Category: Poetry

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A stylized photo of Arseny Tarkovsky smoking a cigarette.

An Initiation: On “I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky”

As someone with an affection for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, I was eager to finally meet his father. I met him momentarily within Andrei’s 1975 film Mirror, but we barely got acquainted. Arseny Tarkovsky (1907-1989) held a huge place in his son’s life. And like with Jean Pierre Renoir, here we have another father-son dynamic wherein both are artists. Andrei admitted that his father’s work had a huge influence upon him, and how fortunate is that? To have a father who not only encourages the arts but also is an artist himself? In watching many interviews with Andrei, it is clear that he was a very sensitive soul. He loved his father and because his father’s work held such impact in his life, and he chose to honor him by using his work within his films. As example, take this poem from I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev), which is set against one of the more famous scenes within Mirror. […]

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Dylan Thomas, author of "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", used this shed as a writing room.

Today’s Anthem: Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Dylan Thomas’s poem to a dying father could be well to be heard by the world today. The world may not be gentle and plenty of people are not having a good night, yet there is a discerned darkness over the land. The poet calls out for action and light. It is a spiritual matter.

In a previous essay on this site, I discussed how a namesake of Thomas, Bob Dylan, wrote “Blowing in the Wind” which became a national battle cry. Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” could have similar possibilities if the poet hadn’t died ¾ of a century ago. Without the marketing allure, the poem could most likely not be resurrected on a grand scale.

It could just be the plea to a dying man, or else a plea to all generations of today’s world. We’re talking fire here. And a good fire. Old age could be synonymous with old patterns in politics which perpetuate tired wars. Admittedly, wars are not gentle to most ways of thinking, but they are predictable and go down trodden paths. I don’t believe Dylan Thomas is telling us to take up arms; it is a metamorphosis of the soul he’s talking about. Traditionally gun battles are not of the soul. The fight should be within. Battles of the soul are not always gentle. Even Jesus overturned the money tables in the temple. […]

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Chardin's painting, Le philosophe lisant, which may have served as inspiration for Wallace Stevens's poem, Large Red Man Reading

The Spirits Drawn Down: On Wallace Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”

The above painting is by Chardin, and it is titled Le Philosophe lisant. I first came across it not in a gallery, but in an essay. It was written by George Steiner, and in it he attempts to unpack its meaning via the symbols Chardin assembles on the canvas and make larger commentary on the act of reading: its history, its presentation in the painting, and its state in contemporary society. It’s not a bad essay, and Steiner is clearly learned, but the main and immediate impression I got from it was how, after looking the painting up on the Internet, it may have been the inspiration for Wallace Stevens’s great poem “Large Red Man Reading”. Stevens seemed to have an abiding interest in French culture (sprinkling words and phrases of the language in his own poetry) and it would not surprise me if the poem was an ekphrastic one, based on Chardin’s famous painting. Anyway, that’s just a little curio, to start things off. Steiner focuses intensely on the silence of the painting (and silence’s importance in concentrated engagement with a text) but Wallace Stevens’s poem veers away from silence, philosophizing even further than Steiner’s rather staid scholarship. […]

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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? […]