January 2007 Archives

The Most Famous Sonnet Award Goes To...

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Have y'all actually READ this thing? I mean the entire sonnet, beyond the famous first line:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints - I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! - and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

That is a breathtaking poem. It's a shame that its rich, powerful language has gotten lost under countless parodies of its first line (the first one I remember seeing was delivered by Sesame Street's Count von Count), but it's even harsher that the sonnet's author, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has been relegated to the status of "minor" or "out-of-fashion" poet by the academic community, who should know better. I can only think of one other line of poetry that is so well-worn, and everybody knows who wrote the "to be or not to be" speech. In contrast, I had no idea where Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee?" line came from until my senior year of college. As an ENGLISH MAJOR.

My sense of Academia's rationale is that because the work of Barrett Browning's husband Robert Browning is more diffficult, and presages the Modernist movement that followed him, and for reasons, of course, totally unrelated to the fact that he was MALE, we should be studying him instead. That, and it is unfashionable to be quite as earnest or do-gooder as the Victorians got at the height of their trajectory. We in this postmodern world just can't palate it. Even I feel a hint of trepidation when I contemplate the idea of a novel-length poem devoted to the travails of a young female poet struggling to gain respect for her artistic endeavors in a cruel world of unfeeling marriage proposals and forced domesticity.

But look at this gorgeously crafted sonnet. It takes a sentiment that is completely inarticulable to most of us - that of feeling the love we hold inside us for another person expand until it seems to transcend all boundaries - and encapsulates it with careful, loving language. If, as bell hooks claims, "love" is a verb rather than a noun, and "loving" someone an ongoing, active pursuit, this poem is a testament to the care and hard work of the composer.

The juxtapositions of love in the poem are so rich: the beautiful juxtaposition between the exalted and the everyday, between loving someone to the extremity of spiritual being that you can even comprehend, and loving them "to the level of everyday's / Most quiet need." The level of everyday's most quiet need. What an amazing line.

I love that a feminist Victorian woman, who viewed many marriages as economic shackles placed on the ankles of aspiring female artists, could nonetheless find a relationship where she could honestly claim to love a man "freely, as men strive for Right." The idea that crafting a good, strong relationship between two people is one aspect of making the world a better place, a caring and generous part of the reforming (Victorian word) or activist (21st-century word) spirit made flesh.

The contrast between experience and innocence is also astounding, between loving someone "with the passion put to use / In my old griefs" and loving them "with my childhood's faith." I connect deeply with the idea that people are deepened by experience, and that they can choose to push that depth out toward the world, enriching and improving it. The notion that a painful experience can change one's character in a way that, without excusing or altering the initial suffering, can prepare them for rich goodness later on, resonates with me indescribably. Yet it is even more beautiful to hold within you both the "passion put to use / in...old griefs" and the unquestioning, secure faith of childhood, to love from the depths of experience and also the depths of innocence at one and the same time.

And I love the gasp of frustration or overwhelmption implied by the dashes toward the end, and the line they encapsulate: "- I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears of all my life! -" It's as if, after keeping the enormity of her love within the bounds of the articulable for eleven and a half lines, she suddenly throws up her hands and almost, but not quite, lets it overwhelm her. It's inspiring when a poem can express so well that the thing it is trying to express is inexpressible.

Library Day: If Not, Winter


There is something about the partial, the fragmented artwork, that gets me every time. Walking around the National Gallery in London, it was often the sketches, the preperatory and halfway chalked-in pieces that grabbed me, with their bare suggestiveness and uneven illusion. The places where the smooth edge gives way to the rough, where the immaculately shaded line gives way to the hasty implication of form, draws my eye without fail. I love works of art that require the viewer's own mind or imagination to bring them to "completion," to fill out the shapes and fill in the blanks. So it's not surprising that what is possibly my favorite book of poetry is also fragmentary: Anne Carson's translations of Sappho, entitled If Not, Winter.

