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The Poem Stuck in My Head

Candlemas Day

February 3, 2014 | by

british winter

From Poetry of the year. Passages from the poets descriptive of the seasons. With twenty-two colored illustrations from drawings by eminent artists, ed. Joseph Cundall, 1853.

Yesterday, the Seahawks romped to a 43-8 blowout over Denver. The general consensus is that Super Bowl XLVIII was disappointing: tension-free, uncomfortably lopsided, vaguely embarrassing for Manning. The commercials were meh. Bruno Mars kind of brought it, but no one really tuned in to watch Bruno Mars.

The much-ballyhooed winter weather was anticlimactically mild, too, although one assumes the Red Hot Chili Peppers were chilly. After the drama of the polar vortices and the endless gray of this winter, it was almost a letdown when the day dawned mild.

And, of course, on Saturday, Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his New York apartment. The Internet erupted with grief and tributes. Everyone wanted to watch Capote and Pirate Radio and The Talented Mr. Ripley (a few bold people even queued Along Came Polly). 

We completely forgot about Groundhog Day; I did, at any rate. But it was Groundhog Day, and, weather notwithstanding, both Punxsutawney Phil and the poor man’s groundhog, Staten Island Chuck, saw their shadows. The mayor dropped Staten Island Chuck.

The origins of the groundhog custom are murky, although it arrived in America via the Pennsylvania German community and is likely rooted in European animal lore, dating back to pagan times. But it also coincides with the ancient feast of Candlemas Day, which was, according to Christian tradition, the date of the presentation of Jesus at the temple and the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. Like so many things, it may well be some sort of compromise between pagan and Christian calendars.

For many centuries, it was on Candlemas that English farmers removed cattle from the hay meadows and any fields that needed plowing or sowing. To this day, it is a Quarter Day in Scotland, on which debts are traditionally paid and law courts are in session. The following is one of several traditional rhymes associated with the second of February:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

And, of course, yesterday was relatively fair, at least in Pennsylvania (and, I guess, Staten Island). But it doesn’t seem to matter, does it? The groundhog always seems to predict more winter—Wikipedia notes that he calls it for spring only 13.7 percent of the time—which is probably safer.

On the other hand, there was Shubenacadie Sam, the Nova Scotia groundhog. Because of his advantageous time zone, he is the first groundhog of the year to make a prediction for North America. And despite everything, he foresaw an early spring.

 

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Robert Burns’s “Address to a Haggis”

January 24, 2014 | by

Haggis Bernt Rostad

Photo: Bernt Rostad, via Flickr

To paraphrase Laurie Colwin, the world divides unequally between those who love haggis (not too many) and those who loathe and fear it (most). Tomorrow is Robert Burns’s birthday, aka Burns Night, which is to say, probably the zenith of the haggis-eating year. Whether this strikes dread or delight into your hearts, I cannot say.

Burns—aka the Ploughman Poet, aka Robden of Solway Firth, aka the Bard of Ayrshire—was a poet, folklorist, lyricist, radical, bon vivant, womanizer, and, during his lifetime, certainly the greatest promoter of Scottish history and culture. Sir Walter Scott (no slouch himself in the mythologizing department) met the poet as a teenager in Edinburgh and later recalled,

His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents … I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.

The first Burns Supper was held in June 1802, not many years after the poet’s death at age thirty-seven. But, perhaps on the thinking that haggis and whiskey are best enjoyed in frigid weather, the celebration has for some time now been held on January 25. The traditional Burns Supper contains a number of prescribed steps, including the Selkirk Grace (allegedly penned by Burns for the Earl of Selkirk), a Toast to the Lassies, a Toast to the Laddies, speeches, “Auld Lang Syne,” and muckle, muckle piping. Read More »

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T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

December 18, 2013 | by

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In 1927, Richard de la Mare had an idea for some Christmas cards. Because he was a production director at London’s Faber & Gwyer, his cards were festive poetry pamphlets that could be sent to clients and sold to customers for one shilling a piece. Because two years earlier Geoffrey Faber had lured a banker from Lloyd’s Bank to work as an editor at his publishing house, Faber & Gwyer had T. S. Eliot to contribute to the series.

Named for Shakespeare’s sprite, the Ariel poems each addressed the Christmas holiday or a seasonal theme. G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, and W. B. Yeats all contributed. The Ariel series followed a strict formula: identical cardboard bindings; title, illustrator, author, and occasionally an illustration on the cover; and two interior sheets folded to make four pages. The first page repeated the title information; the following three featured the poem and an original illustration.

T. S. Eliot wrote six poems for the series: “The Journey of the Magi” (1927), “A Song for Simeon” (1928), “Animula” (1929), “Marina” (1930), “Triumphal March” (1931), and, later when the series was revived, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954). Only thirty-four lines long, that final poem is like a whisper in the whirlwind of dramatic plays and long poems that characterize most of Eliot’s later work. “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” came decades after “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), years after Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Four Quartets (1943).

I think of Eliot’s Christmas trees every year around this time: when firs, pines, and spruces appear in living rooms, storefronts, and town squares around the country. Eliot wrote the poem when he was sixty-six years old. His voice is wizened, yet wistful as he reaches through all the years of his life to recover “the spirit of wonder” from his earliest Christmases. Though formal and serious, the poem seems almost saccharine when compared to his earlier work. It will surprise many that the poet of fragments and ruins eventually turned his attention to the pretty packages and bright lights of Christmas. Read More »

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Cecil Frances Alexander’s “Once in Royal David’s City”

December 12, 2013 | by

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Mine is not a family given to ritual. We are too chaotic, too scatter-brained, too disorganized. Because my parents’ marriage is “interfaith” (a word I have never once heard them use, and which seems to imply more faith than was in fact mingled), religious holidays were sketchy affairs and, beyond the six-foot hero that graced our Halloween open house and the Teeny-Bean jelly beans we ate at Easter, our year was not marked by a series of traditions.

The one exception was, and is, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Saint Thomas, the gray stone Episcopal bastion on Fifth Avenue. It has been many years since anyone but me has agreed to accompany my mother to the service (my brother never fails to voice scorn based on a long-ago middle school soccer game against the Saint Thomas Boys’ Choir School) but maybe that is as it should be: she likes to claim that I, in fetus form, first kicked during the service. The New York iteration takes place the Sunday before Christmas, but it is of course based on the King’s College Choir service which the BBC has broadcast on Christmas Eve from Cambridge since 1928. Read More »

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Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick”

November 21, 2013 | by

Plath-Hughes-Portrait-Paris-Review

Collage via Flickr.

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

I am writing this while pregnant with my first son, just as Sylvia Plath was when she wrote “Nick and the Candlestick” in 1962.

I wanted him: he was no surprise or trouble at all; he was passion and biology. But I am not happy. No one in smiley U.S.A. is supposed to say this at the news of a baby. An expectant mother is supposed to be ecstatic, full of promise and life. It is true, I marvel; the last thing I ever expected to be good at was creating a small person, that my body could nourish him both inside itself and within the world. He’s evidence that something inside me might work, even if other, less visible things do not.

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

Before him, I would read Plath quotes from one of those ubiquitous Twitter feeds, feel recognition—and feel like a cliché. I do genuinely love her work, but it’s so expected, so reductive—even if, with him, it feels newly vital for me. We all know the narrative: marry a handsome, destructive man, go from one to two, three then four, and then kill yourself at thirty. Like so many girl-readers, I worshipped her and selfishly romanticized the tragedy. As a young woman, Plath sought the whirl and illusion of enchanted, swift New York, painfully unprepared for adulthood, and like so many others, I recognized all those standard youthful Manhattan dreams, darker when you feel everything twenty-fold, when you’re unsure of having any talent or worth, paralyzed by sensitivity, maybe a little weak, easy to dismantle. A cliché, yes, but the mythology, and the work, remain captivating and solid. As a writer and a reader and a human being with dark tendencies, I have great empathy for everything Plath. There is a reason she has endured. We may all fail miserably at love, family, and living, but we can try to be brave, especially in our work. As Plath says of her own womb, my stomach was always crawling with white newts and calcification, a gut that betrayed me, even when I tried to convince it of happy otherwise. Read More »

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Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love”

November 11, 2013 | by

Ivor Gurney in 1920.

In honor of Veterans Day, we are re-running this favorite post.

In the last century, a few years of sodden slaughter in France and Flanders turned British poetry from Keatsian lyricism to raw, aghast reportage. Isaac Rosenberg’s poems, for instance, moved from prewar patriotic exultation—“Flash, mailed seraphim, / Your burning spears”—to, three years later, this numb, bone-dry mutter from the trenches: “Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies.”

In Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love” you see the thing happening not in mid-career but in mid-poem—between lines, in a line break, specifically the last one. It’s the most astonishing line break I’ve ever encountered. It’s the sound of a culture’s poetic history cracking in half.

“To His Love” begins as an almost doggedly traditional elegy, with the Byronic echo of “We’ll walk no more on Cotswold.” It meanders through rivers, beasts, flowers, and the old tropes—nobility, “pride,” “memoried.” We are lulled into thinking that the urgency of “Cover him, cover him soon!” arises from intense soldierly love, rather than the desperate need to hide a shredded corpse, that “red, wet / Thing.” The euphemistic Latinate décor is stripped away; the haplessly tall T does it’s pitiful duty by the form, like a Tommy too shell-shocked to hide, a standing target.

The fragile Gurney was gassed and traumatized by the war, and he lived out his days in asylums. Read More »

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