Quotīdiē ❧ Such delytefull poeticall discouerie

Sing the year in, bravely sing
Underneath the dark woods now,
For the winter sun’s returning,
Shining through the greenwood bough.
Rime and hoar are brightly gleaming
Where the furrow met the plow,
—from "Turning Time" by Wesli Court

I followed a mention by Lewis Turco to my first sighting of The Flea, an online journal of poetry (quite properly commissioned "By Favor of the Sovereign Muse"), offered in the style of a traditional broadsheet, and with much of the streetwise wit of that genre.  I first read the two Wesli Court pieces, including the neat pastoral of this post's head quote.  I was hooked by the time I read a third piece from the issue, "Carnal Beauty" by Kate Bernadette Benedict, a tasty parody of G.M. Hopkins's Pied Beauty.  

Glory be to God for fleshly things—
        For thighs like pliant earthloam under working plow
                For “those”-moles pushing upward out of secret rim.

I've read half the volume and it's just delight after delight.  Many of the poems touch on winter as a theme, to some extent, but the tone varies quite a bit, the sass of "Carnal Beauty" contrasting the somber evocation of "Child of 9-11," by Michael R. Burch.
Child of 9-11, beloved,
I bring this lily, lay it down
here at your feet, and eiderdown,
and all soft things, for your gentle spirit.
I bring this psalm — I hope you hear it.

But regardless of the tone of each piece, one thing that strikes me is the consistency of craft.  This is a collection of skillful poets selected by a discerning editor, a rare discovery for me.  It is poetry that to steal a phrase from Maryann Corbett's "A Trenta-Sei of Mixed Feelings at the Early Onset of Winter", "Sucks the marrowbone / of song."  And that is a stimulus to distract from the bite of any winter.


Quotīdiē ❧ "Last Letter"

                                                My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing.  Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

Last Letter manuscript

—from "Last Letter" by Ted Hughes

When I consider Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath I am not interested in drama, nor in the US versus the UK in arts, nor in feminism.  I am interested in poetry.  I said as much a couple of weeks ago when I discussed hearing about the newly discovered Hughes poem "Last Letter."  I have always been infuriated at how feminism and silly cultural rivalries have overshadowed the work of two great poets who happened to share a sort of archetypal tragedy.  As I said in "Slender Mitochondrial Strand" I am not connected to the Hughes or Plath families, and it seems only proper to leave their private lives alone.  That said, it has always seemed to me that the conjunction of those two poets enhanced both their work.  Plath's best work by far came after her marriage, and much of my favorite work from Hughes is in Wodwo and Lupercal, and as I gather dating from around the years of their tumultuous romance.  I don't know when Hughes picked up a tendency towards slack passages, but he certainly did at some point, and it has for me definitely affected much of his later work.  "Last Letter" is no exception.

According to my intention stated in the previous piece, I headed to the CU Boulder Library which according to WorldCat carries a subscription to  the New Statesman magazine, the exclusive publisher of "Last Letter."  I'd hoped to own the issue, so prior to my trip to the library I checked several newsstands, including the one at Barnes and Nobles, and the famous Eads of Boulder, but no one seemed to carry the British journal.  I was quite excited to find the issue in the CU shelves, and sat down to read it.

"Last Letter" is a decent poem, or if I am to be frank in characterizing it, a brilliant poem cut into bits which are sprinkled among passages of prosaic exposition.  You very quickly see in the poem what is carved in marble and what is knuckled into butter.  The head quote, above, is one of the larger bits of sculptured marble, and the thirteen lines that follow it.  So is the part that was quoted in one of the teasers for the new poem, and which I quoted in the last piece.

What happened that night, inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen
As if it was not happening.

It was a canny edit, that, in the middle of a line, as I found reading the whole poem, with the end of that same line losing the energy of what preceded it, continuing into a sighting of Plath's ghost, which slips between marble and butter, but ends solidly enough, concluding with the two lines:

Before midnight.  After midnight.  Again.
Again.  Again.  And, near dawn, again.

The stretch after that is the final bit of the poem, and is again a marble/butter hybrid.  Going back to the beginning of the poem (I count 154 lines in all), the first 40 lines are uneven, and then it explodes into the head quote, which begins at line 41.  That strong passage continues to line 62, but I only quoted a part of it out of respect for the publisher.  Lines 61 and 62 are:

Their obsessed in and out.  Two women
Each with her needle.

This immediately brought me to mind the "Prufrock" refrain:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

I already mentioned how the passage starting with line 112 ("What happened that night, inside your hours,") reminded me of The Four Quartets, and this is striking because most of my favorite Hughes is nothing like Eliot.  Am I dipping into the soap opera nonsense when I ponder that Hughes might be mouthing echoes from Eliot's tortured relationship with Vivienne?

Line 63 begins the longest slack passage, which lasts until the hard shore of line 112.

I'm very glad I sought out the poem.  Even the prosaic parts are written by a master writer, and I can appreciate them for the connective exposition they are.  I don't know that the soap opera fans will find a lot of new dramatic ground here that was not covered in Birthday Letters, though I don't doubt that they'll pick out some juicy nuggets of gossip.  From a poetical perspective, "Last Letter" is a narrative that picks its moment to seize upon finely crafted poetry to share a keen sense of how time seems a wretched tapestry when considered around a moment of accident and loss.  The discovery is not just more hype in the Hughes/Plath line, but a genuine gain for poetry.