I think my love for this book is due in equal measure to the stunningly beautiful translation of the parts of the poems that remain, and the spaces of silence where the papyrus has failed. In longer poems, those spaces function as beats of pure rhythm that our minds can fill with meaning or, if they choose, experience solely as pools of quiet. My favorite long poem is an awesome example of this:

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you.
                  ]and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
            ]at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself

and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing

and neither any [ ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent

no grove [ ] no dance
                ]no sound

To me, this poem would not be nearly so heart-wrenchingly beautiful if it weren't for the spaces of quiet that the poem travels into toward its end. It mirrors so wonderfully the process of comforting a weeping person, which at first is full of talking and crying, much movement of hands and words, and then gradually settles into a quieter, less verbal state. The repetition in the last, fragmentary stanza ("no grove / no dance / no sound"), with the spaces of quiet rhythm between the phrases, is like the touch of a soft hand stroking the back of a person whose weeping has trailed off into silence - or maybe a few brave hiccups. And its effectiveness gains even more from the implication that this isn't the end of the poem: that last bracket implies a continuation of the remembering, of the comforting, but it has been rendered without words by time. It seems to me that most acts of comforting share this quality: the slow meandering into quiet and physical, rather than verbal, communication, and the lack of a stark end-point. That last bracket, where the act of comforting continues, seems to me to mark an indefinite continuation, the analog of sitting quietly with someone for a space of time before one of you suggests taking a walk, or getting a cup of tea, or looks at your watch and says gently that you really should be going.

The shorter fragments have their own special beauty. The fact that they are fragments somehow lends a freedom to them, or me as I read them, so that they can exist as gorgeous pin-points of language, without any expectation of a more "complete" message. Paradoxically, this sometimes allows an image or message to come across with a clarity that probably would have been impossible if I'd been reading a non-fragentary text.

And I on a soft pillow
   will lay down my limbs.

Or this one:

      ]of desire
      ]for when I look at you
      ]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
      ]dewy riverbanks
      ]to last all night long
            ] [

Racy! I love the singular image, alone on a page:

"gathering flowers so very delicate a girl"

Some of the pieces don't even feel fragmentary, just very succinct, like this one:

with anger spreading in the chest
to guard against a vainly barking tongue

I could copy out this entire book with unmitigated glee. I treasure up phrases from it like balms to heal any wound. If Not, Winter is more dog-eared and sticky-note-marked than any other book of poetry I own; perhaps more so than ANY other book I own except my trusty Norton Anthologies of English Literature. Something in my perpetual lust for Sappho via Carson is intangible and difficult to explain, but, like Jesse "that damned lesbian" Helms, I know it when I see it. And, presumably unlike former Senator Helms, I keep coming back for more.

"Into desire shall I come."

"Open out the grace of your eyes."

"you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out."

Library Tuesdays: Hungry Mungry


One of my New Years resolutions is to memorize more poetry. I've always wanted to be the kind of person who, like my Shakespeare professor in college, could look up at the ceiling in a thoughtful way, and summon germaine and accurate verses to suit the occasion. I'm also plagued by incomplete memories of all my favorite poems; often I hear their rhythm running constantly through my head, but fall short of being able to recall the exact words. All I can ever remember of "Tintern Abbey," for example, is the line "and again I hear these waters," which is obviously not much, but more than I can salvage of one of my favorite verses by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from which only "la la groins la la la, la the la rides through" remains in my head. Very impressive, Emily.

For me, having a poem memorized is much different and more intimate than just having it on hand in a book, to read whenever you get the urge. You embody the poem; you feel its cadences and sense the texture of its words to an extent that's impossible to achieve without the freedom of saying it to yourself, in the quiet of your own head. My goal is to expand my current, very motley assortment of inner poems to include more of those to which I feel a passionate connection or in which I take a particular delight. In honor of this resolution, I think January will be Poem Month here at Library Tuesdays, and in special honor of Poem Month and the wonders of memorization, I'm writing today about the first poem I ever intentionally memorized, Shel Silverstein's "Hungry Mungry."

I'd like to just type the entire poem into this entry, but I think that's sketchy copyright-wise - although this person didn't have any compunction about it, so follow the link if you don't know the poem I'm talking about. If you don't know it, though, you were seriously deprived as a child, because Where the Sidewalk Ends and its companion A Light in the Attic were two of the gross, disturbing and wonderful shining beacons of most childhoods I knew, including my own. I would shriek with hilarity at "Lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy Jane" who "wants a drink of water, so she waits and waits and waits and waits and waits for it to rain" and the tragic adventures of Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too. I looked down in euphoric contempt on the sillypusses who put a brassiere on the camel, and was deliciously scandalized when the narrator of "Too many kids in this tub" proclaims "I just washed a behind/That I'm sure wasn't mine." 'Behind!' I would think. 'He means his bottom!'

Weirdly, as I've never been much for food, my favorite poem was "Hungry Mungry." Something about the idea of a rampaging kid devouring the entire universe and then capping it all off by eating his own body, really tickled me. I would ask to hear it again and again; I loved the absurdity and the cleverly singsong cadence, and I still chuckle every time I think of the lines:

"Soldiers came with tanks and guns.
Said Mungry, 'They can't harm me.'
He just smiled and licked his lips and ate the U.S. Army."

I love a good rhyming punchline. I also love the long list of obscene amounts of food at the beginning of the poem, the list that prepares you for Mungry's later devouring of kitchen table, parents, house, bombers, Africa, and so on. You know the one: it starts with a modest "bowl of mushroom soup" and ends with "thirty-two fried chicken legs, a shank of lamb, a boiled ham, two bowls of grits, some black-eyed peas, four chocolate shakes, eight angel cakes, nine custard pies with münster cheese, ten pots of tea..." I am still a sucker for a well-placed list, actually. I think it was this delightful enumeration of foodstuffs, and possibly my less-than-delightful requests that he read me the poem for the eight hundredth time, that prompted my father to use a brilliant reverse-psychology move and bet me that I couldn't memorize the poem. He said he was sure I couldn't; after all, I was only six, and it was really quite long. Much too hard for me.

I have, predictably, known the thing by heart ever since. At this point, it seems as though I will probably be able to recite it flawlessly for the rest of my days, even after I've forgotten my childrens' names and can't tell you what happened three minutes ago. I suppose, if that's the way it shakes out, that at least I will still be able to make myself laugh.

Library Tuesdays: Pied Beauty

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It's taken me a long time to realize how much trauma and hardship many of my friends have suffered at the hands of standardized tests. In part, this is because of my seemingly native test-taking skills, but more than that, standardized reading tests have actually introduced me to some of my favorite authors. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, given the mind-numbing boredom that is traditionally associated with test-taking and the bland corporate nature of test-creation giant ETS, I have gleaned gem after gem from those reading tests. Starting with my first standardized test in elementary school, via which I discovered Zilpha Keatley Snyder's classic The Egypt Game, hardly a bubble-filling session has passed in which I wasn't struck by some intriguing plot point or turn of phrase, and whenever I could squirrel away enough information to track down the source later on, I would always do my best to find it.

So I'm not all that surprised at my grand discovery from the English Literature GRE:

Glory be to God for dappled things-
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow and plough;
        And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
        With swíft, slów, sweet, sóur, adázzle, dím;
He fathers forth whose beauty is pást change:
                                           Práise hím.

I was given the first stanza as a simple ID, and had no idea who wrote it; I guessed wrong, veering toward the early twentieth century because the language seemed so playful and experimental. I had never heard of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it turns out that he was a Catholic priest living in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and the author of this gorgeous little poem, as well as copious others which he never published or showed to many people due to how "strange" they were, and also due to his wariness about seeking praise when his religion dictated humility. He pioneered the use of "sprung rhythm" in modern poetry, a system of stresses which hearkens back to ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry (this is what all the accents are about). The nexus of ancient and avant-garde is pretty magical to me, and the man's personal history is also strangely compelling.

As a strident agnostic, I am not usually one to jump at a verse whose main goal is to praise God. But the language and the theology here are both so unusual and strikingly beautiful that I just can't help myself. It seems to me a rare day when I find a Christian poem that praises "all things counter, original, spare, strange" rather than encouraging conformity to the One Righteous Path. It seems equally rare to find a nineteenth-century Christian who finds God passionately in the idiosyncrasies of the natural world, rather than in renouncing that world. And it's not the Romantic notion of the epic or the sublime that calls it up, not rushing cataracts or towering ice-capped peaks, but the mottled skin of a trout or a cow, the undulations of ploughed earth, and "whatever is fickle." This deeply-felt, sensually-expressed connection to the unusual and brindled of the earthly world approaches a theology I can get behind.

I love to revisit this poem at times when I need a little bit of grounding, or when I'm taking stock, so I thought it was a good choice for the New Year. One of my goals for the time to come is to give more thanks for, and notice to, the dappled details of earth and language. Happy 2007 to all.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography