March 31, 2017
A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou
On this day in 1809 Edward FitzGerald the author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Fittingly for my blog post, the celebrated author of one of the most famous poems about Spring was born in Spring. So here we go, folks. Happy Spring.
FitzGerald claimed his version (actually he wrote three distinctly different versions) of the Persian poem by Omar Khayyám was a translation of the poem from the original language. Well, let’s just say, kindly perhaps, that his translation bears as much relation to the original Persian as, say an Amazon.com suggestion that, hey, if you liked this Persian poem then maybe you will like this other thingy by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. Nevertheless, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a Victorian bestseller and since 1859 has been issued in nearly a thousand editions. I haven’t seen a copy in the last few years, but at one time you could count on nearly every Hallmark store and other stores selling inexpensive gift books to have on hand an illustrated copy of the Rubáiyát.
What makes the poem interesting for readers of Great Literature is the way the melancholy “eat, drink, and be happy” theme runs so counter to the usual popular literary fare of its time. Many readers read the poem as a celebration of life right now, while others read the poem as a celebration of wanton hedonism, specifically in its celebration of living life for the sake of drinking all the wine you can.
Here are some lines from the beginning of the 30-40-page poem. I conclude with its most famous lines.
Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
“Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted–“Open then the Door!
“You know how little while we have to stay,
“And, once departed, may return no more.”
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.
. . . .
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.
Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
. . . .
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
March 29, 2017
Continuing where I left off in my ongoing series on Jane Hirshfield’s early work, let’s continue to look at The Lives of the Heart, published in 1997. If you are just now clicking into this series just scroll down to the previous posts or click on Jane Hirshfield under Categories for the entire series at one time.
Obviously from the title these poems celebrate the heart, the center of human nature that keeps us at the core of our existence. Hirshfield explained to Katie Bolick of The Atlantic, “that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. . . .At some point I realized that you don’t get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.” For example, in “Secretive Heart” we find at its center life, the heart, is about the most mundane of material objects-such as an old Chinese cauldron “still good for boiling water,” but evidently not for much else.
It is one of a dozen or more,
it is merely iron,
it is merely old,
there is much else to see.
The few raised marks
on its belly
are useful to almost no one.
Heart looks at it a long time.
What do you see? I ask again,
but it does not answer.
My next installment in this series will be April 5. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner
March 28, 2017
In her 1997 collection of poetry Hirshfield develops fully a new imagery of the lion and of the heart. Lions appear with mythic power in such poems as “Knowing Nothing,” “Spell to be said Upon Waking,” “Lion and Angel Dividing the Maple between Them,” and “Each happiness Ringed by Lions.”
In an interview by Katherine Mills, Hirshfield explains her idea with the lions: “the lion is fierceness and beauty; undeniable presence; danger; power; passionate love; transformation. Perhaps, for me. . .lions are the earthly answer to Buddhism.” Thus, in “Knowing Nothing”:
The lion has stalked
the village for a long time.
It does not want the goat,
who stands thin and bleating,
tied to its bit of wood.
The goat is not the reason.
The reason is the lion,
whose one desire is to enter-
Not the goat, which is
only the lure. . .
but the one burning life
it has hunted for a long time
disguised as hunger. Disguised as love.
Which is not the reason.
Here the paradox of the lion’s ferocity and its longing to assert itself—of its love—keep us searching but not finding the reason of life experience: “Love is not the reason./Love is the lure.”
My next installment in this series will be March 29. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner
March 27, 2017
A Ten-year Old Learns the Simplicity of the Nuclear Age: Julia Alvarez’s “Snow”
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and National Medal of the Arts honoree for 2014, was born in New York City, but spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic.
Her essay, “Snow” looks back at the time when she returned with her family to New York in 1960. Alvarez wrote the essay at the request of an editor of the Northwest Review for a special issue on The Nuclear Age.
How does one write a personal essay on a looming potential nuclear holocaust? What personal experience is there to call upon? Instead of writing an essay full of dire warnings and helpless end-of-the-world despair, Alvarez looks over her assigned topic through the eyes of a child.
By Julia Alvarez
In the summer of 1960 my family emigrated to the United States, fleeing the tyrant Trujillo. In New York we found a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look like peculiar dolls in mourning. I liked them a lot, especially my grandmotherly fifth grade teacher, Sister Zoe.
As the only immigrant in my class, I was put in a special seat in the first row by the window, apart from the other children, so that Sister Zoe could tutor me without disturbing them. Slowly she enunciated the new words I was to repeat: laundromat, corn flakes, subway, snow.
Soon I picked up enough English to understand holocaust was in the air. Sister Zoe explained to a wide-eyed classroom what was happening in Cuba. Russian missiles were being assembled, trained supposedly on New York City. Kennedy, looking worried too, was on the television at home, explaining we might have to co to war.
At school, we had air raid drills. An ominous bell would go off and we’d file into the hall, fall to the floor, cover our heads with our coats, and imagine our hair falling out, the bones in our arms going soft. At home, Mother and I said a rosary every night for world peace. I heard new vocabulary: nuclear bomb, radioactive, Third World War. Sister Zoe explained how it would happen. She drew a picture of a mushroom on the blackboard and dotted a flurry of chalk marks for the dusty fallout that would kill us all.
The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I stepped outside. One morning as I sat daydreaming out the window I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn—random at first, and then lots and lots. I shrieked, “The bomb, the bomb!”
Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. A few girls began to cry.
But suddenly, Sister’s shocked look faded. “Why, dear child, that’s snow!”
“Snow,” I repeated. I looked out the window warily. All my life I had heard about the white crystals that fell out of American skies in the winter. From my desk I watched the fine powder dust the sidewalk and parked cars below. Each flake was different, Sister Zoe had said, like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful. Northwest Review, 22. 1,2 (1984).
Follow The Literary Life blog. Paul Varner
March 17, 2017
In October Palace, published in 1994, we finally see a fully mature poet, no longer a developing talent. Hirshfield now moves beyond the formulas of writers’ workshop poems and finds the unique voice and range of experiences that has continually brought her the prizes and grants necessary for a sustainable poetic career.
Perhaps the overall theme of October Palace is that every moment of one’s life possesses its own meaning. This theme can be seen, perhaps most obviously, in “Percolation.” The speaker is in the midst of wasting a day confined inside because of the rain. But as she meditates upon her confinement, and as she becomes aware of a frog croaking “a tuneless anthem,” she develops serenity from the conviction that: “Surely all Being at bottom is happy:/ soaked to the bone, sopped at the root. . . .” And she discovers that life-giving peace must be wrung out of all experience,
yielding as coffee grounds
yield to their percolation, blushing, completely seduced, assenting as they give in to the downrushing water,
the murmur of falling. . . .
In many of her poems Hirshfield enjoys relating narratives from various folk and historical legends. For example, in “A Plenitude,”one of my favorites, Hirshfield considers the nature of fullness, completeness—plenitude-by relating a common story from Renaissance art:
But there is the story, too,
of a young painter meeting the envoy of a Pope.
Asked for a work by which his art
could be weighed against others’, he dipped his stylus—
with great courtesy, according to Vasari—
in red ink, and drew a single, perfect O.
My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner
March 16, 2017
One of the more memorable poems from Of Gravity & Angels is “Dialogue” which begins: “A friend says,/’I’m always practicing to be an old woman.’” Another friend considers herself differently: “’I see myself young, maybe fourteen.’” The speaker, however, identifies with neither friend:
But when I lean to that mirror
a blackbird wing rises,
dark, flashing red at the shoulder,
and no woman is there
to pin flowers over the
place where her left breast falls.
Another often read poem is “The Song”:
The tree, cut down this morning,
is already chainsawed and quartered. . .
Not an instant too early, its girl slipped away.
She is singing now, a small figure
glimpsed in the surface of the pond.
All material nature has its own spirit. Here the spirit leaves the tree but never completely. In the same way as the tree will grieve its lost spirit, “the wood, if taken too quickly, will sing/ a little in the stove, still remembering her.”
My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner
March 15, 2017
As I said in an earlier post in this series, most of what I am posting comes from some papers I wrote and published many years ago. As I re-read Hirshfield today I probably would have different and more updated ideas about her work. And nearly everything I am including in this series does not have the hindsight that might would come after keeping up with Hirshfield’s later work. Especially, I would probably have a different perspective since her 2015 important Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, which is her most mature statement of her philosophy of poetry. Nevertheless, Of Gravity & Angels remains one of my favorite books of contemporary poetry.
Jane Hirshfield’s second book of poetry, published in 1988 continues to demonstrate he mastery of language yet nearly half of the poems in this volume include the pronoun “I.” For most of the poems, the self remains integral to the text.
At her public readings and in her interviews, the poet frequently talks of her love for horses and her use of horses in her poems. In “After Work,” we see a typical Hirshfield horse poem. The poem takes a straightforward description of an habitual moment in her life, the after work feeding of the horses, and transforms the experience into meaning:
I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness. . .
