the past among the present

Elizabeth Bishop’s two poems both concern time and age as they discuss, separately, a fish and the waiting room in a dentist’s office. I have often wondered how much of my life has been spent (wasted) in various waiting rooms, but the level of crisis reached by Bishop in her poem “In the Waiting Room” is something I am fortunate to not have experienced. The poem gets existential pretty quickly and I wasn’t totally on board with or convinced by its rapid descent into questions like “Why should I be my aunt or me or anyone?” and “What similarities…held us all together/or made us all just one?” She monumentalizes the overwhelming experience she had in the dentist’s waiting room by rooting it in a place – Worcester, Massachusetts – and specific time – February 5th, 1918 – as if to archive it in human history, and in doing such she travels back in time. “I said to myself: three days/and you’ll be seven years old.” Time and femaleness appear to have been condensed but I was not left with the same feeling of emotional suffocation that Bishop herself writes of having experienced, I think.

Her poem “The Fish” and Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” both succeed in attributing honor to the seemingly mundane, dull, or overlooked, whether that be an old fish or mining for potatoes. The fish caught in the poem has the same aura of history and wisdom that Heaney’s ancestors have attributed to them. There is a sense of durability to these figures, the fish as “tremendous,” “venerable,” and also “homely” with a “sullen face.” It is also “mechanical,” as are the gestures of Heaney’s ancestors, whom he honors, though will not follow, choosing instead to forge his own path with his pen, his poetry, his divergent reality.

maybe making sense of things

As I read the blog posts of my classmates this week I have noticed that there is an observed and felt disconnect between the first two poems discussed in Johnson’s essay, which then moves onto a discussion of abortion, motherhood and where power may be derived within, and with respect to, female existence. The preliminary explication of apostrophe is necessary to the later development of her argument, and her examples demonstrate how apostrophe is used for “the direct address of an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first person speaker.” The animation of the “west wind” in Shelley’s poem through apostrophe renders it a responsive force. It is a way to empower what could never seek power for itself, relevant to be mindful of when analyzing the poems that concern abortion. That being said, animation is hesitant, desperate, “in doubt” because Shelley is hoping the wind will reanimate him. Especially stirring is Johnson’s reading of Baudelaire’s poem “Moesta et Errabunda,” in its address to Agatha, as a desire for the voice of other. Other, too, can be summarized, objectively, as femaleness. By beginning her piece with a breakdown of these couple poems, the reader is eased into a more sensitive subject. The reader grows accustomed to thinking rationally, like a scholar of rhetoric who can then be removed from issues of morality to see an objective humanness, respectful of a woman’s loss of self or of an other self. This is not to say however that the poems do not elicit an emotional response, but they create a space for exploring the complicated interconnectedness between being a person in a woman’s body, a body that signifies lack, when that very body has not produced life as it is ‘supposed to,’ but still longs to. The poems themselves are a different life force, existing “because a child does not.”

wipe clean and whiteness

Having no idea what hermeticism meant, I thought it important that I look it up, given that this term is the unifying theme for this week’s readings. It is a spiritual and philosophical belief set that regards humanity as being on a spiritual journey to achieve divine unity. Achievement of this ideal state is through aspiration and intention. In Yeats’ The Second Coming, this was helpful knowledge. The world described is home to “anarchy” and “blood-dimmed tide,” darkness and indignation. It is in need of “the Second Coming,” but are the people of his time aspiring to this just as Yeats yearns for it? There is a sense of pleading, desperation and disappointment – “Surely some revelation is at hand/Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” and why hasn’t it come yet…

In Helen by Hilda Doolittle I could not tell if Helen of Troy could only be loved in death, or that even in death she is remembered for her chaos, that death absolved nothing of her volatile legacy. The third stanza is where it became more complicated, but I found the two before to be fun and pretty to read, even if they were crafted with “hate” in mind. I appreciated the rhymes and apparent simplicity of imagery. I wonder why the word “white” is used so frequently and why the fifth line in the first stanza is the only one that begins with a capitol letter, other than God in line 13, but that makes sense to capitalize whereas a random “And” does not. “White” connotes purity, innocence and beginnings, so it is ironic, perhaps, that a woman blamed for ‘the end’ of civility and the start of war is limited with her description of this color, but it also ties her to lifelessness.

manipulation of phenomena(?)

It felt strange to be reading poems this week that had little to no footnotes. I didn’t miss them, but it would have been helpful for interpretation purposes, but then again it’s more rewarding to connect the dots on your own, a point I have yet to arrive at when reading Dickinson and Stevens this week. I felt a sense of distance reading the poems, like I couldn’t connect with them because it was unclear what I would be connecting to. Most of the poems seemed to be about death or signs of death. I found Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird difficult to read – the language felt jagged, I’m not quite sure how to describe it. I didn’t expect the words that followed to be the ones written. It didn’t read naturally to me, it was contrived in its simplicity and sparsity. In section VIII: “But I know, too,/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know.” Though Dickinson’s poems were easier to read they too seemed cold, and left me with a hollow feeling. Is this the effect of obliquity? Opacity is what more readily comes to mind, being unable to see through. There must be a through, though. Otherwise we wouldn’t be spending the time reading and dissecting these works. It always amazes me, and frustrates me, how poets can be so beautifully obscure in conveying aspects of universality – in Blackbird, to look, to watch, to know, and with Dickinson’s lyrics, pain, tenderness and the tension between the two, perhaps. Is what is achieved then a manipulation of phenomena?

