the ‘right’ literature to venerate.

When we come to the end of the piece, Yeats poses us a question: “Lord, what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?” I like this very neat ending. If Catullus (a Roman poet, known for his love poems) had been as dry, as hermit-like, and as studious as Yeats’ scholars, what on earth would his poetry have been like? Without experience – without a life – without at least some kind of passion – a poet is nothing, because it is in moments of intense emotion that poems are ‘born’, even if they are completed and polished in a calmer state (or “in tranquility” to quote Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads again).

As you can probably tell from this blog, I kind of like literary criticism. I love to read about writers and their techniques; I love to take a poem and really get to grips with it and work out how and why it’s such a marvel because I love poetry. But The Scholars reminds us that the greatest literary theorist cannot necessarily write a poem, and the greatest poets need not by any means be academics. On the contrary; the poet is an artist. Yeats certainly was.

W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats

‘A Desolation’ by Allen Ginsberg

Now mind is clear
as a cloudless sky.
Time then to make a
home in wilderness.

What have I done but
wander with my eyes
in the trees? So I
will build: wife,
family, and seek
for neighbors.

Or I
perish of lonesomeness
or want of food or
lightning or the bear
(must tame the hart
and wear the bear) .

And maybe make an image
of my wandering, a little
image—shrine by the
roadside to signify
to traveler that I live
here in the wilderness
awake and at home.

I am intrigued and captivated by this poem, though I admit that (as with many Ginsberg poems) I find it difficult. I think the poet is exploring the idea of a life lived in harmony with nature, as opposed to a conventional life – perhaps city life? – within modern Western society. Allen Ginsberg was an avid student of Buddhism (he even founded his own school based on its principles), and I think there are clear influences of that interest in this piece.

The opening stanza describes a state of mind, “clear/ as a cloudless sky”. In this state of peace and calm, the poet decides it is “Time then to make a/ home in wilderness”. These two lines suggest that when the poet’s mind is uncluttered by the mess and bustle of life within the confines set out by society (i.e. in a state of meditation?), his overriding desire is to live in the “wilderness” – in the purity of nature – abandoning ego, ambition and material greed. The poet’s desire to live in the “wilderness” also reflects the way in which Ginsberg masterfully rebelled against the inherited conventions of poetry, abandoning strict form and permitting himself the colloquial and sometimes even vulgar diction, and of course taboo subjects such as sex, homosexuality, racism etc.

“What have I done but/ wander with my eyes/ in the trees?” asks the speaker in the second verse. I think Ginsberg is saying here that this is all he has been seeking throughout his life — searching the horizon, the wilderness, for a way in (or a way out!) He says that he will “build” a home there, in the wilderness, with “wife”, “family” and “neighbours”. For me, there is a sort of self-conscious acknowledgement here that – however much he longs to separate himself from the trappings of conventional society – he is always applying society’s measures – its mores and norms – to the ‘free’ life he is seeking in the “wilderness”. Even here, he seeks to furnish his new home with the usual “wife”, “family” and “neighbors” that signify success in the Western world’s terms. Likewise, perhaps, even as free as the Beat poets seemed from literary convention, they doubtless still felt the weight and draw of it at times.

As we move into the third stanza, the poet begins to contemplate the possible failure of his dream home. He imagines that he might “perish of lonesomeness”, “want of food”, “lightning” or “the bear”. These fears are very intriguing. He is afraid that his ‘pure’ life in nature might cause him to die from loneliness, hunger (that is man’s greed). The lightning I think might refer to love (the coup de foudre or lightning bolt) and the bear of course signifies the dangers of the untamed natural world. Ginsberg adds at the end of this stanza, in brackets, that he must “tame the hart” and “wear the bear”. This implies that he realises he must tame the wild creatures in order to be safe (or even to eat), and kill in order to defend himself. There must be destruction, murder – a desolation – for man’s survival.

In the final verse, the speaker tells us that he wishes to leave a trace of himself in his wilderness. Man has always told stories, left an imprint of himself, from the time he lived in caves. It’s a natural, human impulse. Ginsberg talks of a little “shrine by the roadside”, so that travellers might know that he lives there in the wilderness, “awake and at home”. He is determined to pursue his ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ life, and he will leave a small trace of it for other pilgrims. This “shrine by the roadside” is surely a symbol for Ginsberg’s poems, which are beacons of this incredible poet’s courage and genius – a signpost for other poets seeking the same freedom.

Ginsberg_2

‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Here I am, writing about Sylvia Plath again. Every time I return to her ‘Ariel’ poems, I am newly astounded; the poems are so unique, challenging and rewarding. ‘Morning Song’ is the first poem in that collection, and describes a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby. As a mother of two, Plath is surely writing about her own child, her own experience.

The opening line is killer: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” From the outset, it is clear that Time is to be a prominent theme here. Plath likens her child’s birth to the winding of a watch. The implication here is of course that the watch must eventually wind down, stop; her child will ultimately die. There is a strong awareness throughout the poem that this baby is on its own life course – that it occupies Time in a space separate from the mother. Plath recognises this in the second verse as she describes the child as a “New/ statue./ In a drafty museum”. A new statue that will receive its own stains, chips and cracks. Mother, father and midwife become mere “walls”, eclipsed by the new life that has just become the most important thing in the world.

Plath develops this notion of separation in the third, magisterial stanza: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own/ Slow effacement at the wind’s hand”.  What a statement; this is Plath at her enigmatic, economical finest. The poet is poignantly aware that her child is a separate entity, and she sees her own mortality reflected in that life.

I love the description in the fifth verse of the mother stumbling from bed at the baby’s cry, “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”. Her description of herself here is decidedly unglamorous, dowdy and functional – the sole purpose of her existence now being to nurture and preserve the child. I do not want to dwell on the idea too much, but I cannot help but notice an apparent parallel between her child and her poems, in the sense of one’s creation becoming an independent entity with its own agenda. Plath describes her approach to motherhood in much the same way as she seems to have approached her vocation as a poet. Sylvia Plath famously used to write in the very early hours of the morning, before dawn, while her children were asleep. Her self-sacrificing dedication to her craft was quite ‘motherly’ of her, and the poems are (aren’t they?) mysteriously out of a poet’s control once they are written, and seem to have their own life force…

The final lines of the poem are just perfect, and neatly conclude the poem with a sense that the child is beginning its own, separate journey of life. It tries its “handful of notes”, the “clear vowels” rising “like balloons”. This is a clear acknowledgement that the child has its own independent voice, will tell its own story and build its own future. Plath, the mother, is helpless to control that voice or that life. It is not within her power to censor it.

If you want to read some of my other analyses of Plath’s poems, please take a look at my posts about ‘Ariel‘, ‘Daddy‘, ‘The Applicant‘ and ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree‘.

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

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