Thursday, January 30, 2020

Poem of the week / Ralph Waldo Emerson / The Snow-Storm

Poem of the week: The Snow-Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson

This time, an American Romantic who deserves to be much better-known

This week's poem, "The Snow-Storm" by the American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, aspires not only to rugged grandeur but to irony. Emerson knew the English Romantic poets, and I think quite possibly "The Snow-Storm" is a response to Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight". "Tumultuous privacy of storm" and "the frolic architecture of the snow" carry an almost parodic echo of Coleridge's "secret ministry of frost."
Emerson's poem, for all the sturdy authority of its blank verse, relishes the snow-storm's gothic abandon, its subversive, "savage" disregard for "number or proportion". Nineteenth-century American poets were determined to create a body of literature distinct from that of Europe, and there's a suggestion that the primitive snow-storm could invent shapes at least as interesting as the "slow structures" of deliberate artistry. Conversely, the human architect might, in terms of geological time, amount to no more than a snow-flurry.
The first stanza is stately, smooth-flowing and picturesque, the faintly Biblical touches reminding us that, before rebelling against organised religion, Emerson had been a minister. The snow has an apocalyptic quality in that it blurs the usual life-or-death distinctions. Movement is halted. Boundaries are blotted out – even the boundary between earth and heaven. The scene then shifts to a friendlier indoors, where that unexpected word "radiance" emphasises the vivid contrast with the lightless landscape. Again, a scriptural note is struck, and the old-fashioned fire, or glowing stove, seems to burn with an almost sacred incandescence.
And then, it's as if, in the white space between stanzas, the speaker had ventured outside. The shortened opening line of the second stanza increases the dramatic effect, the immediacy, of the summons, "Come see …" And the subsequent description convinces us there is something worth seeing.
The "fierce artificer", the snow-storm, has carried out an entire building-project, from the quarrying of the tiles to the decorative marble drapes of the "Parian wreaths". It's only when he comes to the end of this extended conceit that Emerson seems to struggle. "Retiring" must be the subject of "leaves" but it's hardly obvious. The qualification, "as he were not", is confusing, to say the least. Clearly, the poet is still talking about the snow-storm. Perhaps he wants to convey that winter is far from over, and the snow's retirement merely apparent, and temporary.
But I still like the poem, and have no objection to a little puzzlement. Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance is partially carried over into his poetic technique. His diction here is mainly down-to-earth, with a dash of medieval ("steed", "maugre"). The syntax, like his treatment of conventional forms and meters, dimly aspires to a more organic shape, although he stops short of real innovation. He recognised it when he saw it, though, and when Walt Whitman sent him a copy of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Emerson wrote back an exalted fan-letter: "I give you joy of your free and brave thought …"
Emerson and Thoreau, though important thinkers and writers, were not great poets, but it's a pity that their work is not better known in Britain. They have as much claim as the Romantics to be the ancestors of today's eco-poets and nature writers. The current obsession with rivers, rain and water among British poets, for instance, surely has a source in Emersonian metaphor.
And it's not only the poets who echo the Transcendentalists. For many people, the natural world has become the focus of morality. We sense our obligation to nature also in terms of an obligation to ourselves to become more "natural". Emerson was prophetic when he said, "Civilised man has invented the coach, but lost the use of his feet" and, less cheerily, "The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation."
The Snow-Storm
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry

Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Geoffrey Brock / Ovid old

Ovid old

As  a pale gauze 

rose over Asia, he awoke 

             surrounded by, not Rome, 
                            but huts, hanging 
like tattered effigies of home 
             from threads of cedar smoke; 
                            Europe was dark. 
The woman by him also woke,
             gently helped him to stand, 
                            wrapped him in fur, 
and led him outside by the hand 
             to see the sun’s great yolk 
                            push up against 
the horizon’s rim. After it broke
             and bled into the bowl 
                            of the Black Sea, 
it rose again, transformed and whole. 
             For minutes, neither spoke. 
                            “Time,” he recited,
“tames the bullock to the yoke.” 
             He laughed, more blithe than bitter, 
                            the way he did 
these days when he could find no fitter 
             punchline to some old joke 
                            than himself. The woman 
knew the laugh if not the joke, 
             the moods if not the meanings 
                            of his strange words, 
uttered aloud, to no one—keenings 
             that once had made him choke 
                            with grief, but that 
evolved, as Daphne’s cries (a cloak 
             of bark abrading her body) 
                            gave way to birdsong 
in her branches. Some things no god 
             or Caesar can revoke.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Larkin Out Loud

