A POEM IS NOT ALWAYS POETRY: MELVILLE’S MONODY

There are some noted writers who, to be quite blunt, were better at other kinds of writing than at poetry.  Thoreau is one of these, as is the fellow I want to discuss today, Herman Melville, the author of the awesome and dark Moby-Dick.

Herman Melville, American author. Reproduction...
Herman Melville

Melville was hindered in his poetry by the style so prevalent in the 19th century, which was overly florid in the manner we describe as “Victorian.”  The poets we generally remember from this time are those that broke free of that style to a considerable extent, notably Walt Whitman.

That Melville was not one of these poetic escapees is seen in Monody, his ode of lamentation:

To have known him, to have loved him
   After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
   And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
   The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
   Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
   That hid the shyest grape. 

Quite honestly, if this had not been written by Herman Melville, it would probably today be completely forgotten.

What is it about?  Obviously his affection for another man.  I will not go into the nature of that affection, but we can see it was deep enough to move him to write the poem.  Just who was the man?  Scholars speculate that it was likely Nathaniel Hawthorne, a good-looking and talented fellow.  Those who want to look into this possibility might like to go to this site:

http://www.steamthing.com/2010/08/melvilles-monody-probably-for-hawthorne.html

If the object of Melville’s affection was Hawthorne, that makes the poem even more of historical interest, though it does nothing to improve it as poetry, and that is my real subject now.

 After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
   And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

What we can determine from the poem itself is that Melville had long been lonely, then met a fellow he really liked, someone who eased his loneliness.  But they seem to have had a falling out, for which Melville gives each party equal responsibility.  And the death of the other man makes any reconciliation impossible.  Death, here personified, has closed the matter, has “set his seal.”  Melville is very saddened by all of this, which is why he hopes that writing this poem will help to ease the pain; and so he cries, “Ease me, a little ease, my song!

This first part of the poem is autobiographical, while the second part is mostly descriptive:

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
   The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
   Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
   That hid the shyest grape.

Melville uses Victorian funeral language.  The grave of the man is presented as isolated, a “hermit-mound” that is “draped” — ornamented and covered by snow drifts, as a coffin or a tomb might be draped with cloths at a funeral.  There the snow-bird flits “houseless” (how else, we might ask, was a snow-bird to flit?), “beneath the fir-tree’s crape.”  By his use of crape, more commonly spelled crepe, Melville refers to the dark cloths used not only in funeral wreaths but also for women’s dresses worn to funerals and for mourning, as well as the black crepe ribbons worn on arms and on men’s hats as a sign of mourning, and the crepe ribbon placed upon the outside of a door to indicate that someone dear to those within had died.  That is why even today, people who are gloomy and always predicting the worst are termed “crepe hangers.”  So here the grave of the dead is draped with snowdrifts and the dark boughs of the firs overhead provide the funereal crepe.

The last line seems to be a kind of hidden reference to the specific man of whom Melville was writing, and its connection with a reference in another one of his poems — Clarel — is an element that leads many scholars to think that man was Hawthorne.  In any case,  the icy “cloistral vine” seems to refer to the secluded place where the man lived or was buried (a cloister is a monastery, to be “cloistered” is to be enclosed and separated from the world), and the “shyest grape” to the man himself, who was shy like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and so possibly was Hawthorne himself.

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne had close ties to A...
Nathaniel Hawthorne

There is something very outdated for us in this rather unpleasant mixture of autobiography, nature, and funereal accoutrements, and some obvious awkwardness in such expressions as “And houseless there the snowbird flits.”  It reminds me of those old “mourning pictures” that were once painted or sewn, showing a sad figure standing beside an urn-topped tomb among rather depressing foliage.

It all only confirms the feeling that had Melville not written the poem, we would never have heard of it.  So again, today it is more of historic than poetic interest — something of concern to students of Melville’s life and writings, but not of much interest to anyone else.

David


GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS: EXPRESSING SELF-NATURE

Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman ...
Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman Catholic convert, and priest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would like to return to Gerard Manley Hopkins, that impressionist in language whose poems are verbally fascinating even while difficult.

Today’s Hopkins poem, in spite of its seeming complexity, nonetheless has a very simple message, as we shall see upon unravelling its seeming tangles.  It is called:

AS KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE, DRAGONFLIES DRAW FLAME

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
   As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
   Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

   Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
   Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying What I do is me: for that I came

I say more: the just man justices;
   Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
   Christ.  For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
   To the Father through the features of men’s faces. 

I feel like beginning with the old biblical phrase, “Which is, being interpreted….”  It often seems that is what one does with Hopkins, a translating from Hopkinsese into ordinary English.  Let’s begin, bit by bit:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

Just as kingfishers reflect the bright daylight (“catch fire”) by their irridescent blue feathers, dragonflies also catch and reflect the sunlight as the color red (“flame”).  Thus Hopkins begins with the sense of sight:  kingfishers reflect the light as irridescent blue; dragonflies (at least some of them) reflect the light as red.

