Fields of Gold

summer fieldsWith summer now upon us, a deeper meaning to a lighthearted season comes by way of some evocative lines by the great American poet Mary Oliver from her poem, “The Summer Day” — and its challenging conclusion:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Photo: Stanislava Kyselova

Thoroughly Modern Emily

emily dickinson poetIt’s always a bit of a surprise to remember that Emily Dickinson had only ten poems published in her lifetime. It was not until four years after her death in 1886 that the first volume of her works stunned the literary world with their avant-garde and almost radical use of language and punctuation — long live the dash! — laying an important part of the groundwork that would usher in what we now know as modern poetry.

A confluence of Dickinson-related events is a current reminder of her lasting impact. For the first time, thousands of manuscripts held by such institutions as Harvard University and Amherst College have been assembled on the Emily Dickinson Archive, an online collection where scholars and poetry lovers alike can scour the majority of her writings. “To have all these manuscripts together on one site and to have it so thoroughly searchable is extraordinary,” Cristanne Miller, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a member of the project’s advisory board, recently told the New York Times.

emily dickinson envelopePerhaps even more interesting for Dickinson aficionados is the publication of The Gorgeous Nothings, a compilation that consists of assorted envelopes and other pieces of reused paper that Dickinson turned to as palettes for her writing later in life. (Some are also featured in the exhibit, Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches, at the Drawing Center in Soho, New York through January 12.) Another window on her enigmatic mind, the “envelope poems” appear on scraps of varying shapes and sizes (one is shown at left), all in that distinctively elusive handwriting, a spontaneous hybrid of cursive and block.emily dickinson ledger poem

It was after 1875 that the famously hermetic Dickinson ceased to create clean copies of her poems, and opted to pen (or rather, pencil) her thoughts on all kinds of available household paper. The most striking for me was seeing the beautiful line — “We talked with each other about each other though neither of us spoke” — on a run-of-the mill ledger sheet (right), timeless words which she also later rewrote on a scattered envelope.

I think I’ll agree with the historians who believe that the untypical avenues of expression were no accident, but actually an attempt on Dickinson’s part to explore alternate means of presenting poetry in ways beyond the conventional. Much in keeping with the opening line of one of her well-known poems: “I dwell in Possibility”…

(Credits /middle and bottom: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections)

The Emperor of Ice Cream

The title comes from a famous American poem, by a writer who epitomized paradox in avocation and appearance, as exemplified in the portrait shown left, from 1952.

“Poet” would not be the first description that comes to mind in this photograph of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who looks more like a buttoned-up CEO than any cliché image of a creative type. Indeed, Stevens’ day job was as an insurance executive, but he became one of the great voices of modernist poetry. (The image is among those featured in Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets, on view through April at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.)

As I read through that great compilation of his work, The Palm at the End of the Mind (including the aforementioned “Emperor,” with the indelible line: “bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds”), there were two poems that especially brought me back to the percipience of Stevens, both offering intriguing connections to the realm of art.

In an analysis of the astonishing “Sunday Morning” the writer Robert Buttel saw Stevens as establishing himself as a kindred spirit to Henri Matisse, in that both artists “transform a pagan joy of life into highly civilized terms.” Based on a languid woman’s spiritual reveries on a Christian sabbath, and replete with religious allusions, its opening lines are among the most descriptively scene-setting in modern American poetry:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

And while the kindred-spirit aspects that Buttel alluded to in the connection to Matisse were no doubt philosophical, it’s not a stretch to see a visual bridge between the opening tableau of “Sunday Morning” and a piece like Interior with an Etruscan Vase (left) by the French painter, which followed many years later.

If the Matisse comparisons are subtle and under the surface, “The Man With the Blue Guitar” is an overt homage to another artistic soulmate, Pablo Picasso, whose The Old Guitarist was painted in 1903. Again, a poem that features a striking Stevens opening:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

David Hockney played that guitar forward when he reexamined the Picasso work after being fascinated by the Stevens poem, in a series of drawings from 1977 (one of which is seen right), entitled The Blue Guitar: Etchings by David Hockney Who Was Inspired by Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired by Pablo Picasso.

Talk about full circle. Which, incidentally, is so much of what art is all about.

Of Plums and a Poet

Reading the Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams over the past weekend, I realized a deeper affinity on the part of the great American poet for an edible I thought he had only immortalized in his imagist masterpiece of 1934, “This Is Just to Say”:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Self-portrait, 1914

Some still debate whether the “plum poem” is really nothing more than a glorified post-it note left on a refrigerator, but I’ve always thought  “Just to Say” captures more mystery in its mere 28 words than many full-length novels. With striking simplicity, it almost implores us to create our own backstory for the circumstances behind what appears an otherwise uncomplicated communication, all the while poetically brilliant in its alliteration and sensual (“so sweet”…”so cold”) use of description.

The peripatetic plums of Williams’ imagination appear again in the stark and haunting “To a Poor Old Woman”:

munching a plum on

the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

And from the lovely “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” with its triadic line breaks (W.H. Auden once called it “one of the most beautiful love poems in the language”) comes another, albeit brief, appearance:

There the pink mallow grows
                and in their season

and there, later,
                                  we went to gather
                                                       the wild plum.

I don’t know if it all quite qualifies as a significant motif, but those plums sure were responsible for some magnificent poetry…

Poetic Principals

Another month, another Top 10 list, this time the 10 Greatest Poets in history, as compiled by Dean Rader, a poet, professor, and cultural critic who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. The idea was spurred by the “10 Greatest Composers” project at the New York Times from a few weeks ago.

What catches my attention is the relative lack of discomfort at the absence of T.S. Eliot by readers and commentarists alike. I guess I live in a parallel universe, as Eliot and poetry are disengageable in my mind (with many lines ready at a moment’s notice). It’s a valid list nevertheless, though Rader probably expected some controversy with Pablo Neruda at the top. Not here. The Captain’s Verses and Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair are both requisite and exquisite.

Following Rader’s American-centric direction, I may have added the pediatrician-poet William Carlos Williams to accompany another compatriot who also had a second life, insurance executive Wallace Stevens, as well as a couple of other favorites, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. (Rounding out the list are Li Po, or Li Bai, or Li Bo — choose the name, same poet — and one who followed, 13th-Century Persian, Rumi, described as [currently] the “most popular poet in America.”) The final lineup:

1) Pablo Neruda; 2) William Shakespeare; 3) Dante Alighieri; 4) Walt Whitman; 5) Wallace Stevens; 6) John Donne; 7) Emily Dickinson; 8)  Li Po/Li Bai/Li Bo; 9) William Butler Yeats; 10) Rumi.

And just because, I’ll end with Williams’ 28-word imagist jewel, “This is Just to Say”:

William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Plath and Hughes: A Poetic Paradox

Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, a recent book by Lesley McDowell, includes as its final chapter the marriage between the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which led me to revisit all things Plath, who has fascinated me since my teens. Her Ariel poems simply stunned me (still do) with their raw emotion, and for a teenager engulfed in adolescent angst, Plath’s life represented the epitome of the anguished (female) artist ahead of her time, feminism in Plath’s era only then beginning its stirrings in the mainstream consciousness.

Her husband, Ted Hughes, I didn’t know so much about. Superficially, Hughes was always vilified as the monster who tripped the final switch on Plath’s sanity with an affair begun a few months before her suicide. But after also reading Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook, the contours of this complex pairing are clearly not as simple as all that. From their first meeting in 1956, when Hughes kissed her, in Plath’s words, “bang smash on the mouth” (they married four months later), to the time of Plath’s suicide in February 1963, this marriage of poet-partners was anything but categorizable.

The discovery for me lies in the brilliant Birthday Letters, the Hughes collection from 1998 that details his side of the story, poem-wise, in most powerful fashion. In “St. Botolph’s”, Hughes replies to Plath’s “bang smash” of their initial meeting (she followed by biting him sharply on the cheek) with:

And the swelling ring-moat of tooth marks
That was to brand my face for the next month.
The me beneath it for good.

In “Fidelity”, the initial attraction:

I was focused,
So locked onto you, so brilliantly
Everything that was not you was blind-spot.

And nails her intrinsic and futile search for father (see Plath’s “Daddy”) in “The Shot”:

Your worship needed a god.
Where it lacked one, it found one.

(The staccato lines recall Plath in “Lady Lazarus”: “Dying Is an art, like everything else I do it exceptionally well.”)

Hughes was always vilified as the monster who tripped the final switch on Plath’s sanity, with an affair begun a short while before her suicide.

One must assume that Birthday Letters was cathartic for Hughes, after so many years of ostracization by Plath aficionados. Much of which of course was justified; Hughes did destroy Plath’s journals of the last days of her life, depriving posterity of what was going on in that troubled mind in the period before her demise; likewise, the callousness of his affair with Assia Wevill — who ironically also later committed suicide, taking her and Hughes’ child with her — cannot be understated.

Nevertheless, Birthday Letters in many ways is redemptive of Hughes for me, no easy feat considering my idolization of Plath. And his greatness as a poet was unquestionable.

Three Poems [1983]

John Winston

Twenty years after the fact
You lie scattered God-knows-where
And we remember, vaguely,
An initiation of adolescence.

In the days before assuming legend
The simplicity of the message
Harbored no fundamental implications
The instruments sounding only
A paleontological, primal beat;

Celebrity fueled the untapped resources
In a curious reversal of the
Oft-repeated patterns
And we were [yeah] so happy
In that dazzling decade of diamonds and revolvers

Beneath the veneer of the clever cuts
Lay the clownish poet of a
Construed generation
[baffled at the adulation from inspired imaginations who reveled in the sensations of the fruits of an aberration]
The crystallization set in.
The icon lost sight of the man.

Until…but who cares?
Neither you or the others
Should ever have been followed
Till death do us part.
Rather, remain the gist of a daydream –
Fantastic, delusive, a lark.

Dramatis Personae [Thames]

The soothing summer of the river
And the raisin-colored sun-dried leaves
Drown in the sea, await no more, and die.
We lie, we do, and death surrounds
While the botched-up sky pronounces us
Alive, watching the water, we lie.

I think of those who rode
These royal waters to settle
Matters with God and King

{It must not have seemed so}
{Frightening then, or so deep}

And the sky was clear
With the now-gone purity
Of a sun-drenched time

When conscience was will
And belief attained.

We lie (we do) and the birds of generations
Fly, with hardly a care;

M.B., FL.

The skim-milk faces
Passively endure the ravages of sun
[Jolly happy pain; the pub will never be the same]
A child screams an important yell
As a first creation crumbles under
A cacophony of waves

The holy mecca of meandering mensches
Assimilates the foreign element
Intruders on the sacrosanct sands
Of a seclusion peaceful
Whiling away the fortunate hours
On the shores of a savory land

Songs of the current nostalgia
Blaze in the seafood air
[Sky-floating bubble of iron welcomes you]
Skins, hotter than carrots
Droop in the summery indolence
Of the southern vein

Oh M.B., the idle drone of
Sybaritic existence is your life-force
Drawing your strength from that which
Is most barren in tone
Postcards do more than justice;
The glory — it’s all yours, alone.