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Archive for February, 2011

 

I gave up writing rhymed poetry a long time ago.  In grade school I composed limericks about other people at recess (not an avenue to popularity, believe me); in college I once wrote a truly awful sonnet that included the word “manacle,” and to my everlasting shame, I entered it in a poetry contest.  Since then the only metered and rhymed poetry I’ve attempted have been jokey re-writes of song lyrics for birthday celebrations.  But no more.  I stumbled upon a wonderful book that’s convinced me it’s worth trying some of the traditional forms once again.  Not because I’m going to be the next Robert Frost, but because if something was really, really fun in fifth grade, it’s worth trying again decades later.  (This dictum does not apply to prank phone calls and tabulating rules for secret clubs.)

 

The book is The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. Fry is one of those British geniuses for whom one profession is not enough.*  Actor, journalist, playwright, novelist, comedian, film director, and these days a Tweeter with 2 million followers, he’s the type of person who makes everyone else feel like a mushroom, colorless and dopey.

 

Subtitled Unlocking the Poet Within, the book opens with Fry’s “embarrassing secret”:  he writes poetry.  He claims to write average poetry (but I have my doubts) and compares his hobby with those of friends who build boats or play instruments.  You don’t have to be a master to enjoy writing poems.  “In an open society,” he writes, “everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birthright.  It is up to us to claim it.”

 

With a series of exercises and engaging tutorials on meter and rhyme, Fry encourages his readers to write their own poems.  “Talent is inborn but technique is learned,” he says. Like a ballet teacher breaking down a dance sequence into steps, Fry walks the novice poet through traditional forms of poetry.  He begins with an exercise in unrhymed iambic tetrameter, and a few chapters later is demanding a rondeau redouble.

 

Still hesitant to versify? Fry breaks down the reasons you may be resisting:

 

I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all.  I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it.  I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random.  It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity.  Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to “respond” to a poem.

 

 

Fry might be vaguely familiar to you if you’ve seen The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (he was the narrator) or the television series Jeeves and Wooster (he was Jeeves).  Look for him as Robert Downey Jr.’s older brother in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes sequel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(*Clive James, author of my favorite laugh-out-loud read, Unreliable Memoirs, is another of this type.)

 

 

 

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Poem is above trash bin

 

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

 

 

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

 

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled

And paced among the mountains overhead

And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

 

 

 

I taped this poem to a trashcan at a rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike.  I know, I know– I’ve done the old poem-on-a-trashcan routine before.  If this poem-elfing were a Broadway show, I’d be shuffling around with a top hat and cane right about now.

 

I could pretend there’s some metaphoric connection between the trashcan and the poem.  Yeats is hoping not to be discarded by the woman he loves. . . or how’s this   . . . anything left in a trashbin on a turnpike is not likely to be retrieved. Just so Yeats tells his beloved, take me now or I’m as out of reach as the stars.

 

But placing the poem here was a practical decision, not an artistic one.  Mostly I wanted to display it where it would easily be seen. I was also thinking that rest stops are such sterile places (or so we hope, considering that the two prescribed activities are eating and eliminating) that it would be a public service to leave behind something soulful and beautiful.

 

I love Yeats so much I could poem-elf him exclusively.  Of course I’m partial to all things Irish and Yeats especially, since I’ve always thought he looks like an old friend of my husband and mine (Paul, if you are reading, accept a compliment to your Irish good looks); and also because (I admit sheepishly) his poems are easy to understand, at least at first. (It will be no surprise to academic types that when it comes to poetry, I am a slacker.)

 

Yeats wrote “When You Are Old” for Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary and famous beauty.  He was obsessed with her and over the course of his life would propose to her four times. Like Pip’s love for Estella, Scarlett’s for Ashley, Yeat’s unrequited love for the six-foot tall, red-haired Gonne shaped his life. She drew Yeats into her political causes and awakened his nationalistic feelings. He wrote a play for her to star in.  He even, after Maud’s final rejection, proposed to her daughter.  With her permission. (She had other boundary issues with mating and mothering—she had sex on her infant son’s grave in the hope of conceiving his reincarnation.)