triumph and obscurity

All the footnotes we’ve read in the past week made it easier to read the poems at least in the sense that I know to not get distracted by them initially, to try and form my own thoughts about the poem independent from projected/implicit meaning that’s been over my head. The poems read as epic and evoked plenty of religious imagery, being identifiably majestic as well as subtle. I didn’t really know what to make of the poem To the Brooklyn Bridge until the final stanza. It made me think that Crane was circling around the idea that we are human and ordinary, but what we can create can be extraordinary, and that there is a sort of redemption in this. Though much of what has been created in modernity has eroded myth and divinity, not all hope is lost. Line 30: “(How could such mere toil align thy choiring strings)” furthers this point. The footnotes sometimes seem to make something of noting and I think that’s the biggest issue I have with them – it comes across as a desperate fishing for meaning, but then again the poet is an artist and art is always intentional, intricately so. I struggled to grasp the eroticism noted in footnote 14, needed footnote 6 to illuminate the suicide that has occurred, and footnote 12 helped paint a picture of private and public life cross-pollinating on site at the bridge. The earthly is connected to the celestial and spiritual, departing from Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was more experimental in terms of form, causing me to see Crane’s poetry as more assuring and less anxiety inducing, contributing to my overall sense of the poem as more optimistic about the time in which the poet lives.

“…and still the world pursues”

Eliot’s The Waste Land threw me for a loop the first time I read it through. I grasped onto moments I found particularly beautiful (like lines 249-256) as I waded through words that alluded to times I never could have lived in, texts I’ve yet to read, streets I’ve never walked and ballads unsung in our time. I like poetry read aloud, and when I heard Eliot himself read the poem, along with four other speakers, it started making a bit more sense to me. There were different characters, and they all seemed so desperate. In Part II A Game of Chess, a woman sits in a Chair “like a burnished throne” and drama is built within mundanity. A seduction by way of paranoia and despair. And then there is gossip. I still liked the poem, even when I had less of an idea of what was going on – it read to me like lyrics Bob Dylan could have written, so poetic and free. Life in an “unreal city” is captured here, casting each inhabitant of the place and their actions in a gloomy, sinister, listless haze – quite like London in the wartime era Eliot lived through.

I read the stanzas at varying paces, from nervous and breathless to withered and apathetic, each in preparation of the inevitable final judgment, the speakers are lost in (un)reality. I found it haunting to read, as if the passing of the speakers has already occurred and they are calling back from watery depths – “He who was living is now dead/We who were living are now dying/With a little patience.” Definitely looking forward to unpacking this more in class.

brb, bawling

I first encountered Tennyson by way of Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits of him, entranced by the aura she is able to capture of her subjects. In Tennyson’s case it is that of a man too much with the grief of the world, burdened by his uniquely deft handling of it so as to console and stir the masses with his poetry. I found his writing illustrative of an understanding portrait of death as an entity larger than the people it touches, bound to touch all. “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drowned/Let darkness keep her raven gloss” struck me with the capitalization of Love and Grief and not darkness. The same goes for Hours, but not love or boast in lines 13 and 14 in his first Memoriam. I am curious as to why he chose to do this elsewhere as well, to render sentiments as forcible beings perhaps? Why these words and not others?

Tennyson mentions that in death there is a potential aspect of triumph, that with it may come a “gain” that may not be realized in the time given to the living. This is stark compared to the desolation Tennyson weaves into the pieces, the most painful of this being the momentary belief, the hope, that death was just a dream, but yet one still wakes to the greeting that “on the bald street breaks the blank day.” Death is a disruption to the routine of life, yet life is as much a routine that seems brutally more mundane in the shadow of death. In his poetry I felt a longing for presence, not that of death, but of the person lost because he feels his love for the deceased as “vaster passion now” that is all around him, in Nature, mixed with God. I found Tennyson to be immensely compelling and that for the first time I really enjoyed rereading poems and was not frustrated by the language and syntax because I was so taken by the emotion packed into his lines.

Floating downstream with Wordsworth

I am somewhat familiar with the ideals of the Romantic Movement from studying Art History. It was an expressive and emotional movement that sought to break with the existing need to understand natural forces through scientific evaluation. In a time when nature’s chaotic beauty was scrutinized, rationalized, and at the mercy of industry and urbanization, the Romantics instead championed living in awe of and in accordance with the natural world. In its essence, nature moves poets, painters, artists of all kinds to create art. William Wordsworth’s Expulsion and Reply reads like a conversation between two individuals about where meaning comes from and what we owe our knowledge of life to – Mother Earth or books? Beyond this lies this question of how they view attaining that knowledge – is it passive or active? Is it deserving of respect and reverence? Lines 19-20: “Our bodies feel, where’er they be, against or with our will” speak to human instinct and learning through experience, a “wise passiveness.” I do not normally equate passivity with virtue, so I was unsure of how to read the tone of this poem. Perhaps Wordsworth is saying that there is value in dreaming away time, and that he is one of the few who holds this view.

In his next poem, The Tables Turned, he states that there is more wisdom in nature, and the language he uses (“come forth,” “lore,” “up!”) playfully seduces and charms the reader with his lyricism into wanting to explore nature. He is an enthusiastic speaker, making use of emphatic punctuation, but towards the end the poem becomes more serious and, in a way, instructional. It is as though the wisdom he has gained from existing in awe of and in harmony with nature is empowering him to sway others towards such spontaneous experience, towards “music,” with him.

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