The Daily

The Poem Stuck in My Head

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

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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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William Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways”

September 10, 2013 | by

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One recent evening, my father and I were sharing a bottle of wine when our conversation turned, as if often does, to his father. We like to call my paternal grandfather “the Judge,” and we use this moniker in a spirit of camaraderie. My grandfather, who died eighteen years ago, was a forceful sort of person. The discipline that he exercised on my father, his eldest son, bordered on tyranny, but in my life, this seasoned toughness was inspiring, fun, and a recognizable expression of love. My grandfather, Frank J. Murray, was a self-made man. Born in 1904, he grew up in the rough Dorchester neighborhood of Boston and played football at Commerce High, a school for clever, working-class kids. A field goal in the final game of his high-school career caught the attention of a Dartmouth College scout, but he was saved from the Protestants—at his mother’s insistence—by a priest, who secured a place for him at the Catholic Georgetown University. At Georgetown, he was quarterback, although he had no depth perception, due to a childhood accident that had left him blind in one eye. He went on to Georgetown Law, during which period he himself scouted for the Georgetown football team, and—in a series of successes—became a well-respected Boston lawyer, married my grandmother (who came from better circumstances), had three sons, bought a house in the solidly middle-class West Roxbury, sent his kids to the prestigious Roxbury Latin for high school, ascended to the Bench—Massachusetts Superior Court—and, some time in there, was appointed a federal district judge. When my father and I talk about this man, there certainly is a lot to cover, but on this particular evening, we were thinking of the Judge’s love of poetry.

My grandfather did not have an innate sense of good taste, but he could recognize it, and, as one might assume from his career successes, he was a quick study. As an adult, he wore nothing but Brooks Brothers suits, playing it safe; his one fashion adventure, a salmon-colored sports coat, also came from Brooks Brothers. He had a learned poise, and even his accent, which was an acceptable Back Bay Boston, was an acquired thing—the Dorchester snarl packaged away, placed securely in the past. This need to acquire the accoutrements of privilege gave my grandfather the passion of a convert. He wanted you to appreciate the fine wine, the prime rib, the Royal Brougham—but more than all of that, he wanted you to appreciate the great gift of his education, which was not law, but poetry.

As a law student at Georgetown, he had taught both poetry and math to the freshman. For the math, as is part of the legend, he cowrote his own textbook, but for the poetry, he used the standard reference of the time, The Golden English Treasury, edited by Francis T. Palgrave, commonly referred to as Palgrave’s. I remember the Judge—at this point reluctantly retired—bringing this book out on evenings, when I stayed at his house in Cohasset, on Boston’s south shore. Mostly, when I visited him, it was just two of us. We would go out for lobster, then return for tea, and if the Celtics, Red Sox, or Patriots weren’t playing, we’d continue to sit at the dining room table, each with a glass of Gewürztraminer, and he’d read me poems. Read More »

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And Tremble

August 2, 2013 | by

As a child, I had a morbid fear of the Shelley sonnet “Ozymandias.” (In the pantheon of night terrors, it ranked only behind the cover of the Sweeney Todd LP, which lived in our living room, and the ghost of Ty Cobb, who lived in my closet.) I guess it was in the children’s poetry anthology my mother would sometimes read from. I interpreted the poem extremely literally: any messages about the way of all flesh and the death of empires was lost on me, and I envisioned, instead, merely a series of monstrous limbs, and a sneering head, coming to life Bedknobs-and-Broomsticks-style, and chasing me around. (Later, in high school, I took to secretly calling this one really arrogant nerd with excellent posture Ozymandias, because I was cool like that, but really that’s a story for another day.)

I would have been absolutely terrified of this Breaking Bad promo, in which Bryan Cranston reads the poem to the accompaniment of an ominous drumbeat. In fact, I still sort of am.

 

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Kent Johnson’s / Araki Yasusada’s / Tosa Motokiyu’s “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang”

May 6, 2013 | by

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Pen names have long been a means for writers to inhabit another identity—to attain privacy, assume the acceptably literate gender, or play with the freedom of a psychic unburdening. But at what point does a pseudonym become obfuscation, transgression? What happens when a poem of witness—a poem set in the aftermath of the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a poem more compelling than many of its peers for its haunting, even oblique and morbid surrealist humor—is in fact written by a middle-aged white community college professor named Kent Johnson, rather than a hibakusha, or actual Hiroshima survivor?

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