Now Hopkins moves from sight to sound:

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells /Stones ring; 

If a stone or pebble is thrown or dropped or falls over the rim of a round well (from which people used to get their water), it will “ring,” meaning it will make a sound not only if it strikes other stones or bricks in the well lining as it falls, but it will also “ring” (Hopkins uses the term loosely” by striking the water with a resounding “Plop!”

So just as kingfishers reflect light as blue irridescence, and just as dragonflies reflect light as a flame-red color, in the same manner stones make a distinctive sound if dropped into a well.  And Hopkins continues by saying that also in the same manner,

 …like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s /Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Just as each “tucked” (in its seldom-used sense of “plucked,” “pulled”) string (such as a harp string) makes its sound (“tells”), each bell, hanging on its support, when swung back and forth in its bow-like arc, will create a sound (“find’s tongue,” too,  as a man’s tongue or language enables a man to speak) that it sends out near and far through the air — to “fling” the sound ” abroad.  Now Hopkins carries his “just as” illustrations even farther:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
   Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Each mortal thing — each thing that passes away and dies, of which the prime example here is mankind — does the very same one thing.  It “deals out that being indoors each one dwells.”  That rather difficult, telegraphic sentence is Hopkinsese for “Every living thing does the same thing as the kingfishers, the dragonflies, a dropped stone, a plucked string  and the bells:  It manifests its being — its particular character — in a specific way. It gives out (‘deals out’) that which is (‘dwells’) inside (‘being indoors’) of each person.  It reveals and bespeaks the nature of that person.”  It “selves” — expresses the self of that thing or person — which we can think of as a verb here.

A kingfisher “selves” (expresses its nature) by reflecting an irridescent blue light; a dragonfly “selves” by reflecting a red color; a stone dropped in a well “selves” by the sound it makes  And every mortal thing — every human in particular, also “selves” (expresses its individual nature) — it “goes itself.”  A bell goes “bongggggg,” and a human also goes….well, we shall see what Hopkins has to say about that.

But for now, each mortal, living thing expresses its self-nature.  “Myself it speaks and spells.”  In its individual expression, it says and spells out clearly, “This is myself; this is what I am.”

And now Hopkins begins bringing us to his real point, the point of the poem as a whole.  First we were told that each individual thing bespeaks or expresses its own nature in one way or another.   Now Hopkins goes even farther:

I say more:  the just man justices;

Let’s put this in very simple terms.  Existence, really, should be understood not as a noun, but as a verb.  Nothing can “be” without also manifesting in some way, and that manifesting is an action, it is a verb.  So a cow “cows,” a leaf “leafs,” rain “rains.”  So in the same way, it is the nature of a just man to “justice,” to express his just nature, his uprightness, his honesty, through his very being.  He gives off justice — “justness” just as a kingfisher gives off irridescence or a dragonfly a red color or a stone its “plop” into water or a bell its “bong.”

Furthermore, a just man “keeps grace,” he manifests grace, which means not only attractiveness and charm, but also has religious overtones here, because we know Hopkins became a Jesuit.  So grace here means also “The divine influence which operates in men to regenerate and sanctify,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.

Hopkins is telling us that the just man “justices,” he manifests his inward justness, his inward honesty, and that keeps all of his “goings” — his activities and being — graceful — grace-full — in both the sense of attractiveness in his being and manner, but also manifesting the influence of the divine.

Hopkins tells us that such a man “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Christ.”  This is the Christian notion that when a man is filled with divine influence, he manifests the divine, which for Hopkins is Christ.  He is “Christly” — Christ-like in his being and activities.  He “puts on Christ,” as is said in the New Testament.

Hopkins expands on that thought:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
   To the Father through the features of men’s faces. 

Wherever a man is just and honest and manifests the influence of the divine,  Hopkins says, Christ is in that man, Christ acts in that man.  That is how Christ can “play in ten thousand places,” can act in ten thousand (just a number to indicate a great many) men who manifest him.  And so in such men Christ is seen “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”  Such a Christ-manifesting man becomes lovely in his appearance and motions, so that when one looks in his eyes, one sees “Christ” though the eyes are the eyes of each individual man.  And that, Hopkins says, is “lovely to the Father”  meaning lovely to God — who sees it through the features of men’s faces.  Christ appears to other men and to God through the features and actions of Christ-like, “just” men.

The Quakers would say that such a just man is showing the “Inward Light” through his outer life and being.

One gets the point Hopkins wanted to make, though when one explains it in such detail it seems rather heavy-handed, which is why it sounds much better in poetry than in prose.

