Entries tagged with “elegy” from this Public Address 1.0

Because I could not stop


I suppose I've spent so much time dwelling on elegy because it's a form of poetry written to someone who isn't there. That's a situation I'm feeling increasingly comfortable with. I write most of the things I write here to someone who isn't there. I know there are people out there that read this, but they're odd bits of broken image to me, a piece here, a piece there, and only fragments of connection. People are complicated; I suspect it's largely because we ride the same horse that there is a connection at all. Is there something to be said, something that's been learned, something that we all should know? Perhaps in the end it's just to say that we should remember to talk and listen to each other, because the ride doesn't go on for long.

I love the way that Ginsberg turns the corner into the narrative part of his "Kaddish" near the end of the proem:

Now I've got to cut through— to talk to you— as I didn't when you had a mouth.
Forever. And we're bound for that, Forever — like Emily Dickinson's horses
—headed to the End.
They know the way— These Steeds— run faster than we think— it's our own
life they cross— and take with them.
Sometimes poetry seems like and endless hall of mirrors, where you have to know your way around before things start to make sense. There was a time I knew Patti Smith's Horses far better than Dickinson's. It wasn't that long ago. And still, they don't seem that far apart. I suppose part of me still prefers Patti Smith's Horses, because they rock in the most sexual of ways. But they're headed the same place as Dickinson's:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 't is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Death & Horses & Loss— boy, I'm in such a damn cheerful mood today. I hope the coach pulls out of the graveyard soon! Some kinds of death are better than others.

In the sheets
there was a man
dancing around
to the simple
Rock & roll


Beating off with the beats...

Psalm IV

Now I’ll record my secret vision, impossible sight at the face of God.
It was no dream, I lay broad waking on a fabulous couch in Harlem
having masturbated for no love, and read half naked an open book of Blake on my lap
Lo & behold! I was thoughtless and turned a page and gazed on the living Sun-flower
and heard a voice, it was Blake’s, reciting in earthly measure:
the voice rose out of the page to my secret ear never heard before—
I lifted my eyes to the window, red walls of buildings flashed outside, endless sky sad in Eternity
sunlight gazing on the world, apartments of Harlem standing in the universe—
each brick and cornice stained with intelligence like a vast living face—
the great brain unfolding and brooding in the wilderness!—Now speaking aloud with Blake’s voice—
Love! thou patient presence and bone of the body! Father! thy careful watching and waiting over my soul!
My son! My son! the endless ages have remembered me! My son! My son! Time howled anguish in my ear!
My son! My son! my father wept and held me in his dead arms.

Alan Ginsberg, 1960.

The essential nature of a sunflower is that it always turns toward the light. I’m not too familiar with Ginsberg, but in an odd coincidence I had just purchased his Collected Poems: 1947-1980 a few days before In a Dark Time started to take him on. I bought it mostly for “Kaddish,” which was recommended to me by someone I trust as a tour de force in elegy, a favorite genre of mine. Blake never wrote any elegies. He was constantly looking toward the sun. Blake’s sunflower is a complex thing, weary and yet patient.


Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travelers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

William Blake, Songs of Experience, 1794.

I suppose that like Loren, I find much of Ginsberg’s verse to be simplistic and cartoonish, particularly when compared with his self-proclaimed spiritual father, Blake. To compare them isn’t very fair, but it is inevitable. Ginsberg was certainly a child at Blake’s feet, but he knew that.

For a look at a black and white version of the plate which this poem appears on, click here. If you click the symbol in the upper left, they have a variety of audio versions available, including Ginsberg singing it.

Oh, and for the record: Blake was against masturbation. He thought that religion caused it:

In the secret shadows of her chamber, the youth shut up from
The lustful joy, shall forget to generate. & create an amorous image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow.
Are not these the places of religion? the rewards of continence?
The self enjoyings of self denial? Why dost thou seek religion?
Is it because acts are not lovely, that thou seekest solitude,
Where the horrible darkness is impressed with reflections of desire.

Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 7:5-11

He thought everyone should just have sex instead, because sex is a beautiful thing.