 

This poem is just plain painful and not a little bitter.  The soothing rhythm almost sounds like a lullaby, but the singer is one boiled rabbit short of stalker status. People writing love poems usually praise the beloved’s face and figure, exaggerating their attractions: eyes like diamonds, breasts like pillows, and so forth.  But Yeats conjures up an image of Maud in her hoary-headed years, all beauty gone, alone and talking to herself, a doddering old biddy, drifting off to sleep by the fire.  Not very sexy, unless your name happens to be Harold.

 

While Yeats does pay the requisite compliments of love poetry—he notes her glad grace, beauty, and a dewy soft look in her eyes—his compliments come with a veiled threat.  Not only will she lose her beauty someday, but if she rejects him, she’ll never have any love at all. Out of all her admirers, only he truly loves her.

 

I suppose if he wasn’t a little off-kilter, a little psychologically suspect, he wouldn’t be that much fun to read.  And at least he loves Gonne for the right reasons. He sees beyond her beautiful face and lively spirit: he actually loved the sorrows of your changing face, that is her loss of beauty and her sadness.  (After just reading that men are turned off by the odor of women’s tears, I say, three cheers for Yeats, although he may have just been congested.)  Every woman, no matter how much time she puts into her appearance, and maybe especially if she puts excessive time into her appearance, longs to be loved for who she is.  What woman wouldn’t swoon to hear a man tell her he loves her pilgrim soul?  Yeats is a wily seducer, but his success was limited, at least with Maud, to the page.

 

Born in Dublin in 1865 to a Protestant family, Yeats spent much of his childhood in London.  Nonetheless, Yeats supported Irish independence. He loved and collected Irish folklore, was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, and helped found Dublin’s Abbey Theater.  He was the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize, and served for six years as an Irish senator. At age 52 Yeats eventually married a woman half his age.  Theirs was a happy marriage but not a monagomous one, at least on his part, the old goat.  He died in Paris in 1939.

 

 

Pilgrim soul! Oh my.

 

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The brutal assault on journalist Lara Logan during the Tahrir Square celebration of the Egyptian revolution shocks and repulses. (Surrounded by a mob of 200 men, Logan was separated from her crew, stripped and beaten.  A group of Egyptian women and soldiers came to her rescue.)   Some shocking and repulsive reactions to her ordeal (cruel posts from certain bloggers and the fact the Washington Post originally reported the story in its Style section) caused me to examine my own reaction.  Would I feel as upset to read of the similar treatment of an Egyptian female journalist?

It’s not that I wouldn’t be outraged if this happened to someone veiled and not blond, but I wouldn’t be as shocked.  I’m not saying that Egyptian men are running around  raping women left and right—-in fact there’s now a Facebook page for Egyptian men to apologize to Logan—but the oppression and suppression of women in Arab countries isn’t news.  It’s everyday life.

We can only hope the revolutions sweeping across Arab countries begin a women’s revolution the likes of which the world has never seen. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, who together wrote a book on women in third world countries called Half the Sky, consider improving the rights of women in poor nations to be THE moral imperative of our time.  They write, “In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.”

To celebrate the Egyptian revolution and to show solidarity with Arab women who hope for a better life, I’m posting poetry written by Arabic women.  It wasn’t easy to find. There’s not much published on the internet and a lot of what I did find wasn’t translated. I don’t make any claim that these poems are representative of Arab poetry written by women. I just liked each one very, very much.

 

The first is by Andree Chedid, considered a French-Arabic poet, who only just died Feb. 6, at age 90. She missed Mubarek’s resignation by days.  Born in Egypt of Syrian and Lebanese descent, educated in Europe, she moved to Paris after WWII.  In a sense she isn’t a “pure” Arabic writer, but her work focuses on life in her home, not adopted, country.

 

From the small sampling of Arabic women’s poetry I encountered, I was enchanted with the sensuality.  The poem below is no exception. Chedid paints the ever-patient woman as a locust-like creature, emerging from a shell to begin her life.

 

 

The Ever-Patient Woman

by Andree Chedid

 

In the flowing sap

In her growing fever

Parting her veils

Cracking out of her shells

Sliding out of her skins

 

The ever-patient woman

Slowly

gives herself

life

 

In her volcanoes

In her orchards

Seeking solidity and measure

Clasping her most tender flesh

Straining every fine-honed fiber

 

The ever-patient woman

Slowly

gives herself

light.

 

 

The next poem is by Iranian poet Nahid Kabiri.  Even though it’s long, take time to read it.  The translation may not be the best, but the message is still powerful, the images haunting.  I love the part where she imagines the freedom of sitting in a far-off field perched in a “lonely tree.”  The longing for freedom is so intense that she describes it with sexual language—surrender, love-whisper, warmth of my body. Reading “Authorized Demand” reminds me of the everyday freedoms and rights we western women take for granted.

Authorized Demand

by Nahid Kabiri

 

May I Sir?

May I open the windows of my heart

to the tender affections of light?

And at least from distance far,

look at the beauties of life?

May I Sir?

May I be myself- a woman…

And from the three hundred sixty five days of the year,

for only one day be

from all your “must”s and “must not’s free?

 

May I Sir?

May I just have my natural liberty

of lying on the green grass…

And even more generous than the Sun

give the expectant soil

the warmth of my body and soul?

Or, in the fields yonder,

perch on a lonely tree

to sing in wilderness

seeking unity with birds

and harmony with rivers ,

wh! erein swarms of fish in ecstasy swim,

and in rememberance

of all my love-whispers with the rain,

surrender to a long – sought liberty?

 

May I Sir?

May I for only a while in your prescribed society

be spared the pangs of

“Stop!”s,

“Don’t! “s,

“No!”s,

and “Never! “s?

May I, if you graciously give me the right,

dream of Love?

And in fascination of the bold verses of Mutiny,

the gripping enchantment of a kiss ,

and the absorbing radiance of Freedom,

detach myself

from the hardships of housework,

exclusively imposed on the feminine?

 

May I Sir?

May I, for some moments of relief, leave

the needle and the thread,

the clothes and the iron,

the kettle and the stove,

And under the endless skies of romance,

merge my being

with those lovely moments of sense and intelligence,

which your “CODE” has ever denied me?

 

May I Sir?

May I Sir?

May I say “hello” to a neighbor one day?

Or knit a muffler for a passerby

from the strings of my suppressed tears?

And may I migrate without a “permit”

to the altar of roses

yonder there – in the scented fields of spring?

 

May I Sir?

May I?

May I then laugh in ridicule at whatever here ?

Yes, laugh in ridicule Sir!

And tell in your face :

Your “YASA”* is a shame ‘

And the justice you believe in,

is indeed a disgrace !

 

*YASA: ancient Mongolian strict code

 

 

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Dust of Snow

by Robert Frost

 

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

 

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that scientists have identified a new syndrome: Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome, also known as Sidewalk Rage, the eco-friendlier cousin to Road Rage.  Symptoms include muttering at other pedestrians, making insulting gestures (I’m not making this up–see the other 12 traits of P.A.S. here), and walking much faster than other people.

As humorists everywhere scramble to identify other Rage Syndromes (soon to come:  Dance Floor Rage, Bathroom Line Rage, and Cosmetic Counter Rage), I’m knee-deep in Snow Rage. Here in the Midwest, we’re all darned sick of snow.  We want to store our shovels, behead our neighbor’s snowman family, wear flip-flops.  Even with unseasonably warm temperatures that melt the snow from lawns and roofs, we feel only mild relief.  We know the snow is coming back.  It’s only February, after all.

When snow does return, try to remember early December (pardon me while I channel The Fantastiks) when snow was young and oh so lovely. Or re-read the last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead” and let the snow falling faintly and faintly falling refresh your outlook.  Or even better, recite “Dust of Snow” till you’ve memorized it, and carry it around in your head for protection against S.R.

On my first few reads of this poem, I thought the rhyme and meter were a little heavy-handed, nearly taking over.  “Dust of Snow” is so sing-song that it sounds like a misconceived entry at a cheerleading competition. And in last place, all the way from New Hampshire, the Robert Frost Middle School Squad! But not a word is forced for the sake of rhyme or meter, and the central image is expressed so elegantly that the poem becomes meditative, haiku-like.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was arguably America’s most beloved poet, four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, celebrated teacher at Middlebury College, and unofficial poet laureate of the United States, earning the previously unknown privilege of reading a poem at a presidential inauguration.  I’ve always thought of him as a Burl Ives’ kind of guy, avuncular and cheerful, growing apples in New England and writing sweet little nature poems.  But Frost lived through his share of darkness:  the early loss of his father, the deaths of four of his six children, and his own depression. He seems to have had a difficult personality and he wasn’t much of a farmer either.  And his poems, sweet though they may seem because of the traditional rhyme, are grounded by a dark spirit.

In the simplest of language, without a single adjective of adverb, Frost captures the beauty of the New England winter landscape and his own loneliness.  We see the black crow, the white snow, the green of the hemlock, and the solitary poet.  Then in the stillness and silence, the crow plays a little joke.  He drops snow on Frost.  The poet is jolted out of his sadness, renewed by encounter.  Just a few words, a little movement, and whoosh! everything’s better, at least temporarily.  For all the renewal of mood, the poem still ends on a dark note, a day I had rued.

I have my own mood-lifting hemlock tree experience.  Once I saw a sweet old fellow in my neighborhood, a man with a loping stride who walks for hours everyday, stop by a hemlock tree whose branches hung from a neighbor’s lawn deep into the street.  He pulled a needle off a branch and put it in his mouth.

I caught up to him.  “Did you really just eat something off that tree?” I asked.

“Yes, I did,” he said.  “It’s very refreshing!”*

Like Frost’s dust of snow, that pine needle lightened my day.

*(Don’t worry, my neighbor is still in good health.  Socrates was poisoned by the hemlock plant, not the tree.)

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Here’s a sampling of the Valentine’s Day cards I’m sending to my friends:

I found these retro Valentine’s Day cards on line.  I love them because they’re corny and sweet but mostly because they’re not associated with any advertising campaign like the Hello Kitty or Barbie or Toy Story valentines that drugstores shelve this time of year.  I gave out similar ones as a schoolgirl.

 

Valentines Day was always a big deal at our house growing up.  I remember one of my older sisters coming home with a sheet-cake-sized box of chocolates. Three layers deep!  Oh, the joy! Three months later after a painful visit to the dentist (hers, not ours), she sat us down and gave us a lecture on proper tooth-brushing procedures.

 

My dad loaded us up with candy and funny cards on February 14.  Once he gave a card to my little sister that I haven’t forgotten, a card which these days would probably constitute emotional abuse or a Tiger Mother parenting technique. The cartoon drawing on the front showed a very shapely woman whose face was marred by crossed eyes, buck-teeth and a goofy expression.  The poem to accompany it went something like this:

 

You’ve got curves like a roller coaster

Your clothes fit like a glove

But there’s one thing, Valentine dear—

You’ve got a face only a mother could love.

 

My little sister was adorable, by the way.

 

In that tradition of light verse sent on Valentine’s Day, I’m sending my friends this poem as well:

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Remember, you don’t need a lover to spread the love.

 

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The other night I made a discovery at the library.  It was the most excited I’d been at the library since I got a $25 fine waived by a sympathetic clerk who had no knowledge of my shameful history of overdue books.

My heart was pumping happily along as the discovery unfolded before me, until I realized that my discovery had absolutely no significance.  It explained nothing, it made no connections worth pondering, it advanced human knowledge nary a hair’s breadth.  It was in fact mere coincidence.

What I “discovered” was along the lines of the intriguing similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy that used to get passed around among middle-schoolers.  (This list was surely propagated by someone who wanted to lend Kennedy the air of Lincoln’s presidential greatness by making comparisons such as this one: Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater; Kennedy was shot in a Lincoln, made by Ford.)

I was leafing through Harold Bloom’s new anthology of last poems (Till I End My Song).  I skipped over most of the poems because they were a little depressing and harder to read than I had energy for, spending time instead with Bloom’s brief biography of each poet. When I got to English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I had a eureka! moment (which as I’ve said, ended up being a ur-a-quack-er moment).  Coleridge had much in common with a writer who was born almost exactly 100 years later, Stephen Crane, who I had just poem-elfed.

Both men were both plagued by lifelong money and health problems, but that was not unusual for writers in their time.  What rises to the level of coincidence is this:

  • Both men were the 14th sons of clergymen.
  • Both were eight when their fathers died.
  • Both were precocious and incessant readers as children, and became brilliant young men who left college before graduating.

Drum roll for my favorite coincidence:

  • They share the same initials!

File under Useless Information and enjoy your weekend.

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poem is on window frame above tossed coat

A Man Said to the Universe by Stephen Crane A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!" “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me “A sense of obligation.”

Here in Michigan, last week’s Blizzard of the Century earned the same distinction among storms as Student of the Month has among bumper stickers. We never got much snow at all.  But then again it’s not unusual for Detroit to get less of what’s expected while the rest of the country gets more.  Sigh.

Anyway, the day before the Storm That Dropped Six Inches!, I was at the airport.  Anticipating travel delays, cancellations, and frustrated travelers to follow behind me, I left Stephen Crane’s poem at the Southwest gate.  A poke in the eye, the naughty elf in me thought.

This little hairshirt of a poem could fit inside a New Yorker cartoon.  Picture a puffed-up little man, a comic character on the order of Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins or Lady Bracknell from Importance of Being Earnest or a Margaret Dumont character from an old Marx Brothers movie.  He bangs his indignant fat fist on the desk of a bureaucrat called The Universe, insisting, “Sir, I exist!”  The universe, looking like John Malkovich at his most affectless, says, “Do I look like someone who gives a damn?”

If you studied Crane’s short stories “Open Boat” or “Blue Hotel” in high school or college, you probably wrote the phrase “indifference of nature” in an essay.  But that’s probably (hopefully) the last you had to deal with the concept.  Most of us are protected by enough safety nets that our only glimpse of nature’s indifference is when really bad weather or natural disasters hit.  Mother Nature doesn’t care that you have to fly to California for your terminally ill uncle’s 89th birthday party or that you need to get home before your bloated old dog craps all over your beige carpet.  Sob stories, saintly intentions, money and connections make no difference when a blizzard arrives. Snow falls on the just and unjust alike, Matthew might have written if he were stuck in Chicago last week.

While I don’t share Crane’s fatalistic view of an indifferent universe, I do respond to the equalizer that his universe is, its refusal to grant privilege to those who think they’ve earned it.  In my book the only people who deserve special treatment are those who need it, the sick and the old.

Crane wrote this poem in his mid-twenties.  That’s awfully young to have so bleak an outlook, but the indifference of the universe seems to have been beaten into him. The youngest of 14 children, Crane was small and sickly from birth. His father, a prominent Methodist minister, died when Crane was 8, and thereafter relatives died on him left and right—from train accidents, drug overdoses, and disease—until he himself succumbed to tuberculosis at age 28.

But it was an action-packed 28 years, one that no one would have forecast for a minister’s son from New Jersey. He lived with the poor and destitute in New York City’s Bowery, worked as a war correspondent in Cuba, Mexico and Greece, was shipwrecked, suffered from malaria, had a common-law wife who was a brothel owner when he met her, became friends with Henry James, H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad, and earned fame during his lifetime for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage.  It’s hard to imagine too many 28 year olds doing all that today, but maybe I just don’t know that many people.

The airport emptied early last Tuesday.  Most flights were cancelled shortly after I flew out, and the poem was probably tossed in the trash by a janitor, dare I say, indifferently.

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