Category: Poetry

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A stylized photograph of a woman standing in a fork in the road, reminiscent of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

Only Two Roads? On Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” hearkens back to a simpler time when someone may have faced only two choices at any one time in his life. The narrator is presented with two roads and must choose only one if he is going to continue his walk. It is a simple fork in the road. The walker is not facing multiple choices; only two. Written in 1915, a contemporary reader may think: how quaint, two roads. In today’s world choices seem to be multi-dimensional. The question arises, does the poem have any relevance today?

In a world almost governed by social media we get the notion that choices are nearly infinite and fleeting. Many of our lives are filled with fast change where nothing is permanent and choices are not set in stone. There is a feeling of chaos on some level with some people clinging to science and others dependent on emotions. You hear the comment, we have too many choices.

Was there really a time when people had fewer choices, maybe only two? Robert Frost’s poem seems to indicate maybe so. Has the technology outburst created a world out of control? Do we regret this and yearn to go back? Well, we can’t go back. Like the walker, we are pushed to move forward. […]

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Stylized photos of Ruben Dario and W.B. Yeats, who wrote versions of the Leda and the swan myth.

Leda And The Swan: Rubén Darío vs. W.B. Yeats

Poetry is as much about the choice of one’s perspectives as it is about more technical matters like diction, rhythm, music, rhyme – meter, too, if one cares to deploy such archaisms. Sometimes, the difference between a so-so poem and a good one is vantage point. No, not the physical location of the speaker (although this could be at play), but the abstract place from which a poet directs the flow of image and idea to the reader. For example, if one wanted to write a poem about Hannibal crossing his army over the Alps, one could take a simple scoped-out view of the ordeal and wax lyrical about its militaristic importance, but this is one step removed from the contents of any old history textbook. It’s also possible (and possibly more fruitful) to, say, write from the perspective of a weary, homesick infantryman, or one of the elephants, even, or just refer to the moment obliquely from an altogether separate occasion/mindset; anything, really, that does not operate from what immediately comes to mind and is thus most obviously interpreted.

This is all very vague and general, of course; so, to see this in clearer action, let us compare two poems on the same subject matter: the myth of Leda, the Greek princess raped or seduced by a swan-manifested Zeus. The most well-known poems on the topic are W.B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and “Leda” by the Nicaraguan Modernist Rubén Darío, the latter of which I’ll tackle first. […]

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A stylized screenshot of Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith, in the film "Stevie" (1978)

Poetry’s Recitation, Reflection: Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith (“Stevie”, 1978) 

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) prided herself on her individuality. An iconoclast born Florence Margaret Smith, she lived her life in England and died of a brain tumor at age 69. She worked a publishing office job for 30 years until her poetic achievement allowed her early retirement. She never had kids nor did she marry. In fact, she shares similarities to both Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson in that all three women have an oddness (or is it fondness) about them. Stevie Smith’s verse is unique in that she uses a nursery rhyme approach whilst addressing sad or ‘dark’ themes, often with biting humor. It was rumored that she was a combination of high wit with a dash of the naïve. But then again, aren’t we writers all a bit of this?

Stevie (1978) stars Glenda Jackson as the lead and what a lead she is. Whilst this isn’t a One Woman Show, the film focuses much on the poet’s daily life, her relationship with her affectionate aunt (Mona Washbourne), her views on life, art and poetry. ‘Not a literary person,’ Smith says, with regard to her aunt. The two laugh it up over sherry and sometimes gin. At one moment, Stevie Smith rejects a marriage proposal from a male suitor, claiming that she is better as a friend. ‘I need to be away,’ she says. ‘But I always come back.’ […]

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Stylized portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh.

Low to the Ground: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

It’s not often that one encounters a novel constructed in verse. Of course, there have been many written over centuries, but they have also been labeled epic. They are often long, arduous and the protagonist undergoes numerous adventures, fights, defeats, and battles. Homer comes to mind. Virgil. The Epic of Gilgamesh. These verses are important works written by men. So, who is this Elizabeth Barrett Browning to attempt her own version of it? Are there any battles in Aurora Leigh? Not unless one considers her battle of self. Any great adventures? Not unless one thinks this when to traveling to London, Paris, or Florence. Any lands get overtaken? No. Are there any serfs in need of social justice at least? Alas, no. (Tolstoy is crying behind his ivory tower.) So, what is this novel in verse about exactly? Well, a young woman in search of finding her creative talent, a young woman feeling out of place, a passionate, emotional individual in search of someone to love. What is more important—to create or to love? Is there a place that occupies both? This is Aurora Leigh.

Already one can see how her novel/poem (I will from here on out refer to Aurora Leigh as a poem) was not taken seriously. Sure, there are some nice turns of phrases, but women don’t have the intellect or creativity to reach the highs men can. So, this is just a nice little poem she wrote as a distraction whilst cooking for Bobby and in no way does she rank alongside her more respected husband. Should you choose to quote me reader, I ask that you do not take what I just wrote out of context. Women have much to fight against. It’s not easy to feel second rate, or to not be taken seriously simply because of one’s gender. Partially the bias is due to her choice of subject matter (easily labeled ‘women’s topics’ in its time) but let’s be honest—had she written an epic in the more classic sense, that is, more in line with Homer, she would have been ridiculed. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh

This Verse In Fire Forever: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

Coming only a year after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it might be tempting to think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s over 10,000-lines-long novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh (1856) as a dated artifact at its very incipience. Yes, it is true that Whitman’s book (published in many different versions, one could argue that the work is one long text, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems) broke open the way for poetic modernity at its fullest and was utterly unlike anything else of its time. Browning’s poem-novel appears archaic, by comparison; almost a product of the preceding century. The same goes, somewhat, for its concerns: considered by many to be a foundational feminist text, and chock-full of progressive ideas (some of which are counter-balanced or ridiculed, to be sure) about womanhood and society-at-large, they seem positively timid beside Whitman’s radical and bawdy openness. Eros, logos, and pathos merged in one barbaric yawp, drowning out the almost courtly deliberations in Aurora Leigh. And forget Whitman: in many scholarly circles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has yet to escape her husband’s shadow, in terms of literary achievement.

So, where, exactly, should Aurora Leigh reside in the vaunted Western Canon? After all, the late Harold Bloom hyperventilates over Robert Browning’s merely solid “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” but barely deigns to touch the work of his equally celebrated wife. But is this really the proper way to go about critical analysis? Sure, the temptation to knock Mrs. Browning down a few pegs for even daring to challenge her male “betters” persists – but is this temptation even worthy of serious consideration? […]

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A stylized photo of Dylan Thomas, author of Fern Hill and Dawn Raid

Analysis: “Fern Hill”, “Dawn Raid” by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas might not be a great poet, but he’s a good one, and definitely one of the most famous. He is also a very compelling orator of poetry, as he possessed a marvelous talent for emotive delivery. Before he withered from addiction, he was famed for his speaking tours during which he recited his own poems and those of others – many of which can be found online today. They are wonderful recordings and I encourage the reader to check them out, for they (in addition to being pleasurable listens) clue one into the sort of poet he was/is, and how that particular style reaps certain benefits and downfalls.

Thomas had a number of good/excellent poems, although the one that immediately comes to mind likely isn’t one of them (rage against it all you want, fanboys/girls). I’d argue some of his best are: “Among Those Killed In The Dawn Raid Was A Man Aged A Hundred…”, “The Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” “Deaths & Entrances,” “Love In The Asylum,” and perhaps a few others. His longer poems aren’t terrible, either – just way too long.

Take, for example, “Fern Hill.” It’s another good Thomas poem, and is, along with “Dawn Raid”, one of my favorites, but the prolixity drags its potential down. This is one of the previously mentioned downfalls of his verbose, nigh-bardic style, as it tends to be self-indulgent, and repetitive simply for the sake of rhythm and music. It makes for an entertaining recitation, but on the page? And yet, this is something which must be considered in any analysis of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. […]

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A Chinese painting of dragons, inspired by the Tao Te Ching

Through the Western Gate: Le Guin, Francoise Sagan, and the Tao Te Ching

Translating a written work from one language to another is a tricky business or a tricky art or a Sisyphean task with a boulder weighing more than the universe. Translating is not transliteration, which is simple, if awkward – even ugly – word-for-word replacement. Almost anyone with a 20-pound dictionary and lots of patience can do it – you take a word or two in, say, Russian, then look them up, hope you don’t have to spend the weekend digging through verb conjugations, then put those down in, say, English. And you do this until you are finished. And when you are finished, what do you have? A polished, faithful transmission of the thought, the ambience, the idea of the original? No. You have a clunky, misshapen, machine translation-like rendition of something – God knows what.

In his translation of Francoise Sagan’s La Chamade, Douglas Hofstadter states the case for a certain leeway in the transmission of a novel in French to one in English, at least for HIS translation style. His favorite analogy seems to be a musical one, wherein he recounts how one piece of music which is performed in many different ways by different artists. The music is written, solid, there for all to see, but when some particular singer or band renders it, it’s different – the same, but different, re-interpreted. […]

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A shot of Emily Dickinson from Terence Davies's "A Quiet Passion" (2016)

The Writing Life of Emily Dickinson: Terence Davies’s “A Quiet Passion” (2016)

It is not easy to create a clever biopic on an artist, much less one that spent most her later years confined to her bedroom as a recluse. One of the many reasons that artist biopics fail is because the writer/director chooses to include too much—sort of a crib to coffin approach, wherein we are only given surface events, rushed timelines and bad accents. This, however, does not stop the artistic mind from occasioning these films as comfort. How many films on Van Gogh do we need? Is anything new uncovered? Any insights? Probably not, yet audiences will continue to witness.

So, one can imagine my delight in learning that there was not only a biopic on Emily Dickinson, but also one that is excellent in itself. One way to measure this is to ask if the film could stand alone without the biography. Is the writing enough to carry it? For Terence Davies’s 2016 film A Quiet Passion, it is. We all know the story of The Belle of Amherst—that she did not title any of her poems, that she used random capitalization, random dashes, that she would write on the backs of receipts and napkins, and dutifully organize her poems into collective heaps tied with string. She was known to wear only white amid her later years and up to the very final days of her death, to never leave her room.

Emily Dickinson is the first poet that ever moved me, and quite possibly the only poet that could have gotten me into literature at all. Sure, this is speculation, as perhaps I would have managed another entry into literary lavishness, but for me it was Emily. I even had the Julie Harris readings on cassette, which I would play as I slept. (Given to me on my 16th birthday, I believe.) […]