Up before dawn

I never get up this early, but I did today. The first thing I read bothered me, and the second even more. Thomas Wright’s What’s for afters? is typical of the sort of ill-informed comments often tossed about regarding Blake:

My personal favourite is the Swedenborg-inspired heaven of William Blake. Only those capable of appreciating beauty are allowed into this dome of pleasure, Puritans and ascetics being unworthy of its splendours and the marvellous conversation of the angels.
Utter rubbish. Blake saw the afterlife as “going from one room into another,” and the gates of paradise as open to anyone who could forgive. Heaven was filled with argument, “mental fight” where people continued with the same force of will to impress themselves upon others. Blake didn’t suffer fools lightly, and some of his conjectures are quite humorous. It’s possible to be a learned fool, as he so amply expressed in his Descriptive Catalogue:
The Learned, who strive to ascend into Heaven by means of learning, appear to Children like dead horses, when repelled by the celestial spheres. The works of this visionary are well worthy the attention of Painters and Poets; they are foundations for grand things; the reason they have not been more attended to, is, because corporeal demons have gained a predominance; who the leaders of these are, will be shewn below. Unworthy Men who gain fame among Men, continue to govern mankind after death, and in their spiritual bodies, oppose the spirits of those, who worthily are famous; and as Swedenborg observes, by entering into disease and excrement, drunkenness and concupiscence, they possess themselves of the bodies of mortal men, and shut the doors of mind and of thought, by placing Learning above Inspiration, O Artist! you may disbelieve all this, but it shall be at your own peril.
One of Blake’s greatest heroes, Milton, was a Puritan. The young Blake railed against asceticism, but the old Blake railed against learning without inspiration. Dome of pleasure? That was Shelley's vision of heaven for Adonais, his elegy for Keats. It has nothing to do with Blake. Blake saw life in Heaven as struggle, just as life on earth is, though we do gain freedom from corporeal war there.

In Blake’s day, as in our own, “unworthy men” rule by shutting off the minds of humanity through hollow rhetoric; it isn’t learning that is the answer, but belief. Belief that there are great things, visionary spirits who have left a legacy worthy of study, belief in grand things. Heaven exists primarily through the active process of creating it each day. It isn’t a club that only a few can join, and I resent the implication that “only those who appreciate beauty” are allowed. Blake never said anything even remotely resembling that. Even of one of his worst detractors, Dr. Trusler, Blake offered a sarcastic apology: “I am terribly sorry you have fallen out with the spiritual world...”

It’s all about the inspiration, breathing in the world and expelling it tainted with our own feelings and thoughts. It becomes a thick space, when all the complexities of life draw in, as he said in his Public Address

Resentment for Personal Injuries has had some share in this Public Address But Love to My Art & Zeal for my Country a much Greater.
I would adopt his disclaimer for my own version of this Public Address.

Love and Death

Love and Death

Sometimes it seems like love and death are the only subjects really worth writing about. This binary quickly becomes unary when you think about it, though. I was walking to class yesterday evening when I approached a girl I know from an intro survey literature course. She was walking down the green path, just scanning the skies with a deep smile. She stopped and said:

You know what I was just thinking?

How could anyone think of suicide on a day like today!
I just stall midstream when I try to think about death. The master narratives of glorious death just don’t do it for me, though the transformation of death into sleep through elegy is interesting, largely because these poems become love poems to life. Most of the time, I feel like Woody Allen’s idiot questioner in Love and Death:
What happens when we die? Are there girls?
I prefer this line of questioning more than the militant struggle of survival, epitomized by the answer to the old joke “Why did the chicken cross the road,” in the Hemmingway style: “To die. In the rain.” I like Yeats’s take on the topic in a poem called “Politics.”
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and wars alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

We understand so little about love, and why it drives us so. I was teaching a short bit on sexist language today, and while I hate the PC tongue-twisting, the avoidance of generic objectifying is relatively easy. When you speak of everyone, you cannot say man alone. But all the same, if we speak in character, we do objectify those that are different from us. Objectifying, dividing things that are different from us into the “not us” is a fundamental building block of language. I speak of love only with the terms that I know. Being heterosexual I can only speak of women as different from me, and a binary that love seeks to unify.

But what triggered all this, more than anything else, was a song from the Pontiac Brothers called “Almost Human.”

Well she’s almost human when she steps up to you,
And gives you a kiss, from the lips that never miss,
Well she’s almost, she’s almost human.
I suspect that love is the only thing that allows us to tolerate one another. I was struck by the description of the discovery of the Pontiac Brothers by the guy who constructed the site I linked:

I came across The Pontiacs in an appropriately unassuming fashion. I dug up Doll Hut out of the incoming bin of a local used record store. I remembered seeing a Frontier Records ad for it calling it "Stones"-like, so I figured it would at least be a style of music I liked. I got Tom Waits' Closing Time the same day. I had just had a death in the family, just split with a girl.

Love and death and the Pontiac Brothers and Tom Waits. Go figure. But then, I started to think about how many rock lyrics get a bad rap for being sexist, among them Neil Young’s A Man Needs a Maid. I just can’t read it that way, no matter how I try. It seems to me that its one of those inner voice things, and his musings about needing “just someone to keep my house clean / fix my meals and go away” is part of that same frustration in the Pontiac Brothers’ song. A frustration that we just don’t know why we need lovers so much, and yet we do. I think Liz Phair’s “Canary” really expresses the other side of being loved as an object through so many layers of sexual metaphor that it makes my head spin. I still haven’t been able to remove that damn CD from my player...

