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Poem # 2 (Week of March 22)

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Note for Kai: We talked about villanelles on the phone last week, because Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is one of your favorites (I post his poem below, for good measure). I mentioned this poem by Bishop, an American poet, as another famous villanelle that I love and that, like Thomas’s, deals with really tough things: Thomas struggling with the impending death of his father; Bishop’s speaker (also probably a stand-in for herself) struggling with losing a lover. I hope you’ll have time to read it aloud several times to figure out how you would read across the line breaks to capture and contain the emotions. (Needless to say, every poem needs to be read aloud. They are made for that and do not come fully alive without it.)

The rules for villanelles are strict (and I quote for a dictionary definition: “a nineteen-line poem with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet recurring alternately at the end of the other tercets and with both repeated at the close of the concluding quatrain”). Thomas abides by them exactly–he makes the entire first and third line repeat–but Bishop riffs on the form and changes some words around when she comes back around to the first and third line of the first stanza in the following stanzas.

But I still think that what we said the other day still holds true: because the strict form of the villanelle is an especially tight box, formally speaking, it can be used to hold in things that are so painful that they can almost not be said. This is how I read both of these poems, and I cannot read either one without choking up (reading them out loud is especially difficult). They feel like emotional truth bombs that would explode, that would be too much if they were not kept in such a small box. I always notice it especially in Bishop’s last line, because that is where she breaks out of the form and tells us that the formal frame of the poem is bursting, even with the typography “(Write it!)”

If we make art (words, music, images) to process the world and to help others (who read, hear, see that art) to process it, maybe that kind of small, tight box is necessary to process it when the world is especially emotional and painful: when there is death, breaking up, loss, nothingness to contemplate. I can’t really explain why that thought, and the form of the villanelle that exemplifies it so powerfully, is comforting to me. But I think it’s because I do believe in catharsis; art like this makes me go on an emotional journey from which I emerge feeling better, feeling reassured that when beauty emerges from pain and suffering, that is a good thing (for the artist, for us as readers, listeners, viewers) and not just some cheesy feel-good mechanism that prettifies and trivializes sad and evil things.

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Week 3 (March 30)

When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be

John Keats (1795-1821)

When I have fears that I may cease to be
   Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
   Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
   Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
   Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I don’t know whether I can explain why I love John Keats, another Romantic poet, like Wordsworth in the Week 1 post, as much as I do. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a Keats expert, but I love his language: sensual and evocative and with tons of allusions to Greek myth, sometimes to the point of being overwrought. I probably have a dozen favorites. This poem, a sonnet, is actually not at the top of the list, but it seems like the most powerful introduction to Keats at a time when we all think a lot about the fact that we could die–and that we could run out of time to make art, to get our ideas out into the world, and to be with the one(s) we love.

Those first lines, “When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain” always draws me in–because like everyone, I DO have those fears–who doesn’t fear death, and running out of time for everything we want to do in life?–but also because I know about Keats. All you need to do is look at his life dates. He was 25 when he died of tuberculosis, and because he was trained as a physician and there were no antibiotics then, he knew well ahead of time that he was doomed. He’d been writing and publishing poetry since he was 17, and his “teeming brain” did hold a lot of ideas he never got to express. I have seen his grave, in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and that was intense. His chosen epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I am very glad that Keats’s name and his writing didn’t just dissolve and disappear, just written in the water, but that his fame has lasted and he is still read. But of course what gets me is that I share his fear of just being forgotten, not having made a difference (because we all will be, eventually, since love and fame really DO sink to nothingness).

I wrote in the Week 2 post about the way that a formally tight poem (like a villanelle) can be a really good way to express difficult emotions in extremely condensed and therefore very intense form. This poem is a sonnet, so it also has a lot of formal rules (14 lines, a specific rhyme scheme, here abab cdcdc dede ff–the classic “Shakespearean sonnet,” and a fixed meter, the famous iambic pentameter of “To be | or not | to be, |that is | the quest | ion”). And again, I think it works to hold in overwhelming fears and, for a moment, makes them more manageable, although the last two lines (in the Shakespearean sonnet, the “punchline,” or the climax of the poem) just open up the abyss, as I imagine the speaker literally standing at the brink (“on the shore / of the wide world I stand alone”) and everything disappears as he is facing his fears of death and oblivion all alone. Wow.

I keep sneaking extra poems in and I think I need to do this again for Keats, but mostly just in terms of titles. (It’s easy to google more poems by title. My go-to for the texts is poetryfoundation.org.) He wrote my favorite poem about what it’s like to discover a new book and feel like you’ve discovered a new world, in his case actually an old translation of Homer’s Odyssey (“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”). He also wrote a fantastic poem that contemplates an ancient Greek vase that becomes a philosophical riff on beauty frozen in time (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”) and one on hearing a nightingale sing, where the nightingale becomes a stand-in for a poet’s voice (“Ode to a Nightingale”). He has some really sexy, super-sensual poems, including the seductive fairy tale “The Eve of St. Agnes.” But because I am really into poems that wrestle with feelings of overwhelming sadness, my very favorite is “Ode on Melancholy.” “Depression” is what we would call it; most people in the Romantic era called it “dejection,” but the old-fashioned term is “melancholy.”

So here is Keats on “melancholy.” It’s a hard poem and sometimes it turns readers off because there are many allusions and a complicated style and syntax. But here is a horrible reductive summary of each stanza that may get you curious how Keats manages to say something meaningful and poetic about it.
1. Don’t get drunk / doped up to keep depression muted or escape from it.
2. When the depression hits, embrace it; see things around you through it
and you will appreciate them more.
3. Depression, joy, and beauty go together: depression lives inside joy
and makes it all the more powerful.
I know that this is NOT GOOD PSYCHOLOGICAL ADVICE AT ALL but I still get it. It is not a “depressing” poem to me. It is about about facing rather than avoiding my sadness and my fears of death and loss, and to see that they can make what is beautiful all the more beautiful, and make me experience the world more intensely–the grape bursting against the palate, the morning rose, the green grass through a gray downpour. You get the picture. Keats conjures it up powerfully for me.

Ode on Melancholy

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
       Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
       By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
               Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
       Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
               Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
       For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
               And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
       Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
       And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
       Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
               Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
       Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
               And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
       Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
               Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
       Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
               And be among her cloudy trophies hung.