Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category
It is difficult to make too much of the words a good poet employs, although one might read them badly – for instance, by confusing poetic language with dogmatic or scientific statements. [A] poem then should be read with the presumption that every word is deliberately chosen and therefore important. If a word seems out of place, that is all the more reason to assume we are meant to be slowed down or arrested by it. (p. 44)
This afternoon’s Poetry Please was given over to the book of Psalms. Some were read in the King James version, and others in Robert Alter’s recent translation. These latter were particularly fabulous. There was an interesting selection of psalms, beginning with the familiarity of the King James version of Psalm 23, the bookends of 1 and 150, and various others including 22, 19, 13, 65 and 104. The programme ended with both the KJV and Alter’s translation of Psalm 137 which almost had me in tears.
Lots of good things in this programme to enjoy: Ian Macmillan (who was my top choice for Poet Laureate, though I am pleased about Carol Ann Duffy), Song of Songs, Marvell, Ben Jonson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and more. On the whole I thought the poems were read well (and I am not a good listener to poems, I like to read them aloud for myself). The discussion about poetry was useful and interesting, though a bit choppy and shallow. Really, it would have been nice for this to have been a three or four part series.
But, since this is TV, it wasn’t. The impression I came away with, to be honest, was that this really should have been a radio programme. This images added almost nothing to the programme, as you’d expect. I suppose I am glad that it was on TV, if only for the sake of reaching a slightly wider audience (though it was up against the episode of the Apprentice where Ben finally got fired, so I don’t know how much bigger the audience will have been).
Anyway, it’s worth watching. Or, better, listening to while you do something else. Ironing, perhaps. Or knitting.
I’m very much looking forward to watching this on BBC 2 tonight. I will report back and let you know whether it’s worth catching up on iPlayer (only if you’re in the UK, I’m afraid).
ETA: Okay, they got me. Beautiful reading of Song 2.
I don’t know who decides these things, but someone has decreed that today is National Poetry Day and apparently the theme is work, so this poem by Philip Levine seems appropriate.
What work is
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
You know, I’ve read very little of T. S. Eliot’s poetry. The Journey of the Magi. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. I’ve never quite brought myself to read a poem called The Wasteland. It just sounds too depressing for words.
Today I came across this passage from Eliot’s Ash Wednesday and was completely bowled over by it:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
It’s a poem about the unspoken, silent word yet it demands to be read aloud. If you haven’t done so, try it now.
These are the lines that really got me:
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
So I’ll use them as an example of poetic analysis. There are a number of devices that Eliot uses in these two short lines. Most striking is the enjambment. At the end of ‘If the unheard, unspoken’ it feels as though that line may be complete. You can supply the ‘is’ to give ‘if the unheard is unspoken’. And even, following the pattern of the first line, you can supply ‘word’ to give ‘if the unheard word is unspoken’. But the line doesn’t stand alone, it is completed for us by Eliot: ‘If the unheard, unspoken word is unspoken, unheard.’ The pause after the first unspoken is powerfully felt though. It makes you stop and consider – what if the unheard word were actually unspoken? The difference between being unheard and unspoken is pointed up even when the two are being linked.
The second thing I notice in these two lines is the chiastic structure:
If the unheard
What does the chiasm achieve? Well, like the enjambment, it draws our attention to the word ‘Word’ at the start of the second of these lines. This is, as we clearly see from the following lines, a poem about the Word. I think it’s no coincidence that attention is drawn to this word when it appears at the beginning of a line, capitalised as it was not in the first line.
So much for the poetic analysis. What of the poem itself? It begins with a sense of unutterable desolation. Words are lost, spent, unheard, unspoken. But there is hope – the Word is within the world and for the world. And the light shone in the darkness. No question which Word Eliot has in mind now. Yet the world did not receive him: Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled. Just stop for a minute and say that last line again. Beautiful, isn’t it?
The poem leaves us with a question – will the Word always be silent, be unheard? Or will we, somehow, find a way to listen to this Word, to let him speak and be heard? To still the whirling world and bring the possibility of communication to this desolate world?
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
From Wilfred Watson’s ‘Classical Hebrew Poetry’, the proper approach to analysis of a poem:
Isolation of poetic devices
Comparison with other literature
And after all that, why not pick up the poem and read it?