The horses come and eagerly devour corncobs brought by the speaker. But, despite the personal nature of this ordinary experience, Hirshfield objectifies it. The horses don’t “just” come. They come “conjured out of sleep”; they come with “each small noise and scent/heavy with earth, simple beyond communion.”
My next installment in this series will be March 16. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner
March 13, 2017
Jane Hirshfield’s first book of poetry was part of the Quarterly Review of Literature’s poetry series of 1982. “Alaya” on the one hand means “home” but also is, Hirshfield has said, “a Buddhist term meaning ‘the consciousness which is the storehouse of experience,’ of memory. . . .the place where seed-grain is kept.”
“The Gift” from Alaya points in the direction of Hirshfield’s tendency in her later work to objectify all reality, even the personal:
From how many hands
your body comes to me,
and to how many will I pass it on. . . .
Here “your body” comes, not “you come to me,” and the speaker will pass “it,” the body, on, instead of passing on such things as his memory, his influence, or even his love. The poem is remarkable for its early mature handling of imagery and phrasing. The person addressed, for example, exaggerates “nothing” and leans “into the wind” and is “lost/but like a flock of geese.” But, of course, flocks of geese don’t really get lost. The poem ends as many of Hirshfield’s poems do, and as many poems written in writing workshops often do, with a significant metaphor to draw meaning from the experience of this poem:
lift the lid of the box:
there is nothing inside.
I give this to you, love. . . .
The movement of the poem, then, would ordinarily be seen as a movement from the physical, the body, to the immaterial, the soul, but a Hirshfield poem, perhaps because of the poet’s Zen beliefs, will not distinguish between physical and immaterial. The soul and body are indistinguishable. Despite the objective displacement of the self in “The Gift,” however, much of Hirshfield’s early poetry maintains a personal point of view both in Alaya and in her next book. Nevertheless, “The Gift” has become one of Hirshfield’s most anthologized poems and one often posted on social media.
My next installment in this series will be March 15. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner
March 10, 2017
On this date in 1772 Friedrich von Schlegel was born in Hanover. He died in 1829. Here are a few notes I made in writing my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature.
Friedrich von Schlegel, the younger brother of August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and one of the early Jena Romantics, was a leading German Romantic theorist whose ideas were popularized by his brother. He published frequently in the Athenaeum Magazine. His writings on Greek, Indic, and modern literature established a mode of thinking for his contemporaries and successors. Schlegel was notable for his studies of the history of literature, particularly Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, published in 1818. His method was to contrast classical and romantic literature and expound his theory of what he termed “romantic irony,” or the consciousness on the part of the artist of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal artistic goal and the limited possibilities of achievement.
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March 9, 2017
Jane Hirshfield became a distinct voice in poetry at the turn of the century through her sensitive observation of the significance of ordinary details of daily life. Unlike most poets of the western tradition, Hirshfield tends to be non-human centered in her poetry. In other words, her poetry usually does not deal with human relationships, character, or direct human interaction of various kinds. Instead, her poetry objectifies the material of our existence and relates matter to the individual or abstracted human nature. A typical poem of Hirshfield’s mature work, for example, will note an utterly mundane object such as a grouping of broken seashells, the concept of rooms, crickets, cucumbers, the nature of leather, and then proceed to relate it all to the human soul. Her poetry, in short, resembles impressionist still lifes.
While her work as translator and editor of women’s poetry indicates Hirshfield’s strong feminist nature, little of her poetry is political in the usual sense of direct comment on specific issues, but all of her work is political in the sense of integrating the stirrings of the heart, one of her favorite images, with the political realities that surround us all.
No doubt the source for these characteristics of her poetry and for her very concept of what poetry is, “The magnification of being,” derives from her strong Zen Buddhist training. Her emphasis on “compassion, on the preexistent unity of subject and object, on nature, on the self-sufficient suchness of being, and on the daunting challenge of accepting transitoriness,” Peter Harris notes, are central themes in her poetry derived from Buddhism. Hirshfield does not, however, burden her poetry with heavy, overt Zen attitudes. Only occasionally is there direct reference to Buddhism.
Hirshfield considers herself an eclectic poet not tied to any one tradition. Her earliest influences developed from English sonnets and Latin lyrical verse, but early on she developed an interest in Japanese poetry, first through haiku, and later in Aztec, Eskimo, and court poetry of ancient India. She has mentioned her chief American influences as coming from Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Galway Kinnell, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Syder, and Robert Hass.
My next installment in this series will be March 13. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner