Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Unimaginable Life and the Unfathomable Death

“Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath was an interesting poem to read. As I read this poem, I felt disgusted and disturbed by the words I had just read. Many of Plath’s poems are dark and eerie in a sense, but “Lady Lazarus” was the darkest of her poems I read. According to the footnote, Plath wrote this poem based on her attempts of suicide. She relates her attempts with the Bible story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and believes that to live now is to rise from the dead (Nelson 988). I found Plath’s connection to the resurrection of Lazarus interesting. “Lady Lazarus” is not the first poem to make biblical references, and reading through her poems made me wonder about her views of Christianity and God. From the poem one can see that this is also not her first attempt at suicide, but “This is Number Three.” Plath’s theme of suicide creates a dark, heaviness to her poem. Death is not something Plath is uncomfortable talking about, but in some strange way, death is almost a comrade of Plath’s. Plath writes,
Dying is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels so real.
I guess you could say I have a call.

I am making the assumption that the speaker of the poem is Plath because of the footnote that said Plath wrote this poem about her suicide attempts. I found the end of Plath’s poem troubling because even after the speaker (Plath), is dead, she continues to speak to those “poking her ash.” Plath declares she will rise again and warns that she will “eat men like air.” There is a bitter tone to the end of Plath’s poem. Is there someone or something that is torturing Plath? I know she had some psychological issues, but what caused her to write such a poem? Is Plath really a Jew, or does she just associate herself as one in her poetry to show the depths of her pain? Is this a forewarning for her further attempts at suicide? I feel as if my words do not do justice to the pain and sorrow of this poem. I cannot even imagine someone using another person’s skin for a lampshade, or turning someone’s body into a bar of soap. This poem goes far beyond my capacity to understand this type of hurt and pain, and even though Plath’s poem was disturbing to read, after reading the poem I felt that I did not feel disturbed enough. What a tough poem.

            From most of Plath’s poems, one can see that death was closer to Plath than life. I know Plath tried to take her life multiple times, and eventually did commit suicide, but I wonder what she would have said about life in general. I found a poem through one of the blogs I follow and the poem is titled “a proper life.” Here is the poem: 

cat on the hearth

dog at the door 

boots at the stoop

cows at the stile

thick coffee mugs

coat on the nail

chores to be done 

eggs in the barn 

hutch full of china 

rugs on the floor

teacups of light

thin as a veil

beds deep & wide

feathers and down

done with the work

stars after dark

“a proper life” is a stark contrast of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” Both poems carry the theme of life, but Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” reveals the emptiness and pain of life, whereas “a proper life” portrays life as full and bountiful. This poem characterizes a good life by the presence of cats and dogs, the comfort of someone’s coat on a nail maybe signifying the presence of people being at home, a plentiful supply of “eggs in the barn,” the business of chores, and a nice bed and a beautiful stars to end the day. This poem portrays life as comforting and peaceful. There is fullness and what seems like little pain and trouble. Maybe someone is dreaming of this “picture perfect life,” and envisions this type of comfort and bounty, as the “proper” way life should be. Where “a proper life” is light and cozy, Plath’s work is heavy laden with pain and depression. There is a definite contrast of life between these two poems, and quite honestly, both seem unimaginable. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Class and Rodents, Rodents and Class

The two poems that stood out to me the most were “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop and “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell. I found these poems interesting because Bishop and Lowell wrote these poems for each other. Both poems have rodent animals in the title, and are somewhat obscure. I am not sure the context of either poem, or the context of Bishop and Lowell’s relationship, but there must have been some background to these poems for them to correspond with one another. I know that Lowell wrote with a great deal of history in mind, and in his poetry he focused on war and other political matters. Bishop, as Cary Nelson put it, wrote with “unsentimental introspection,” which is evident in most of her poems. Even after reading “The Armadillo” a couple of times, I am not quite sure how the armadillo fits into the poem, or why she wrote this for Lowell, but let’s explore a little bit. Bishop begins her poem:

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down or Mars,

Or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

The nature of this section of her poem makes me think of fireworks flying in the air. Bishop describes them as “frail, illegal fire balloons,” and compares them to planets that “recede and dwindle solemnly.” Bishop’s description makes me think what she is describing is fireworks, but then she writes:

Last nigh another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair
of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked out of sight.

The ancient owl’s nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

The speaker continues to describe these falling “fire balloons” that fall from the sky and “splatter like an egg of fire.” The speaker also describes how two owls were run out of their nest due to these “fire balloons.” Then a rabbit comes on the scene and the fact that the rabbit is “short-eared” seems to carry significance. The rabbit’s fur is described as ash, and the rabbit has ignited eyes. The last stanza of the poem is in all italics, almost like another speaker comes in, or maybe a brief “aside” or an outside perspective of what is happening on this scene. I am not quite sure what to make of “The Armadillo,” or how to piece together the “fire balloons,” the planets, and the chaos of the animals scurrying in panic. The poem seems frantic to me, and maybe the armadillo and the other animals represent fear or anxiety. I do not want to read too much into Bishop’s poem, but the emotion of her poem seems frantic, and her descriptions feel chaotic. 

Nelson comments that Lowell’s poem, “Skunk Hour,” is written in response to Bishop’s “The Armadillo.” Lowell’s poem is set on Nautilus Island in Maine. In my opinion, Lowell’s poem seems to be talking about a class issue between rich and poor. At the beginning of his poem, he reveals a rich heiress who owns a village and has people of the town work for her. Lowell writes:

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectmen in our village;
she’s in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and let’s them fall.

The season’s ill –
We’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to have leaped from an L.L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.

So this heiress is wealthy, but is growing old in age. Somehow the town has lost their “summer millionaire,” maybe another wealthy townsmen. But the fairy decorator “brightens his shop for fall,” but does not like his work because he makes no money. The second section of the poem switches to first person, and the tone of the poem grows heavy and darker:

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town…
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love…” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat…
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
Of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
Of our back steps and breath the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage
she jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
And will not scare.

There is an element of loneliness to the end of the poem. The speaker is riding up this hill looking for “love-cars,” but when he spots a car with the radio on, he sobs and calls himself “hell.” He is alone and only the skunks remain, but the skunks are searching through the garbage for food. The speaker says, “I stand on top of our back steps and breathe the rich air.” While I could be reading too much into the poem, it seems as if there is a contrast between rich and poor here in his poem.  Lowell ends the poem with the speaker watching the skunks dig for food in the dumpster. The poem ends emptily and hollow. I am still not sure what to make of Lowell’s poem, but I felt more confident reading his poem than Bishop’s. Both Bishop and Lowell’s poem, have rodent animals in the titles of their poems, but the animals do not take center stage of the poem. I also noticed that Bishop and Lowell mention these animals in the conclusion of their poems. I do not know if that carries any significance, but it is just a simple observation. I enjoyed Bishop and Lowell’s poems, and I found it interesting that they used rodent animals as their titles. I wonder what they were trying to communicate to each other...

            Adam Kirsch writes a poem titled, “Professional Middle Class Couple, 1922.” This poem reminded me slightly of Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour,” but Kirsch’s poem is more extreme than Lowell’s. Lowell writes:

What justifies the inequality
That issues her a tastefully square-cut
Ruby for her finger, him a suit
Whose rumpled, unemphatic dignity
Declares a life of working sitting down,
While someone in a sweatshop has to squint
And palsy sewing, and a continent
Sheds blood to pry the gemstone from the ground,
Could not be justice. Nothing but the use
To which they put prosperity can speak
In their defense: the faces money makes,
They demonstrate, don’t have to be obtuse,
Entitled, vapid, arrogantly strong;
Only among the burghers do you find
A glance so frank, engaging, and refined,
So tentative, so conscious of  its wrong.

The couple who works “sitting down” reminded me of the heiress in Lowell’s poem, and the workers in the sweatshop reminded me of the farm workers, and shop owner in Lowell’s work. Of course Kirsch’s poem is a cry for justice and has a harsher tone than Lowell’s, but the issue of class is seen in both poems. This theme of class was the primary reason I chose Kirsch’s poem to relate to Lowell’s. I feel that Kirsch’s work more than likely has some political undertones to it, although that may be a wrong assumption, but the tone of his poem seems to be a cry for justice for the lower class. He talks about how the workers in the sweatshop work so the lady can wear a precious stone on her hand. Kirsch shows that to the middle class people of the poem, prosperity is more important than the people who are working. Kirsch’s poem reminded me of “Yachts” by William Carlos Williams. “Professional Middle-class Couple, 1922,” had nothing unique about it, but despite the common-ness of it, the voice of his poem sung loudly throughout each line.

 Poetry has a way of communicating that other forms of literature do not. I enjoyed reading these poems this week!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Poems Are Delicate Creatures

"Make it and it is a poem."
- William Carlos Williams

There was one section of William Carlos Williams writing I found very interesting. His poem The Descent of Winter, reminds me a great deal of Gertrude Stein’s work Tender Buttons. Similar to Stein, Williams writes in a way that does not explicitly describe what he is talking about, but almost talks around it, behind it, about it, through it, describing an object, or a place with vivid adjectives, but never explicitly stating the direct thing or place he is describing. There is a certain openness to his poetry that leaves the reader feeling curious and wanting more. In The Descent of Winter, Williams writes a section titled “Introduction” written on 11/1. Williams opens,
in almost all verse you read, mine or anybody else, the figures used and the general impression of the things spoken of is vague “you could say it better in prose” especially good prose, say the proses of Hemingway. The truth of the object is somehow hazed over, dulled. So no body would go to see a play in verse if

the salvias, the rusty hydrangeas, the rugged cannas

there’s too often no observation in it, in poetry. It is a soft second light of dreaming. The sagas were not like that they seem to have been made on the spot.

While this is only an excerpt from the introduction, I found this section interesting because it seems as if Williams is “blurbing” on his view of poetry, and clearly explains how he views poetry. He admits to vagueness in his poetry, and later on writes, “The good poetry is where vividness comes up “true” like in prose but better. That’s poetry.” This reminds me of Pound’s “Doctrine of Poetry” and the Imagist movement. Pound did not like frivolous, wordy writing, because that’s what prose does; poetry, in Pounds eyes (and it seems Williams feels this way as well) is concise, yet descriptive, saying what you need to say in one image, not a great mass of words. I would not say that Williams is an Imagist poet per se, but I think some of his poetry displays similar characteristics of this type of poetry. For Williams, poetry displays vividness in its lines. Williams writes, “That thing, the vividness which is poetry by itself, makes the poem. There is no need to explain or compare. Make it and it is a poem. This is modern, not the saga. There are not sagas—only trees now, animals, engines: There’s that (Cary, Modern American Poetry Anthology).” I like this section of Williams’ poem because I feel like he is writing with his own individual style and uniqueness, and shedding his “modern” light on poetry. I felt freedom in poetry when I read this excerpt of The Descent of Winter. He treats poetry creatively and directly, and writes with delicate themes and images. Williams has a way with words that make a mere "red wheel-barrow" seem like the most beautiful thing you've ever set your eyes on. He writes with beautiful, yet simple language that flows, and I liked the way he described poetry in his "Introduction."

            In correlation to William Carlos Williams’ poetry, I would like to explore Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet.” I have heard great things about Wendell Berry, and his themes of nature in his poetry, and his style remind me a great deal of Robert Frost. He also reminded me some of William Carlos Williams, and I enjoyed his poem “How to Be a Poet.” Ever since I read Muriel Rukeyser’s poems on her view of poetry and how to write poetry, I have found it very interesting when poets make poetry about poetry. Berry writes:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live.
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Berry’s poem is almost like a peaceful reminder to the poet to slow down when writing poetry. Berry’s opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem, “Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quite.” There is an element of stillness and relying on the things you have been taught, things you like, things you have experienced, etc. in the second stanza, Berry encourages poets to “Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly.” When I read this, I thought of energy running through a wire. That energy is quick and shoots through that wire in a matter of seconds to produce electricity, but the poet should “communicate slowly.” Berry also encourages poets to explore with poetry, and in a way to let the poem come to the poet instead of forcing a poem onto a page. Berry writes, “Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.” Poetry to Berry is an art and is not something to be rushed. To Berry, poetry is delicate and is to be handled carefully. Both Williams and Berry bring creativity and unique beauty with their poetry. I greatly enjoyed these poets, and their poems about poetry.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rukeyser and Rooney

