The Daily

The Poem Stuck in My Head

Chase Twichell’s “To the Reader: Twilight”

February 25, 2014 | by

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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

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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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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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