I learn my name
I write with a number two pencil
I work up to my potential
I earn my meat
I come when called
I jump when you circle the cherry
I sing like a good canary
I come when called
I come, that's all

Send it up on fire
Death before dawn
Send it up on fire
Death before dawn

I clean the house
I put all your books in an order
I make up a colorful border
I clean my mouth
'Cause froth comes out

Send it up on fire
Death before dawn
Send it up on fire
Death before dawn

Love and death, that’s the stuff... Or maybe just love. I’ve been collecting definitions of rhetoric, and I found another one I like from Jim W. Corder:

Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures in communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear commodious language.

To be told we objectify something is the deepest insult to love. Sexist language does violence, on both sides. But if a room is truly commodious, isn’t there room to say what we really feel?

Echo and Narcissus


Sometimes things get stuck in my head. I spent months thinking about Percy Bysshe Shelley's Mont Blanc, particularly these lines: "Thy caverns echoing to the Arve's commotion, / A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame" (30-31). I was firmly convinced that the sound was one of mourning, because of the similarity of scene depicted in the surrounding lines with images from Thomas Gray, and Milton before him. My point of origin at that time was Milton's Lycidas. Tonight, I traced it even further back, and the connection and reason for its resonance with me (why on earth would I obsesses over such a thing?) became clear.

Here's the deal. Lycidas is a pastoral elegy [shepherds and sheep as a metaphoric device, poem to help console after death, elegy is not eulogy, for the non-English majors] written for a friend that Milton probably didn't even like all that much. The first real image of sadness is:

Now thou art gon, and never must return!
Thee shepherd, thee the woods, and desert Caves,
With wilde Thyme and the gadding Vine o'regrown,
With all their echoes mourn.
What got to me was that this same cluster of caves, woods, and sound produced a certain dark downturn in Shelley's poem— so that's why I connected it with Milton's elegy.

Now, I think that Milton may have meant the image, powerful as it is, almost tongue in cheek. There is strong reason to suspect that he stole the scene from Ovid. He even used it three years before in Comus. It comes from the story of Echo and Narcissus, a story that I didn't know until tonight.

Echo and Narcissus by Poussin

You see, Echo used to like to talk. When she heard the words of others, she could not keep silent, yet she could not be the first to speak. As most everyone knows, the gods liked to fool around a lot. Juno was worried that Echo would tell on him, so he cursed her to only repeat the concluding sounds of what someone else had said. Of course, there was this really handsome dude by the name of Narcissus who she decided she had a thing for. What transpired is nicely translated by Alan Mandelbaum:

            One day, by chance, the boy—
now separated from his faithful friends—
cried out: "Is anybody nearby?" "Nearby,"
was Echo's answering cry. And stupified,
he looks around and shouts:"Come! Come!" — and she
calls out, "Come! Come!" to him who called. Then he
turns round and, seeing no one, calls again:
"Why do you flee from me?" And the reply
repeats the final sounds of his outcry.
The answer snares him; he persists, calls out:
"Let's meet." And with the happiest reply
that was ever to leave her lips, she cries:
"Let's meet."; then, seconding her words, she rushed
out of the woods, that she might fling her arms
around the neck she longed to clasp. But he
retreats and, fleeing shouts: "Do not touch me!
Don't cling to me! I'd sooner die than say
I'm yours!" and Echo answered him: "I'm yours."
So, scorned and spurned, she hides within the woods;
there she, among the trees, conceals her face,
her shame; since then she lives in lonely caves.
But, though repulsed, her love persists; it grows
on grief. She cannot sleep; she wastes away.
The sap has fled her wrinkled wretched flesh.

Her voice and bones are all that's left; and then
her voice alone: her bones, they say, were turned
to stone. So she is hidden in the woods
and never can be seen on mountain slopes,
though everywhere she can be heard; the power
of sound still lives in her.
Most people know the rest of the story; Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and all that. From a modern standpoint, at least, the mourning of Echo would be just a bit undeserved, now wouldn't it? That's the irony of the image. I never realized this before.

Man, I love this stuff. Sorry if it doesn't qualify as most people's idea of blogging, but this was a big revelation to me and I just had to spit it out. If I talked a bit more about myself, you'd see a strong connection between what happened to Echo and what happened to me not long ago. But I've quit wasting away, in fact if anything I'm a bit swollen. But that persistent feeling that if I shut up, there won't be anything left of me just won't go away. So, I continue to talk too much. Even if I don't have much of anything new to say.