Philip Larkin

Larkin Out Loud

As with so much else—England, foreign countries, children, grownup people, a great deal of literature, and a great deal of life—Philip Larkin didn’t care for poetry readings. Listening to poetry read aloud, complained Larkin, one never knows how far away the ending is; all sense of stanzaic form disappears; and this is to say nothing of all the tiny misunderstandings that chip away at our ability to concentrate, the “theirs” being taken for “there’s.” I don’t much like poetry readings either, and I would add to Larkin’s list of grievances the fact that most people aren’t very good at reading poetry aloud.

The greatest offense is usually simply that of reading a poem as though it were a poem, in a boomingly uniform incantation that obscures nuance and texture. Fortunately, there were few such performances on display on Tuesday night at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where the Poetry Society of America had organized a tribute to Philip Larkin, England’s greatest post-Second World War poet, to coincide with the publication of “Complete Poems,” a clear improvement on the earlier editions, which includes each of Larkin’s collections in their original order, along with a section of uncollected and previously unpublished work, and a staggeringly thorough commentary. Like the clientele of a hyper-exclusive café, the evening’s readers—James Fenton, Saskia Hamilton, Mary Karr, Nick Laird, Katha Pollitt, Paul Simon, and Zadie Smith among them—sat in threes around small tables up on stage and took turns approaching the lectern to read a Larkin poem of choice.

Philip Larkin
Deborah Garrison got some laughs for her brilliantly plain and unobtrusive reading of “Poetry of Departures” (“So to hear it said / He walked out on the whole crowd / Leaves me flushed and stirred, / Like Then she undid her dress / Or Take that you bastard”), while Andrew Sullivan’s rendition of “The Whitsun Weddings” was bracingly alive to the poem’s atmosphere of gathering mystery and power.

To mix things up—and Larkin was all for variety (he said he always put a lot of thought into the order of poems in a collection: “I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls”)—the floor was intermittently ceded to the Queens College Louis Armstrong Ensemble, who played several of Larkin’s favorite Sidney Bechet numbers. (The New Yorkers Adam Gopnik did a fine job with Larkin’s poem to Bechet, where he exclaims, “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous Yes.”)

Many of Larkin’s best poems follow the same structure. First, the poet is arrested by something seemingly mundane—an invitation to a party, the sight of a young couple passing in the street—and begins to turn it over in his mind. As the poem gathers steam, these meditations take on a metaphysical cast and are expressed in an increasingly lavish diction. Then, almost bashfully, Larkin seems to overhear himself and to reject conventional poetic speech and sentiment in favor of a more grounded, clear-eyed vision of the world, one that his experience has verified.

Philip Larkin

“Sad Steps” is probably my favorite Larkin poem, and it is also one of his most characteristic. The poem’s modulations—grogginess (“Groping back to bed after a piss”), quickened thought (“There’s something laughable about this”), a somewhat confected awe (“Lozenge of love!”), self-correction (“No”), and final clarity—were expertly captured by J. D. McClatchy, who spoke the lines as though they were only at that moment occurring to him, and thereby restored to them a welcome freshness and spontaneity:
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.
Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)
High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
Zadie Smith’s voice, which is at once musical and strangely affectless, was well suited to “The Old Fools,” with its brutal catalogue of uncomprehending questions. Many of the people in the audience looked to be the wrong side of eighty, and there was an almost unbearable tension in the hall as Smith asked, matter-of-factly,
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning?
What saves the poem—and saved the reading—from seeming merely hectoring is the last line, when Larkin, having taken in the grotesque spectacle of old age, as it were, turns the camera on himself (and by extension, all of us who are not yet old). Smith spoke the last five words unimprovably, with just the right tone of grim anticipation:
Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
The audience chuckled and gasped simultaneously. There was no question about it: Larkin had come through.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Importance of Elsewhere / Philip Larkin’s Photographs by Richard Bradford / Review

Philip Larkin

The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs by Richard Bradford – review

Philip Larkin’s astute pictures make a tantalising companion to his verse

Sean O'Hagan
Sunday 15 November 2015

n October 1947, Philip Larkin wrote to his friend Jim Sutton about a recent “act of madness” – he had spent £7 on a camera. The British-made Purma Special had cost him more than a week’s wages, but it was state of the art compared with his previous model, a box camera that had been given to him by his father in 1937, when Larkin was 15.

“I am so far awaiting my first roll of results,” Larkin told Sutton in the same letter. “If they are bad, I shall feel I have been rather a fool.”
The results were in fact good, despite the fact that the Purma was, as Larkin put it, “a ‘fast’ camera, that is, best suited to swift scenes in bright sun” and: “I like poor light the best and I don’t think it will do any good in that line.” It seems somehow apt that Larkin, who once said “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”, should be drawn aesthetically to “poor light” – all the better to see some essence of England by, perhaps? Larkin later graduated to the altogether more classic Rolleiflex, on which he made many of his pensive self-portraits. Throughout, his visual style, like his poetic one, tended towards what the literary critic John Bayley called “a glum accuracy about places and emotions”… and people.

The photographs collected chronologically in The Importance of Elsewhere are culled from some 5,000 prints and negatives in the archives of the Hull History Centre. They are not, in the main, groundbreaking. They do, though, trace Larkin’s progress from an amateur enthusiast to a formally astute photographer with a keen eye for composition, whether making portraits of his friends, family, lovers and coterie of literary friends or casting his cold eye over the English countryside. There are moments of peculiar beauty here, mostly to do with his cool observation of English vernacular architecture: an austere Wesleyan chapel in East Yorkshire caught in stark monochrome; tall obelisks casting long shadows in a country graveyard in Oban.

Philip Larkin

The most Larkinesque series, apart from the many studied self-portraits, centres on the names of Yorkshire villages – Laxton, Faxfleet, Kiplin, Yokefleet. The poetry of place names, familiar from his verse, is here rendered in stark black and white, the silhouettes of buildings looming in the background behind these functional, yet lyrical, signs that nestle on well-tended grassy verges.
Of Larkin’s lovers, Ruth Bowman, Monica Jones, Patsy Strang and Maeve Brennan are each given a chapter, but it is Monica who emerges most strongly as a forceful presence in his portraits. Whether staring down the lens while curled up on an armchair, wearing horn-rims, jumper and vertically striped tights, or gazing in profile out of the window of her flat in Leicester in the early 1960s, she seems utterly at ease before Larkin’s camera. In contrast, there is a striking portrait of Maeve Brennan, looking up from a book, melancholy and almost Victorian in a high-necked, long-sleeved dress. It was taken shortly after they had agreed to end their relationship and seems to carry all the weight of that decision in its sombreness.
Philip Larkin

Larkin also photographed the world around him wherever he went: his chum, Kingsley Amis, at Oxford and beyond, portraits of friends who had been conscripted during the second world war, Orange marches in Belfast in the early 50s, shipyard cranes and shopfronts in Hull a few years later. Here and there, the images and the poems seem to chime: a vibrant street scene in Dublin captures a crowd of children and adults watching a passing parade or funeral. Only one young girl stares suspiciously at Larkin’s camera and you can almost see him though her eyes, a nerdish outsider observing. One wonders if the image was echoed in his late poem, Dublinesque, in which he described how “Down stucco sidestreets,/ Where light is pewter/ And afternoon mist/ Brings lights on in shops/ Above race-guides and rosaries,/ A funeral passes”.
A fascinating and tantalising book, then, and one that sheds light on a great poet and tricky human being, who seems to have found, in photography, another altogether less fretful – and perhaps kinder – way of preserving what he experienced.