The essence of the poem is that each thing and each creature manifests its own distinctive self-nature.  The self-nature of a just man, Hopkins believed, was that of Christ, though it appears in the arms and legs and eyes of humans.

We may think that Hopkins stretched logic a bit, but nonetheless the basic truth is there — that each person will express the kind of person he or she is — whether good or bad or indifferent — through his or her actions and being.  Hopkins presents it to us in Christian terms, speaking of “Christ” and “God,” but it is still true without those terms and in a non-Christian context.

Put in that way, it seems rather self-evident.  That is why some may feel that there is more poetry in the words Hopkins uses in this poem than in the point made by those words.  Is it worth all the work necessary to decipher Hopkins’ odd phrasings and use of language?  That is up to the individual.

One additional note.  On reading the lines

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…

one cannot help seeing a faint reflection of them in Thomas Merton’s poem to his brother dead in war, Sweet Brother, If I Do Not Sleep:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

David

DRUMMER HODGE: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

Boer War drummer boy writing his mum

Thomas Hardy — yes, the same man who wrote Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and those other famous novels of Britain — wrote a very meaningful poem about the Boer War (1899-1902).  In that war the British (and men from British possessions) fought against the people of Dutch ancestry in parts of what is now South Africa — against the people called the Boers (boer is Dutch for “farmer”).

Hardy had news of a drummer killed in that war, a young fellow — probably a boy, really — who was from Dorchester, in the region of south England that Hardy wrote about in his novels under its old name, Wessex (“West-Saxony”).  Drummers in that war might be as young as 13 or 14, getting into the military by lying about their age.

Here is the poem:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
  Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
  That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
  Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
  Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
  The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
  Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

It is a very sad and lonely poem, bringing to mind the useless suffering and futility of war.  Let’s look more closely, part by part:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
  Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
  That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
  Each night above his mound.

It is, of course, a rough and hasty military burial — not even, we may say, respectful; just throwing the young body into a hole dug in the ground, with no coffin at all — the body just as it was found in the field.

His landmark — that is, the physical feature of the landscape by which one might roughly identify where the grave lies — is just a kopje-crest, meaning one of those hillocks, often consisting of or surmounted by large, bare rocks and stones, that rise here and there above the veldt, the level fields that stretch into the distance.  A kopje (pronounced “cop-yuh”) means literally a “little head,” but it is just one of those often stony, isolated hillocks one sees in movies of Africa, with a lion lounging atop one of its big boulders.  “That breaks the veldt around” means the the kopje rises up above and interrupts the flatness of the surrounding land.

We know already that this “Drummer Hodge” is, as we would say, still “just a kid,” likely no more than 17 and possibly not even that.  And we really do not know what his name was.  Yes, Hodge is a genuine family surname, but in the England of Hardy’s time it was also used as a nickname for any country boy or man — “that farm kid.”  When the newspapers asked “what Hodge was saying” on a particular matter, they meant the views of the average British man from the agricultural countryside.

So really Drummer Hodge is anonymous, just one of those farm boys who enlisted for the illusion of military glory.  It is paradoxical that in the film The History Boys,  an enthusiastic teacher — “Mr. Hector” — says of Hodge in this poem, “the important thing is that he has a name,” and he proceeds to tell his student how it was at this period of history that ordinary soldiers began to be remembered by name, commemorated on war monuments.  It is a poignant and effective scene in the film, but the part about Hodge having a name is an error, which writer Alan Bennet later recognized and acknowledged.  Hodge actually is, in this poem, an “unknown soldier,” though of course we know he was a Wessex country boy.

Hardy emphasizes, partly by his use of Afrikaans (South African Dutch dialect) terms such as kopje, veldt, and so on, the “foreignness” of the resting place of Drummer Hodge, how alien it all was to him.

Above the mound of his grave, “foreign” constellations west each night.  Here west is a verb meaning “to move toward the West, to set in the West.”  So Hardy is really saying that strange constellations (star patterns) unfamiliar to Hodge would move and set each night in the wide sky above the little mound where his grave lay in the vast veldt.

The next segment of the poem repeats and emphasizes some of the elements of the first part:

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
  Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
  The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
  Strange stars amid the gloam.

Hardy tells us that young “Hodge,” fresh from the Wessex countryside, never even had the time get to know and understand his alien surroundings in Africa — the Karoo (broad, dry plateau land), the Bush (the wild, uncultivated lands away from the towns) — and the dusty loam, the dry soil of southern Africa.  And Hodge never had the time, before he was killed, to learn why strange stars — stars he did not recognize — rose in the sky each night “amid the gloam,” meaning in the time after the sun had set, when the stars come out.

