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The Poem Stuck in My Head

Rita Dove’s “Canary”

July 17, 2014 | by

Billie_Holiday_and_Mister,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._June_1946_(William_P._Gottlieb_04271)

Billie Holiday and her dog Mister, New York, ca. June 1946. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Billie Holiday died fifty-five years ago today. Many eminent American poets have elegized Holiday, attempting to capture something of her exquisite voice, whose unique tough-tender grain suggested a life of extremes. Langston Hughes’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Rita Dove’s “Canary” are just a few of the diverse poetic responses to the loss of Lady Day; Kevin Young’s anthology Jazz Poems devotes an entire thoughtfully curated section, “Muting (for Billie Holiday),” to her memory.

These works belong to the larger tradition of the jazz elegy, a genre that attempts something next to impossible: to commemorate and preserve music that’s defined by its immediacy and transience. The grain of the voice. The physicality of the performer. The improvisations and flourishes and intangibles that exist for one night only. If the essence of jazz exists in the moment of performance, then much of the work of the jazz elegy is to make such music legible while also acknowledging the futility of such a project.

Rita Dove’s “Canary,” from 1989, begins:

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

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“Mum and the Sothsegger”

June 15, 2014 | by

Game of Thrones and medieval poetry.

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An illustration of apiaries from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, fourteenth century.

Game of Thrones, of which the season finale is tonight, is the rare show that affords Middle English enthusiasts a chance to geek out: the series makes many nods to medieval literature. Scholars have noted that it draws on the themes and features of such canonical medieval works as the Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. But as I watch, I’m reminded of another, more obscure work from the period, the fifteenth-century dream-vision poem “Mum and the Sothsegger,” which bears a number of striking parallels to Game of Thrones.

“Mum” is a strange, alliterative work about gossip and government and bees (yes, bees). No one is sure who wrote it, and its beginning and end are missing, which only adds to the mystery surrounding its composition. The poem essentially investigates whether it’s better to stay mum or to speak the truth; the titular Mum and Sothsegger personify the two sides of the debate. The work is a product of Lancastrian England, a time when—after Henry IV had overthrown and executed Richard II to become king—the royal court used severe censorship to quell dissent. Measures like the Arundel Constitution of 1409 meant you could be burned at the stake for expressing any vaguely defined “heretical” beliefs. In light of its historical moment, “Mum” is most convincingly read as a poem about succession anxiety and managing dissent. The poem is interested in the same questions of political philosophy that drive GoT, trying to work out how a person should be and how the state should comport itself toward its citizens.

Henry IV’s status as a usurper, much like Robert Baratheon’s after the overthrow of the Mad King in Thrones, sets a possible precedent for overthrow, raising the question of whether the old rules of succession still apply. In the face of brute force, lineage and birthright appear to be irrelevant—now if you kill the king, you are the king. In “Mum,” the anonymous poet walks a fine line in bringing the justness of Henry’s rule into question. He couches backhanded compliments in what appear to be lavish bouts of praise for the new king. He lauds Henry for being “witte and wise” and “cunnyng of werre,” but the passage is incendiary by dint of what’s left out—there’s no mention of lineage (the defining kingly quality), because the king has none. Henry is characterized as a “doer in deedes of armes”: seemingly a compliment to his battle skills, but also a way of carefully underscoring the violent means by which he took the throne. Read More »

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Robert Creeley’s “The Dishonest Mailmen”

May 21, 2014 | by

Creeley

Robert Creeley by Elsa Dorfman, 1972. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I first came across “The Dishonest Mailmen” my sophomore year of college, when, having become so enamored of Robert Creeley’s oft-anthologized poem “I Know a Man,” I decided to buy a new edition of his collected poems—an indulgence, for someone without an income who was supposed to be reading Milton. (For the record, I carry around a lot of guilt about shrugging off Milton.)

I read “The Dishonest Mailmen” and identified with it immediately for reasons I didn’t understand, and indeed for reasons that specifically elude understanding. In its fifty-some words, it conjured equal measures of anger, tenderness, and apathy, an intoxicating combination … “for a student,” I almost wrote, but what I mean is for anyone. Still, there’s something in that couplet—“I see the flames, etc. / But do not care, etc.”—that remains to me the most profound evocation of a heart-heavy nihilism that seems to afflict people exclusively in their late teens. Mainly, let’s be honest, it afflicts white guys studying literature in their late teens, who don’t know what to do with themselves or how to talk to people or how to live unselfishly, and who are able to voice this not-knowing with increasing, brooding eloquence, and who are thus infuriating to themselves and others. Read More »

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Michael Bruce’s “Elegy—Written in Spring”

March 27, 2014 | by

Marianna Saska, Edinburgh Castlehill in Spring

Edinburgh Castlehill in spring. Photo: Marianna Saska, via Flickr

Michael Bruce has a purchase on the springtime. He was born on March 27, 1746, just as spring was coming to Scotland, and his most enduring poem is “Elegy—Written in Spring.” The guy knows greenery.

Bruce—a Scotsman, as you may have guessed—was the son of a weaver; growing up, “his attendance at school was often interrupted because he had to herd cattle on the Lomond Hills in summer, and this early companionship with nature greatly influenced his poetry.”

And so it did: “Elegy” is a plain-and-simple celebration of companionship with nature; it’s unadorned and all the more beautiful for it. Bruce wrote the poem toward the end of his life, and its last stanza, which turns to gaze at death, is quietly devastating, especially since it comes after so many words devoted to the bliss and beauty of pastoral Scotland. The images here are classically, achingly bucolic: flowers, plains, furze. Verdant ground, ample leaves, and dewy lawns. On a day like today, when, in New York, the new season struggles to shuck off the dreariness of the last, “Elegy” is an ideal balm. If only it could bring the balmy weather with it. Read More »

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Chase Twichell’s “To the Reader: Twilight”

February 25, 2014 | by

felipe galindo magic realism in kingbridge

Detail from Felipe Galindo’s Magic Realism in Kingbridge, which appears in the Poetry in Motion series accompanying Twichell’s poem.

The MTA has an initiative called Poetry in Motion, which brings verse to riders of the New York City subway. The last time I was groped on the subway, I was reading one such poem: “To the Reader: Twilight,” by Chase Twichell. It is an enjoyable, accessible poem—they tend to be—but it felt strangely apt.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any woman who rides any public transport for any length of time will, at some point, come into close contact with a covert masturbator. I should amend that, actually: it is universally acknowledged among women; men are always surprised to learn that this is a quotidian reality of distaff urban existence.

“Was it a very crowded train?” asked my mother, the first time it happened to me. I nodded tearfully. “Was it a businessman in a suit? It always is,” she said grimly. I was fourteen at the time, looked twelve, and found the experience exceedingly disturbing. We did not yet have poetry in the subway.

“Next time it happens,” said my mom, “shout ‘PERVERT! PERVERT!’ and everyone will turn on him.” Read More »

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R. S. Thomas’s “Luminary”

February 14, 2014 | by

light bulbs

Photo: André Mouraux, via Flickr

I wrote in my journal, “It is Valentine’s Day. Very good weather. I walked through Central Park feeling lonely and benign and so happy for everyone I saw who was in love, or starting to be in love. I have come to accept that that kind of thing is not meant for me, but that is not a sad thought: there are many ways to love, and be loved, and live a rich life anyway. I will be okay!” I was eighteen.

At the time, I didn’t know the poem “Luminary” by R. S. Thomas; I wish I had. A friend would introduce me to his work the next year. This poem, which so captures a certain wistful quality, came to me even later; it is one of the “rediscovered poems” anthologized a few years ago with Thomas’s other uncollected works.

Those who know Thomas will recognize certain tropes: the elevation of the natural, the suspicion of institutions and “the Machine.” But it is, first and foremost, a love poem. “My balance / of joy in a world / that has gone off joy’s / standard.”

Romantic, yes, but as even I recognized as a melodramatic spinster of eighteen, romance and love can coexist quite comfortably. This poem, to me, conjures both. Read More »

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