‘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

‘The Stolen Child’ by William Butler Yeats

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that dropp their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.      

This was one of my favourite Yeats poems as a child. It is the refrain – the voice of those faeries – that is, I think, so entrancing about the piece. I remember reading that refrain to myself over and over, and knowing that the music of those words was just the most powerful thing in the world; it was like a spell — a magic spell. I think that this is what really drew me to poetry as a child, and what rekindles and rekindles my excitement about it even now; it is the way in which words (those ordinary things that are stamped all over the back of ready-meals) placed one in front of the other in a certain way, can create magic and music, and transport us.

The Stolen Child is essentially the call of the faeries — their voices call the child (and the reader) to go with them to their beautiful “leafy island”, away from the world that is so “full of weeping” and so “full of troubles”. On an initial surface reading, perhaps, we are simply charmed by the sounds and romance of the poem. We long to follow the faeries to the “waters and the wild”; we are perhaps too enthralled by the charm of that alliteration (“the word’s more full of weeping than you can understand“) to consider its meaning, or question why we should be incapable of understanding the world’s difficulties. Hypnotised by the spelling music, we long to dance the “olden dances” and forget everything else. However, on a second reading, you might detect some slightly unsettling things…

I think The Stolen Child is about the many temptations that surround the poet. Yeats wrote in another poem, “All things can tempt me from this craft of verse”. Perhaps the faery voices represent the call of a life of indolence – or even the call of oblivion through alcohol. I say alcohol because this poem reminds me greatly of part of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim:// Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget/ What thou among the trees hast never known/ The weariness, the fever and the fret…” In Yeats’ poem we are at least being called to a world without thought – to a disconnection from the world. The faeries are coaxing the “child” (the poet), trying to lure him away from the world of “weeping” to a world of magic. They tempt us with their “reddest stolen cherries”; these are apparently rather impish faeries, for they have stolen these cherries, and wish to steal the child too… They dance with “Mingling hands and mingling glances”. The use of “glances” to me immediately raises suspicion; a glance is something furtive, and breeds an aura of mischief here.

Indeed, we must distrust these faeries who seek out “slumbering trout” only to whisper in their ears, and give them “unquiet dreams”. What are they whispering to the trout? Why do they wish to trouble their sleep? There is something sinister here that sounds like dark, mischievous spells. Moreover, the repetition of the word “human” (“Come away, O human child!“) draws attention to the fact that the faeries are not human, and makes us distrust them even more.

Finally, when we reach the last stanza, it seems the faeries have managed to persuade, or hypnotise the child into coming away with them: “Away with us he’s going,/ The solemn-eyed”. The child is not rejoicing to be joining the faeries, he is “solemn”. And now (that the child has been successfully “stolen”) they are more up front about where he is going, or at least what he is leaving; “He’ll hear no more the lowing/ Of the calves on the warm hillside/ Or the kettle on the hob/ Sing peace into his breast”. The child is leaving the comforts of home — not the world’s weeping. He has been tricked by the faeries.

All in all, this poem is beautiful, mysterious, and quietly but naggingly sinister. For me, it has the quality of an olden fairy-tale, such as of the brothers Grimm.  I hope it is enjoyed by all!

fairies

 

 

‘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

‘Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York,1957’ by Mary Oliver

Once, in summer
in the blueberries,
I fell asleep, and woke
when a deer stumbled against me.

I guess
she was so busy with her own happiness
she had grown careless
and was just wandering along

listening
to the wind as she leaned down
to lip up the sweetness.
So, there we were

with nothing between us
but a few leaves, and wind’s
glossy voice
shouting instructions.

The deer
backed away finally
and flung up her white tail
and went floating off toward the trees –

but the moment she did that
was so wide and so deep
it has lasted to this day;
I have only to think of her –

the flower of her amazement
and the stalled breath of her curiosity,
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight –

to be absent again from this world
and alive, again, in another
for thirty years
sleepy and amazed,

rising out of the rough weeds
listening and looking.
Beautiful girl,
where are you?

In this enticingly titled poem Mary Oliver takes us, as she loves to do, deep into a world of natural beauty and child-like wonder. I don’t know if anyone will understand what I mean when I say that I always find something very clean and sharp about Oliver’s work… perhaps it is the simple, unassuming manner of her expression, and the powerful effect it never fails to deliver. Whatever it is, this piece is a very charming treasure.

This wonderful poet seems to me to be always very much in admiration of the oblivious wisdom of wild creatures. As she writes in her fragmented prose-poem Staying Alive, “I believe everything has a soul”. The deer in this poem certainly seems to have one; I love the way she describes her (the deer) as being “so busy with her own happiness” that she has “grown careless” and just stumbles across the speaker in the blueberries as she leans down to “lip up the sweetness”. Mary Oliver always finds truth for us in the natural world. In the above-mentioned prose-poem she writes of her instruction as a poet while growing up, “I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything – other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned, that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion – that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world… can re-dignify the worst-stung heart”.

There is a precious moment in this poem where the deer and the speaker connect – a moment “so wide and so deep” that “it has lasted to this day”. It is as though the deer has forgotten that it ought to be afraid of a human being, and then the wind shouts its “instructions”, and it floats off toward the trees.

But I think the most charming thing about this poem is its end lines: “Beautiful girl,/ where are you?” I love the description of the slender, delicate but wild deer as a beautiful girl; it is absolutely appropriate, and really captures that instinctive, immediate rush of love one can feel when encountering an animal in this way – especially in its own environment. I also think that the deer in this poem could represent the speaker’s younger self – perhaps a memory of a carefree, easily startled (human) girl who was also “so busy with her own happiness”. I think the deer has something to teach the speaker (and the reader) about ageing and being present; to quote Staying Alive again, “you must not ever stop being whimsical“.

A doe

A doe

Wild blueberries

Wild blueberries

 

‘Nothing gold can stay’ by Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

This doesn’t need much explaining or commentary, I think; it is a perfectly contained poem, with economical, loaded language and images. It voices (with a little more flair and melancholy beauty) the adage that all good things must come to an end.

This blog, though indisputably good, is however not coming to an end, but rather getting going again.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

‘Morning in the burned house’ by Margaret Atwood

In the burned house I am eating breakfast.
You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast,
yet here I am.

The spoon which was melted scrapes against
the bowl which was melted also.
No one else is around.

Where have they gone to, brother and sister,
mother and father? Off along the shore,
perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers,

their dishes piled beside the sink,
which is beside the woodstove
with its grate and sooty kettle,

every detail clear,
tin cup and rippled mirror.
The day is bright and songless,

the lake is blue, the forest watchful.
In the east a bank of cloud
rises up silently like dark bread.

I can see the swirls in the oilcloth,
I can see the flaws in the glass,
those flares where the sun hits them.

I can’t see my own arms and legs
or know if this is a trap or blessing,
finding myself back here, where everything

in this house has long been over,
kettle and mirror, spoon and bowl,
including my own body,

including the body I had then,
including the body I have now
as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy,

bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards
(I can almost see)
in my burning clothes, the thin green shorts

and grubby yellow T-shirt
holding my cindery, non-existent,
radiant flesh. Incandescent.

This poem fascinates me with its treatment of subject-matter that Atwood often visits in her poetry: grief and loss of innocence.

I feel that this piece is exploring the dizzying, almost out-of-body sensation that grief can inject us with. For me, the grief in this poem can and should be interpreted according to the reader. There seems to be room in this poem for grief for the self (that is to say, grief for lost innocence – the child that one once was) or grief for a loved one (particularly a for parent, I think). Of course, these two sorts of grief are in a sense inseparable, and can certainly intertwine.

The opening of this poem is immediately intriguing: “In the burned house I am eating breakfast./ You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast”. I find these lines extremely clever, extremely telling. From the very outset of the piece, the poet is admitting to us that she is a liar, or that she is in denial of her reality. There is something so appealingly confiding, almost intimate in that “You understand”. Atwood seems to be saying: ‘you are like me; you are in denial, too’.  The image of the burned house seems to me to be symbolic of the ruins of a conventional family life, childhood, innocence and stability. The burned house is such a violent image, and it leads me to imagine a brutal loss of innocence via some kind of trauma, or else the sudden loss of a parent or close family member.

The words, “yet here I am” are so incredibly sad. For me, this line evokes the way in which human nature clings to its own innocence, and to love, with all its might. We cannot help ourselves. Even though the house has burned down, the speaker in the poem attempts to retrieve some remnants of normality and stability; here she is, “eating [her non-existent] breakfast”. Breakfast is a very cleverly chosen meal here – it smacks of  all that one connects with a healthy, disciplined, ‘correct’ lifestyle, as one’s sensible mother and grandmother would encourage. Even after the fire – even her home and all the furniture of stability has been destroyed – the speaker seeks normality; safety is seemingly being sought in the memory of what was once good.

As the poem continues, the speaker wonders where her family has gone – her mother and father, her brother and sister. She speculates hopefully about this,  surely inspired by her former life in happy innocence: “Off along the shore,/ perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers”. Although it is clearly not the case as she sits among the ruins of the burned house, the speaker imagines that her family has simply gone for a walk along the beach, and that they will be back soon. The image of the clothes on the hangers, and the dishes piled up by the sink to be washed up, is highly evocative of a house after its occupant has died without warning; nothing in the house was prepared for the sudden departure, and everything is waiting for its owner to return, as thought they had just stepped out for a short walk.

The poet describes the day as “bright and songless”. For me, these words really help to depict the sense of stark grief that haunts the poem – the desolation of absence under the spotlight of a clear morning. The line, “In the east a bank of cloud/ rises up silently like dark bread” again shows the speaker’s need for the language of her former life to describe her desolate reality; in the east, where the the sun should be rising, heralding a new day, there is a bank of cloud rising “like dark bread”. The image of bread rising is clearly inspired by traditional domestic life and possibly the kind of activity that a child might share with her mother in an idyllic childhood – baking bread.

“I can’t see my own arms and legs/ or know if this is a trap or blessing” writes Atwood. I feel that here the idea of a physical loss of innocence is strongly evoked, since the speaker refers to her own body. She is telling us that she has now become estranged or detached from her body, and that she doesn’t understand if this situation is a “trap or blessing”. There is clear confusion here.

The poet can see nothing of herself: “including my own body,/ including the body I had then,/ including the body I have now/ as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy”. The all-purging fire has apparently consumed her entire body. Did she die in the fire, too? Is she a ghost? She seems unsure. Here the speaker acknowledges how radical the change that her loss has had on her – it is a physical loss: she speaks about the body she had before the loss, and the body she had after the loss.

In the final two stanzas Atwood continues with her evocation of physical loss, and the ambiguity about whether or not she has survived the fire continues to linger. We are delivered the image of her “bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards/ (I can almost see)/ in my burning clothes”. Here we are clearly being delivered the sense that the speaker remains innocent before the loss she has suffered (she has “bare child’s feet” that stand innocently upon the scorched floorboards). Does she remain innocent because she has been burned – destroyed – by the fire? Again, we may ask, is she a ghost? I love the final image of that “grubby yellow T-shirt/ holding my cindery, non-existent,/ radiant flesh. Incandescent.” What an outstanding ending to the poem. I detect some sense of triumph on the part of the speaker (who had appeared before as the ‘victim’). She is “non-existent” – she has been consumed by the fire that has burned the house down, but she is “Incandescent” – rising above the destruction, as it were. She is in fact radiant in her preserved innocence that has apparently been distilled by the murderous flames that burned the house down.

burned_house[1]

‘Who Has Seen The Wind?’ by Christina Rossetti

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

I love the singing simplicity of this piece. Rossetti employs her usual chanting, prayer-like tone to express the wonder she feels for the unseen forces of this world.

windy2

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