Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Wild Swans" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

What is it about the calling of migratory birds that stirs us?

In my part of the world, it is the sandhill cranes – their peculiar, triumphant croaking that marks winter’s approach, and a few months later, the return of spring.

I grew up reading and re-reading Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales: the stories that lived within me most were all tales pivoting around the winged migration: the gallant robin who returns to Thumbelina and at last bears her away to the warm and flowery land; the storks who clatter their beaks together in sunny Egypt telling the story of the northern Swamp King’s daughter; and the Wild Swans – the seven brothers who return to carry their sister out of danger, the faithful sister weaving capes of nettles with blistered hands and mute in her own defense to save her brothers from their step-mother’s curse.

Something mysterious is happening in the skies. Is it any wonder we paint angels with wings, rushing down out of the sky with a message from on high?

The mark of the birds’ flight across the sky – an ideogram in moving ink. Their cry – a message we barely know how to understand.

I know I will stand still when the cranes go over, watching and listening as long as I can keep them in range. As if there were some warning or news – something more surprising than just, Winter is coming.

The poem “Wild Swans” – like most of Millay’s – is sleek, straightforward, measured in meter and rhyme. Her style is too simple sometimes for our post-Eliot age that loves complexity and ambiguity, but in this poem the way the words skim over our minds is like the flight of those migrating swans – orderly, expected and beyond us. Millay tosses the rhyming up in the air – abbc cbac – enough order to set up expectation, enough surprise to unbalance. And while the entire poem is written in pentameter (five emphasized beats per line), the lines are of varying syllabic length: both stanzas begin with a longer line (like the ribbon of flight trailing above us) and each subsequent line falls short of that first flight. The penultimate line (“Wild swans, come over the town, come over”) is the shortest in syllables – it is the line that cries out our lack, our falling short, our yearning for the flight of the wild swans.

Wild Swans
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.

Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock the door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Denise Levertov: "Stepping Westward"

"Self Portrait" by Mabel Alvarez 

Stepping Westward
by Denise Levertov

What is green in me
darkens, muscadine.

If woman is inconstant,
good, I am faithful to

ebb and flow, I fall
in season and now

is a time of ripening.
If her part

is to be true,
a north star,

good, I hold steady
in the black sky

and vanish by day,
yet burn there

in blue or above
quilts of cloud.

There is not savor
more sweet, more salt

than to be glad to be
what, woman,

and who, myself,
I am, a shadow

that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out

on a thread of wonder.
If I bear burdens

they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket

of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me

in fragrance. I can
eat as I go.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"The Day is Done" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ah, Longfellow. Not only is his style eaily lampooned but even his name sets itself up for witticism:
You're a poet
And don't know it,
But your feet show it -
They're long fellows!
We no longer live in an age of public poetry. And our great public poets of the past are hard to hear now, when we hear them only murmured beneath our breath, into our own inner ears only. So much of poetry now is for private meditation, individual epiphany – a silent interchange between a reader and a written page from a writer with a written page. Even at poetry readings, I feel myself drawn inward, listening to the poet read their words from where they stand far away within their innermost self.

So it was strange recently to recite a public poem by Longfellow at my grandfather’s funeral and to feel the audience following – filling up the words, as if I were a voice for more than myself, their accompaniment filling the hall as much as my voice did.

I must confess I had never, even as a child, really considered “The Day is Done” true poetry. I’d memorized it at my schoolteacher grandpa’s prompting – to please him. But “Paul Revere’s Ride” (also by Longfellow, which we memorized together afterward) was much more dramatic: “Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere . . .”; and even had occasional chanted passages that gave me that shudder of weirdness that was for me the marker of a true poem:

A phantom ship with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar
And a huge black hulk that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide
But even with such passages I was sure within myself – despite older people’s opinion to the contrary – that Longfellow just was not a poet in the same way that Emily Dickinson was – whose poem after poem shook me and made me feel strange, as if suddenly awoken.

And it’s true Longfellow is not a poet in the same way. But I wonder now if I haven’t (if we haven’t) been too hasty in writing Longfellow off . Or is it just that I feel such affection for his poem now – it having kept me company through the death of my grandfather and what comes after. The words and rhythms I had thought manufactured and dry seemed in my sorrow to be reassuringly restrained and orderly. The rhyming lines rolling everlastingly on comforted me – that the rhythms around me – sun and wind and rain – would roll on as irresistibly. “The day is done” became for me not a clich├ęd phrase, but a measured acknowledgement of death. The lights of the village, the rain and the mist and the quiet, non-dramatizing sadness (“that is not akin to pain,/ And resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles rain”) matched exactly with my inner landscape – and apparently with the landscape within many of the congregants who attended the funeral. I saw them nodding, tears welling up in their eyes. Because these old-fashioned words were familiar from childhood? Because we all were a little weary of “life’s endless toil and endeavor/ And tonight I long for rest”? What have we lost by laying aside a culture where public recitation of good words, capable of holding the burden of many hearts, happens only at old schoolteachers' funerals? Where we cannot (do not) ask those who live alongside us to

. . . read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

Where we no longer know the chants of healing - those songs with “the power to quiet/ The restless pulse of care,” remembered words that “come like the benediction / That follows after prayer.”

The Day is Done
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is done and the darkness
Falls from the wings of night
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sorrow comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist.

A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple, heartfelt lay
That will soothe this restless feeling
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime
Whose distant footsteps echo
Along the corridors of time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor
And tonight I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet
Whose song gushed from his heart
Like rain from the clouds of summer
Or tears from the eyelids start,

Who, through long days of labor
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have the power to quiet
The restless pulse of care
And come like a benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night will be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Will fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.
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