Friday, April 12, 2013

Mediating the Duelling Poets.

April is National Poetry Month and we've been celebrating at my house by talking about poetry, reading poems aloud to one another, and even trying our hand at writing one or two. My children have long loved Edward Lear (Who doesn't? He was Shel Silverstein before being him was cool) and loved my reading of The Jumblies so much I had to read it twice before they agreed to go to bed.

Later this month my husband and I will read poetry to a group of grade 4 and 5 students. Guess how much fun we're having as we assemble a reading list.

In the midst of the jamble of reading poetry, I've also been reading about the lives of several poets over the centuries and a few things struck me.

First, the luxury of being able to gaze back in time and line up facts, quotes, and biographies stretching back to the dawn of Western civilization is an unspeakable honour. Let us not waste such a vast opportunity to the cell phone drone of today. Let's teach our children (and reteach ourselves) to look up from our screens and dive deep into history, thinking long about anything at all.

Second, I found it thrilling to read about the diverse--even polemic--attitudes the poets themselves held about the art of poetry. As I've been skidding across time like a teenager at a sock-hop I've hit upon these bulwark positions about what sort of subject matter makes for great poetry:

"I think it will be found that grand style arises in poetry, when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject." Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold (1887)
         The sea is calm tonight, 
         The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Arnold believed that great poetry comes when it's aimed at a worthy, grand subject. His poetry examines faith, politics, self inside of society, loss of faith, and the question of how best to live. His most famous poem, likely, is the one above, a gloomy piece about losing faith. 

Now, race ahead in time and set Arnold's opinion beside that of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) who wrote poems and was described by John Ashbery as "a writer's writer's writer." She once told Robert Lowell, "I'm not interested in big-scale work as such. Something needn't be large to be good."

Filling Station
          by Elizabeth Bishop
Oh, but it is dirty!—this little filling station,oil-soaked, oil-permeatedto a disturbing, over-allblack translucency.Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,oil-soaked monkey suitthat cuts him under the arms,and several quick and saucyand greasy sons assist him(it’s a family filling station),all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?It has a cement porchbehind the pumps, and on ita set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork;on the wicker sofaa dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books providethe only note of color—of certain color. They lieupon a big dim doilydraping a taboret(part of the set), besidea big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?Why the taboret?Why, oh why, the doily?(Embroidered in daisy stitchwith marguerites, I think,and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant,or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: esso—so—so—so
to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all.  

“Filling Station” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. www.fsgbooks.comSource: The Complete Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1983) 

It's interesting that, while Bishop uses the "small" subject of a filling station, she alights on a vast one: Love. And Arnold, giving full attention to the vast night and sea, manages to sulk his way to the very same subject. Maybe that's the trick to all poetry, all writing, all art? That we're all reaching for the great subject of love. That all things lead us there, even when we thought we were going in the opposite (or smaller) direction.

What do you think? Grand subjects, or small things? What are you doing to celebrate National Poetry Month? We love hearing from you.


Sharon K. Souza said...

Bonnie -- instant in season and out of season ;)

I really enjoyed both poems, loved that poetry could arise out of something so base as a filling station. Even now, with just the words "filling station" I can smell the oil, the sweat. All we have these days are self-serve pumps and convenience stores. I bet my grandchildren have no idea what a filling station is. That said, I confess the melancholy in me found beauty, even if painful, in Dover Beach. Loved it. Thank you for sharing.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ah. Poetry. I just love it.

In reading, Dover Beach moved me more than The Filling Station. The line "Ah, love, let us be true to one another!" and what followed brought me to tears. However, I enjoyed the reading of both.

One thing I love about poetry is the vastness of style and subject matter.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I did not know it is Poetry Month. Alas I cannot find my two favourite books of poetry right this moment. One is Canadian Children's poems, likely in a pile somewhere because I wanted them close at hand.
I love Rudyard Kipling's "Watch the wall my darling." And A A Milne's "Sneezles" and "James, James, Morrison, Morrison..."
If I'm a very good girl I allow myself a read of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge.
Of course I'm deep into the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer....

Patti Hill said...

Bonnie, these stir me. I adore the way he describes the tossing of the pebbles and I catch his sense of loss and hope. But I do adore poetry about small things. Lucy Shaw is one of my favorites in small things. I heard her read for an hour once. Loved it. I will celebrate poetry month by reading some Joyce Kenyon. Such a luxury.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, I will spend some time reading the work of a poet I've just recently discovered. Elizabeth Sands Wise and her collection called "Enough for Today".

Bonnie Grove said...

Sharon: Filling station. Poets as much as anyone are the historians of culture, aren't they?
Dover Beach is a poem that has always meant something different to me that it's topic, and I've loved it for a long time.

Susie: The last paragraph of Dover Beach is so moving, it's the bit I always slow down on, read a bit more leisurely. I was astounded to find that Bishop elicited the same response in my heart with her Esso-so-so-so.

Bonnie Grove said...

Henrietta: I used to keep the poetry books far from me, believing, truly believing they spoke to others but not to me. So glad I've had a revival. Happy to see you, too, love poems at your elbow.

Patti: I agree. Not either or, but both and each. I've come to that conclusion as well. I wouldn't care for a solitary diet of one one kind.
I'll be looking up Joyce Kenyon!

Cherry Odelberg said...

I think the small things can be made grand by love and an understanding, philosophical twist.
I thought the Arnold poem lovely and poignant; but then, my favorite color is black.