Muriel Rukeyser is an interesting poet. The non-traditional poetic style of Rukeyser’s writing, reminds me greatly of Gertrude Stein. In Rukeyser’s poem, “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” Rukeyser writes that to be a Jew in this time is a “gift.” If a Jew does not embrace, and take hold of the gift they have been given or offered, they will live lives bound by torture, isolation, and will continue to be “invisible” to a world where Jewishness is seen as lesser, and disgraceful.

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

It is almost as if she is saying, it is better for a Jew to embrace Jewishness and suffer, than to “resist, fail, and resist.” I feel strange writing about something that I cannot even wrap my mind around. I cannot imagine what it is like to be of the minority and to suffer because of ethnicity/religion. I also cannot imagine being a Jew during this time of the 20th century and what it feels like to see millions of your people murdered for being Jews. This poem was written roughly 11 years after the Holocaust had occurred. I want to assume Rukeyser has the Holocaust in the back of her mind as she writes this poem. Jews were looked down upon, were hated, and seen as unworthy—they were barely recognized as people. Rukeyser writes:

This gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.
This poem made me feel distressed, it made me feel pity for the Jews in the 20th century, it made me feel angry, and sad, and disgusted. Like I said before I cannot even imagine the type of suffering and torment Jews of the 20th century went through. I respect Rukeyser a great deal, and even though this poem greatly troubled me, I enjoyed reading Rukeyser’s work.

Although Muriel Rukeyser is the star of the show here, I would like to also discuss Katherine Rooney’s “Robinson Walks Museum Mile.” This poem does not truly relate to Muriel Rukeyser’s “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century, but I found this poem interesting, so I would like to talk about it. In multiple poems by Kathleen Rooney she talks about a man named “Robinson.” In this particular poem, Robinson is in the middle of the city of Brooklyn, and he is pondering the ideal city, and this magnificent mile to a museum. Robinson carries an indifferent, relaxed posture and attitude about him, and wonders, “Do museums amuse me?” This poem discusses what it would be like to live in a museum and portrays the themes of preservation, permanency, and a “thoughtless, guilt-free, and preserved eternity.” Robinson desires to be “kissable and missable,” he desires to belong and noticed. He desires to have someone and love someone, yet all he has is isolation in this big city. I enjoyed Rooney’s poem, and reading about her character Robinson. There is almost a double-ness to Robinson, “Robinson doesn’t want to be exceptional. He knows he is. He wants to be perceived exceptional.” Robinson is just another face in the crowd who desires to be significant and “preserved.” Rooney stirs up emotions such as sadness, emptiness, longing, isolation, etc. It seems as if the things in museums are the things most noticed, or most preserved, but in a way an object in a glass case is just as lonely as our kind sir, Robinson on the street. Rooney’s work was interesting to read, and keeps her poems interesting and intelligent, with hidden references and unique descriptors.

I know that both of these poems are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Rukeyser is defending the oppressed Jewish race, and writes about the difficulty of being a Jew in the 20th century, and Rooney writes about a lonely man who wants to be valued and preserved. But I think both of these poems reveal a great deal about humanity and the world we live in; yes, both poems are extremely different in style and context, but show us something about our human race. Rukeyser’s poem is a small taste of Jewishness in the 20th century and reveals with hints of the Holocaust in the background (I am assuming…) it reveals the evil nature of humanity. Rukeyser is defending the Jewish race and in a way is encouraging them to embrace their ethnicity/religion even though they are suffering. (I do not feel like I am doing this poem justice with my ignorant analysis!!) Furthermore, Rooney’s poem shows us that there is a longing desire in humanity to be loved, wanted, and “preserved.” There is a desire to live “thoughtless, guilt-free, and preserved eternity.” Just like objects in a museum, Robinson wanted to be “perceived as exceptional,” and to live forever. Again, these poems are very different, but can teach us about people in the world we live in.