Now all of this is significant in Hardy’s transmission to the reader of just how alien his African surroundings were to this Wessex boy, who, being a farm lad, would have been well familiar with the soil, the trees, the hedgerows, and the constellations above southern England.  He was sent off to die in an alien land quite “foreign” to him, from soil to sky.

Paradoxically, Hardy tells us…

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

Hodge, buried in the dry, alien soil of Africa, now becomes part of that soil.  His “homely” breast and brain will be absorbed by the roots of some strange African tree.  And “strange-eyed” constellations reign his stars eternally,” means that the unfamiliar (“strange-eyed”) stars overhead that dominate the sky in patterns unknown to Wessex will be those over Hodge’s grave forever.  He will never again see England, but will become part of the soil and growth of Africa, lost forever in that alien land.

There is something remarkably like this near the end of My Mother’s Castle, the autobiographical account of the French author Marcel Pagnol, who talks about the sad death of his young country friend Lili des Bellons, who knew every leaf and bird and trail of his home hills, yet who similarly was killed in land that was foreign to him, a dark northern forest in the First World War:

“In 1917, a bullet striking full on cut short his young life, and he fell in the rain upon tufts of cold plants whose names he did not know.”

Again, in the film The History Boys, the student discussing Hardy’s poem remarks that there is a parallel between

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

and “golden boy” Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Brooke (1887 – 1915) — who joined the British navy, died of the effects of a sequence of illnesses that ended with blood poisoning, and was buried on the island of Skyros, in Greece, not living to see his third decade of life.

In the previously-mentioned film, “Mr. Hector” replies perceptively to the student, saying of the two poems that “It is the same thought,” but adds that Hardy’s is the better, because it is “more down to earth…quite literally, down to earth.”  And it is, though both poems are very good.  In Brooke, the young man buried remains something alien in that foreign soil — “a richer dust concealed.” But Hardy is more the realist:

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

Drummer Hodge becomes absorbed into that alien environment, becomes as much a part of it as the kopje and the “Southern tree” that grows from his remains.  Quite literally, as Mr. Hector says, “down to earth.”

We should note the use of the word “homely” here.  It does not mean “plain and unattractive in appearance,” but it does mean unsophisticated and we may say, “as one would find him at his home.”  It is not negative, but just reflects his “country boy” nature — open and simple, direct and unpolished.

It really is a very striking poem, not filled with the reflected glory of Brooke, but with the acceptance of hard things as they are that we find in Hardy’s novels, which is one of the reasons why he is one of the few novelists I can read and take seriously, along with John Steinbeck.

The “aftereffect” of Drummer Hodge is somewhat like that of these lines from William Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks and stones and trees.

But with “Hodge” they are alien rocks, alien trees, alien earth and sky — and he gradually becomes one with them, as the days, months, and years pass ceaselessly on.

There is a very telling comment about the Boer War in the film Dean Spanley.  An elderly British father of two sons, one of whom died in the conflict, asks the surviving son, “Did we win the Boer War?”  The reply is, “I believe we lost more slowly than the other side.


David

MORE ON USING “CHINESE” TECHNIQUE IN ENGLISH POETRY

In looking over past statistics for this site, I noticed that one of the most frequented postings was on writing “Chinese poetry” in English.  Of course what is meant by that is poetry written in English, but using the form of old Chinese Nature poetry as a framework on which a poem may be constructed.

Readers here will recall that I previously discussed Chinese poems of five and of seven characters, and how those structures may be transposed into English.

To write such poetry in English we must think in terms of “essential words,” by which is meant words essential to meaning.  If I write, “Tomorrow I shall go to the book shop to look for a book on poetry,” then the essential words in that are simply “Tomorrow I go to book shop look for poetry book.”  The latter sentence is not at all good English, but it is completely clear and understandable.  And that is the way we write “Chinese” poetry in English — we use such essential words as a structure.

So the first thing one must know to write a “Chinese” poem in English is that it uses a framework of essential words, usually either five per line or seven per line.

The second thing one must know is that Chinese poems are written in couplets, meaning in pairs of lines.  So a finished verse will have an even number of lines, not an odd number  A poem is constructed by using a given number of essential words for each line in the couplet, and one adds further couplets until the desired number of verses is achieved.  It is just that simple.

It will not work precisely, but as an example we may use an old verse translated by Arthur Waley.  Then we can “reverse-engineer” that line to see how it fits into this way of writing verse.

Here is the poem — by Tao Qian — the “Q” being pronounced like “ch,” only farther forward in the mouth than in English:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

There are four more lines, but I shall leave them off because they are a bit too culture-limited, and these are enough for my purpose.

Let’s look at the poem, turning it into essential words:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

If we now extract the “essential” words in bold type, we get the essence of the poem:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Southern orchard all leaves gone:
North garden rotting boughs heaped.
Empty cup drink to dregs:
Look kitchen no smoke rises.
Poems books piled beside chair:
Light going not time read.

There you have it.  We have stripped to poem down to its basic elements, and this gives us a structure to use in writing the poem in “normal” English.  In doing this, we must be neither too literalistic nor too rigid.  There are many words in English that are synonyms, so we need not use precisely the words used in our “framework” version, and of course we need to add those words essential to good, standard English, meaning words like “the,” “a,” “an,” as well as the correct grammatical forms.

If that sounds a bit difficult, it is not.  It simply means to use the essential words as the structure of the poem, like the wirework upon which a sculptor molds the clay that forms the visible statue.  So taking our sample structure — the translation by Waley reduced to its essentials — we can now write the poem anew, like this.  I shall put the structure words in light italics, and my rewriting in bold type:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cold and harsh the year nears its end;

Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Dressed in cotton I seek the sunlit porch.

Southern orchard all leaves gone:
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;

North garden rotting boughs heaped.
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.

Empty cup drink to dregs:
I empty my cup drinking to the dregs.

Look kitchen no smoke rises.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.

Poems books piled beside chair:
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;

Light going not time read.
The light is going, no time to read.

Let’s see what we have at this point:

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Dressed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.
I empty the cup, drinking to the dregs.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;
The light is going, no time to read.

That will do, but there is yet another step that we should take — minimally one, but possibily more.  We want the poem to comfortably “settle into” normal English, and that means again that we must avoid rigidity in moving from the framework to the finished poem.  So here is the poem taken just one step farther.

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Clothed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
South, the orchard trees are bare —
North, the garden heaped with rotting boughs.
I drink my cup down to the dregs
And look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair
But the light is fading — no time left.

As long as we have the basic elements of a poem, we have something to work on, and that is what this technique does — it gives us a structure.  If you use it to write new poems, it will of course seem silly to call them “Chinese” poems because they will be written in English — but we are using the Chinese poetry technique to give us the structure that enables us to write such poems easily.

One may easily see that the last stage of the poem given here could not only be worked further if desired, but it could also be used as a jumping-off point for writing quite different lines.  And of course the fundamental notion behind all this is that one can use the five or seven “essential words” structure in composing completely new Nature poems.  Try it, and you may be surprised how easily you can now write poetry — if you have an inherent poetic sense.

David



THE LAST OF HOKKU HERE?

I have long made no secret of the fact that in my view, the hokku tradition of Japan was greatly distorted when it was introduced to the West as “haiku.”  Instead of paying attention to R. H. Blyth, Westerners instead listened to the the haiku societies and self-made authorities that were busy re-making the hokku in their own image.  Consequently hokku was never really successfully transmitted to the West, but instead fell into the hands of those who used it for their own purposes, greatly changing it in the process.

That has been the situation since the middle of the 20th century, and if anything, that situation has become even worse today, as do-it-yourselfers continue to turn the hokku — misrepresented as “haiku” — into just another ill-defined kind of Western brief verse, with the only thing left of hokku being, in most cases, its brevity, and sometimes not even that.  Even when modern haiku enthusiasts claim to keep such elements of hokku as the focus on Nature and an emphasis on season, one finds that in practice they have no understanding of the aesthetic principles behind these elements.  It shows immediately in their writing.

For almost fifteen years I have been presenting a different view of hokku, one that restores what to me are its unique virtues as a kind of spiritual verse.  Over the years I have carefully explained everything from the form and punctuation of hokku in English to its aesthetics, including how it fits into the cycle of the seasons and how its focus is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of, not apart from, Nature.

Some fifteen years of presenting hokku should be sufficient.  If those reading about it here have not gotten the point in that time, one has reason to suspect they never will.  But of course new readers are always appearing, and one never knows when one among them will suddenly “get” what hokku is all about, in spite of all the baggage people may carry from exposure to modern haiku.

And if the times are unpropitious to hokku and its Nature-based aesthetic, one must simply not try to hasten the process; one must be patient and hope that once again humans will begin to recognize that Nature is their mother and father and their home, and that those who harm Nature harm themselves.

What does all this mean for this site?  It means simply that after discussing hokku and all its methods, techniques, and implications for such a long period of years, the time has come to relax a bit and to include discussion of other things — things beyond but still related in some way to the spirit of the hokku.  One might think that after years of writing on the topic, the hokku has been more than sufficiently discussed and explained in all I have presented here since I first began so many years ago, long before anyone else was teaching either hokku or haiku on the Internet.  But once one has developed a great interest in hokku, it just becomes a part of one’s life, and comes up naturally now and then in whatever one thinks and does.

Hokku is significant as a manifestation of a way of life and action, but there are other manifestations as well, other things I hope to discuss here — many of them not too far afield from the hokku and its atmosphere of poverty and simplicity and focus on Nature and the seasons.

We have just passed Halloween — Samhain in the old calendar — the end of the ancient year.  Now we go into the darkness and the cold of winter — the Yin time, the time of returning to the root —  out of which a new year will eventually be born.  The old cycle of the seasons continues, and this site will continue too, even though it is sure to change in one way or another over time, just as all things in Nature change in keeping with the workings of Yin and Yang.

Those of you who have studied hokku with me over the years really should now be on your own.  I have given you the knowledge, but if you are unable to provide skill and the right spirit, that knowledge will come to nothing.  I have done what I could.  And though I shall continue to talk about hokku, as time goes by it will increasingly be up to others to keep the hokku alive or to let it fall into decay and be forgotten.  I can only do what I can do, and all else is beyond my control.

Here is a variation on a winter hokku by Katsuri:

Travelers —
One by one they disappear
Into the falling snow.

That is life.  Things come and go, people come and go, and though I continue to talk about hokku here, I shall not be around forever to teach and explain it.  Whether or not the hokku falls into obscurity and is forgotten under the overwhelming deluge of mediocrity exhibited in modern haiku will be up to all readers of this site.  One hopes they will not let it happen, even though past experience with human notions of responsibility does not give great encouragement.

David

IT WAS THE THIRD OF JUNE…

Today I am going to combine some things I have talked about lately:

First is the “Question” hokku, the whole point of which is to ask a question — or raise a question — that remains unanswered.

Shiki wrote a verse which I shall rearrange slightly to better fit English:

On the sandy beach,
Why is a fire being lit?
The summer moon.

Again, the whole point of such a verse is to have us experience — through the elements of the verse — a question that remains unanswered.  It is that feeling of not knowing that is the whole point of a “question” hokku.  To answer the question would ruin the verse.

The second recent topic is that of song lyrics as commonly unrecognized or undervalued poetry.  I have pointed out that song lyrics, which for convenience I call poems/songs, are often not even mentioned when the subject of poetry is raised, because they are somehow seen as “not real poetry.”  But in contrast to that, I also pointed out how in most cultures, poems that today are read silently or aloud were originally sung.  That combines the musicality — the sound and rhythm — of words in a poem with the music of the singing voice, often accompanied by one or more musical instruments.

There is a conflict then — something that makes no sense — when we read through hundreds of pages in an anthology of poetry and find that virtually none of the recent verses included are the poems that are song lyrics.  This is often simply unrealistic snobbery on the part of the compiler or compilers.

But back to the topic.  Just as we find the raising of an unanswered question significant in “question” hokku, we also find it significant in a good longer poem/song.  As an example, here is a rather remarkable poem — originally sung — called “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry:

It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton
and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped,
and we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
“Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today,
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way,
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe.
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Wow.  One could hardly find a verse more effective in setting mood, in raising questions that forever remain unanswered.  And the plain, southern “country” language of the writer is very effective.  The whole poem has a hot, weary air that is only heightened when sung.  And the phrasing is so true to life — no “fancy” language here:

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”

and

There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything
.

Look at the effective use of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and repetition of two-syllable words at the very beginning, in setting the tired, drowsy overall atmosphere of the poem:

It was the third of June,
Another sleepy, dusty delta day.

Is it any wonder that the general public has lost interest in much of what is offered in contemporary anthologies and journals as poetry today?  It has all too often become over-intellectualized, over-thought, and has frequently lost the “life” that we see, somewhat paradoxically, in poems such as “Ode to Billy Joe.”

David

POEMS SPOKEN, POEMS SUNG

We should not forget that both in the West and in parts of the East (as in China), poetry was originally sung — so when we think of song lyrics, we are really thinking about poetry.

I have already said that some poems depend on musicality in use of word sounds and pauses for their effect; others are a combination of musicality and meaning; and yet others depend more on meaning than on musicality — in fact they may have little or no musicality.

Add to this the fact that in early days poems were sung, and you have the musicality of words combined with music itself — in short, songs that are sung, often with the accompaniment of a musical instrument or instruments.

We have to be very honest and admit that “poetry” in the sense in which we ordinarily think of it — the poems of high school English class textbooks, the poems of college anthologies and poetry journals — are today the poems of the very small minority.  Compared to its popularity in the 19th and even the early 20th centuries, very few people are at all interested in poetry today.  That is why the world of poetry and poets today tends to be a little, ingrown community, with the “published” poets often being those with “connections,” either academic or social.

The popular poetry today, however, is not that of the textbook or anthology, but rather that of the song — the “lyric.”  So in a sense society at large has abandoned conventional poetry as largely uninteresting, and has gone back to the old sense of the poem — poetry as song — though it is often not thought of as a poem simply because it is “sung,” not “spoken.”

Poetry — the conventional “read” or “spoken” kind — is not dead at present, but it is certainly far from healthy.  But poetry that is sung continues to be lively –only it is often not recognized or spoken of as such.  Given that today we write out and speak many old poems that were once sung, it is rather paradoxical that so many fail to recognize much that is sung today as poems.

A few years back, when Joni Mitchell wrote (and sang):

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68
And he told me: “All romantics meet the same fate, someday —
Cynical and drunken,
Boring someone in some dark cafe,”

“You laugh,” he said,
“You think you’re immune —
Go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon!
You like roses, and kisses
And pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies….”

she was writing (and singing) poetry.  Even without the music, the lines are musical, with interesting rhyme — “’68,” “fate” “someday,” “cafe.”  And the poetry is effective and true:

You want roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies.

Now ask yourself, why should Joni Mitchell not be numbered among the poets of the 20th century?  Why is she not in college anthologies, when other, lesser writers of the period are?

Or look at these lines, from another Joni Mitchell poem/song:

People will tell you where they’ve gone —
They’ll tell you where to go;
But till you get there yourself you never really know.
Where some have found their paradise,
Others just come to harm;
Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Very effective; very meaningful.  And for sheer poetry and musicality, one can choose most any stanza from the same poem/song “Amelia,” such as:

 

A ghost of aviation,
She was swallowed by the sky —
Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly —
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms —
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Any poet would be proud to have come up with lines like,
A ghost of aviation, she was swallowed by the sky…,”

or

Like Icarus ascending on beautiful, foolish arms….

It really is amazing when one reads — or better yet, reads and hears — Mitchell’s poems/songs.  There is no sound reason why they should be excluded from anthologies of modern poetry.

And it is not just in English that we find that poetry accompanied by song often exceeds the poetry that is merely written or spoken.  Often the poem/song is surprising in its effective simplicity.  Take for example the verses of Jeanine Deckers, the Belgian one-time nun called paradoxically “Soeur Sourire” (Sister Smile), whose life had a tragic end:

J’ai trouvé le Seigneur sur la plage,
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans un
Blanc coquillage.

Petit bateau sur l’eau,
Vogue, vogue,
Petit bateau sur l’eau
Vogue mon âme
Vers le Très-Haut.

 

How much it loses when we give up the musicality of the French rhyme for the plain meaning — but nonetheless it is still poetry in its childish simplicity:

I found the Lord on the beach,
I found the Lord in a
White seashell.
Little boat on the water,
Float — float —
Little boat on the water,
Float my soul toward the Most High.

She continues with wonderful, simple, clean lines such as:

J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans la brume,
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans la
Rosée des dunes.

I found the Lord in the mist,
I found the Lord in the
Dew of the dunes.

And so her songs/poems go — childlike and simple, often remarkably happy and rhythmic.  It is still a joy to listen to them.  And when one does listen, one begins to see how dry and comparatively, lifelessly “intellectual” many of the poems chosen by academics as worthy of remembrance are, and how many more genuine poems are daily being overlooked or forgotten.  At least forgotten by those who write the poetry journals and compile the anthologies.

But the real poetry of modern times — the poetry people know and remember — is often found not in those publications, but instead in the poems/songs, as we see in the words of Eric Benet:

It’s the same old song;
We’re just a drop of water, in an endless sea;
All we do
Just crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see;
Dust in the wind —
All we are is dust in the wind.

These poems/songs are not in every case what we might want to write or read as poetry. Much that is heard today deserves to be quickly forgotten, in fact much deserves never to be heard at all.  But among them we also find much that is poetry —  and sometimes very good poetry — and that is something we should and must recognize.  There is no point in false, “intellectual” or academic snobbery when such effective verse speaks (and sings) for itself.

David


POETRY: IMAGE, SOUND, SENSE

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

Example (Emily Dickinson):

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

Even though Dickinson is talking about herself, she is doing so fancifully and abstractly (if she were dead, she would not be writing the poem), to make an “intellectual” point.  She (the subject) is writing about herself subjectively (from the mind rather than from the “external” world).

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and fancies and opinions added);

Example: excerpt from Qiu Wei (“Q” in modern Chinese transliteration is like “Ch” pronounced closer to the front of the mouth, so “Qiu” sounds somewhat like “Chyoo” and “Wei” like “Way”):

To your hermitage here atop the mountain
I have climbed, not stopping, these ten miles.
I have knocked on your door, but no one answered;
I have peeked at your room, at your seat beside the table.

Qiu Wei is talking objectively, without adding his fancies or abstract thoughts.

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added):
Example:  Stephen Moylan Bird:

Give me the hills, that echo silence back,
Save the harp-haunted pines’ wild minstrelsy,
And white peaks, lifting rapt Madonna gaze
To where God’s cloud-sheep roam the azure lea.

Bird is talking about hills and pines, but he is “smearing them over” with images and fancies from his imagination instead of just letting them be as they are.

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Example:  Charles L. O’Donnell:

From Killybegs to Ardara is seven Irish miles,
‘Tis there the blackbirds whistle and the mating cuckoos call,
Beyond the fields the green sea glints, above the heaven smiles
On all the white boreens that thread the glens of Donegal.

O’Donnell is presenting things without adding his own fancies and abstract thinking, with the exception of “above the heaven smiles,” which is a subjective way of saying the sky is clear, the sun shining.

The best hokku, as we know, treat the subject — the writer — objectively, without added thoughts and fancies, imagination and ornamentation.  And it treats the object — that which is written about — objectively as well.

Western poetry, by contrast, is often a mixture of objective and subjective.  In fact it seems that Western poets often introduce a subject objectively merely as an excuse to continue by treating it subjectively:

Example:  Mary Carolyn Davies:

Iron, left in the rain
And fog and dew,
With rust is covered. — Pain
Rusts into beauty too.
I know full well that this is so:
I had a heartbreak long ago.

And much Western poetry is simply intellection without a concrete thing-event as its subject:

Example:  Eunice Tietjens:

My heart has fed to-day.
My heart, like hind at play,
Has grazed in fields of love, and washed in streams
Of quick, imperishable dreams.

In addition to the four kinds of poetry just mentioned, we can further subdivide poems into first, those that are “musical,” that is, those using sound in combination with meaning for a great deal of their effect (they still fall into one of the four categories above, or often, in Western verse, a mixture of two of those categories); second, those that that rely on intellectual cleverness:

As an example of a musical verse, we have Robert Frost’s famous

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow
.

Frost mixes objectivity and musicality through the use of end rhyme and alliteration.

Sometimes the musicality of a verse can become so overwhelming that one may appreciate the music of a line even when the meaning may be difficult to grasp, which is often characteristic of the remarkable poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

One can appreciate the musicality of it even before the sense is clear.  So in poetry we can speak of a balance of sound and sense (meaning) or even of the predominance of sound (the musicality) over sense (meaning).   Everyone knows that certain sounds and combinations of sounds can be remarkably effective.  J. R. R. Tolkien knew that quite well, which is why he wrote that the words “cellar door” (pronounced with a British accent to sound like “selladoah”) have a great beauty of their own (compare the similar musical beauty of the American place name “Shenandoah”).

One must beware, however, of simplistic use of sound.  Many people think that musicality through end rhyme makes anything one writes a “poem.”  In fact, rhymed verse has long been the public concept of a poem.  But such “greeting card verse” is really poem only in name, not in poetic substance.

Then there is poetry that relies less on sound and more on meaning, on intellectuality, as in T. S. Eliot:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

Even Eliot cannot resist a bit of musicality however, as we see in the alliteration of “conveyor of commerce” and “builder of bridges.”

We may legitimately ask — given the Western tradition — whether poetry that puts meaning above sound can really be called poetry.  It can, if the images evoked are “poetic” enough in themselves.  However, the use of words simply to evoke images without coherent overall meaning often leads to poems that are simply a kind of mental regurgitation of whatever comes into one’s head.  This kind of “stream of consciousness” poetry is one of the great degeneracies in poetry of the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.  It is a major reason why the general public has lost interest in poems by “poets.”

The other fault into which non-“sound” poems can fall is that of simply presenting prose with little or no poetic content as poetry by dividing it into lines, with perhaps some peculiarities of arrangement to make it “look” like a poem:

Like a heat pump
Heats
A home —
A heat pump
Water heater
uses
ELECTRICITY
To easily move
Heat
From one place
To another….

That, by the way, is simply a few lines in an advertisement that came with my last electric bill.  But all too often, modern poetry is simply this — prose disguised to make it LOOK like poetry when it is not.  This kind of thing has been rather common since the days of the “Beats” in the middle of the 20th century.  One finds a lot of it in the writings of Gary Snyder — prose arranged to make it look like poetry.  This is another development that has caused the general public to lose interest in poetry.

When we are writing, we should be aware of what kind of poetry we are writing, and of why we choose to write that way.  Knowing the four kinds of poetry, and knowing the effects of musicality and meaning — sound and sense — together or apart, helps us to better understand and evaluate not only our own verses, but also the poems of others, so that we may not be taken in by the hucksterism and pseudo-intellectual jargon and nonsense so remarkably prevalent in discussions about modern poets and modern poetry.

David