Quotīdiē ❧ The Lost Hughes

The fear that cripples me,
Is how my bride will be
Upon our wedding night;
That I will have chosen
A Phaedra-monster of my own,
Who will betray me
As my father is betrayed.
Better be alone
And take what comes.'
—from "Hippolytus" by Frieda Hughes

A few months ago I came across Frieda Hughes's 2003 collection Waxworks at Trident Booksellers of Boulder.  I browsed it not expecting much, because I hadn't been overly impressed by anything I'd read from Frieda previously.  I did like several of the poems I selected at random, and bought the volume.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I started reading it properly, and that same week I came across news of a lost Ted Hughes poem.  I've certainly mused a lot about the Plath/Hughes family, and written about them, including here, and on TNB, in "Slender Mitochondrial Strand".  I've never been much for soap operas, but in the lives of poets and their companions, whether it's the fate of Vivienne Eliot née Haigh-Wood or the sexuality of Sappho, it's really the manifestation in poetry that fixes my interest.  The Plath/Hughes drama is clearly aforefront when the journalist writes:

The poem, a final coda to one of 20th-century literature's most fraught and tragic romances, was hailed as the "missing link" in Hughes' writing about his American first wife, who gassed herself at the age of 30 in February 1963. It is the first time that Hughes has directly addressed the events of Plath's death.

But the drama also carries all presage of a great poem, which is published in a special edition of the New Statesman magazine.  As the journal's Weblog crows, "Exclusive: Ted Hughes’s poem on the night Sylvia Plath died:"

In tomorrow's New Statesman, which has been guest-edited by Melvyn Bragg, we publish a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. "Last letter" is a poem that describes what happened during the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. Its first line is: "What happened that night? Your final night." -- and the poem ends with the moment Hughes is informed of his wife's death.

Hughes's best-known work is 1998's Birthday Letters, a collection of poems that detail his relationship with Plath. Though the published poems make reference to Plath's suicide, which occurred in February 1963, when she and Hughes were separated but still married, none of them addresses directly the circumstances of her death. This, then, would appear to be the "missing link" in the sequence.

The entry includes several images of various hand-written drafts of the poem, none of which are very legible to the casual eye.  In order to read the entire poem I'll have to get my hands on a copy of the current New Statesman, the subscription for which is not cheap.  I did check on WorldCat and it looks as if the University of Colorado at Boulder Library carries a subscription, so I'm planning to go look tomorrow.  I'm hoping it's not a wild goose chase like when WorldCat suggested the Denver Public Library had The collected poems of H. Phelps Putnam, and I drove over only to learn they'd lost it years ago.  If I find the poem, I'll post my thoughts on it here.

Meanwhile, for a teaser, Channel 4 UK had an actor recite an excerpt of the poem on air ("Newly discovered Ted Hughes poem"), and on their page I found a text excerpt:

What happened that night, inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen
As if it was not happening.

Very intriguing.  A faint whiff of Four Quartets but with Hughes's accustomed blood and guts, sharpened by the life experience itself.  I'm looking forward very much to getting my hands on a copy.

Quotīdiē ❧ She writes for nigeria

Nigerian female writers, it has been argued, really deserve commendation and encouragement with the value of impact they are making among their contemporaries in the Diaspora. Among over 400 leading women writers listed in Who's Who in Contemporary Women's Writing, edited by Jane Eldrodge Miller, Nigerians occupy conspicous percentage and position.

Some of these references include Flora Nwapa, a novelist, dramatist, short story writer and children's author; the late Zulu Sofola, novelist, dramatist, poet and children's literature writer; Kema Chikwe, a children writer, non fiction author and publisher; Tess Onwueme, a playwright; Mabel Segun, fiction writer, essayist and poet; Zaynab Alkali, novelist, short story writer and essayist; Buchi Emecheta, novelist and Catherine Acholonu, poet, dramatist, essayist and fiction writer. Others include Ifeoma Okoye, Adaora Lily Ulasi, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Ifi Amadiume. They have all proved their mettles in their various choice of genre and have won several awards in the world class record of literary circle.

—Yemi Adebisi, "Acholonu - Celebration of a Scholar," Daily Independent (Lagos)


"They've all proved their mettles..."
That definitely settles
How uncountably in fettle
Lies the pen upon that nettle.

But of course I digress.

Anyway, I've been observing for a while the current efflorescence of Nigerian women writers.  The above list does not even include Adichie, Oyeyemi, Atta, Nwaubani, and I could go on and on.  And then there is Okorafor another important example whom I've mentioned here on Copia before, and with whom I'm wrapping up a wonderful interview for The Nervous Breakdown.  Adebisi's full article is an extensive encomium of Acholonu, which is richly enough deserved, but my main interest was captured by the leading paragraphs I quoted above.  I don't know what is behind the phenomenon, but long may it continue.

Quotīdiē ❧ Ndugu's proper chocolate jam,

Shed a tear of delight; don't you worry about a fall tonight
Birds flying free; What about you and me

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

—from "Take Some Time" by Ndugu & The Chocolate Jam Company

I remember hearing this slow jam a couple of times at dances in Nigeria in the early 80s.  When Erykah Badu flipped it for "Ummm Hmmm" off her latest masterpiece New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), she put a weeks-long itch in my skull, and I bet a lot of others who had grown up on a soul diet.  I finally twigged it last week, and went to hunt down the Ndugu & The Chocolate Jam Company original, but it seems to have faded into the mists of the past a bit, which is a true shame.  I did find the following audio version on YouTube, though.

Here is Badu's "Ummm Hmmm," accompanied by some lovely stills of Fat Belly Bella herself.

Of course Badu wasn't the first to discover the great sample possibilities of the Leon Chancler (AKA "Ndugu") jam.  DJ Premier used it back in '07 for the NYG'z project song "Welcome To G-Dom."

Of course, I love me some Primo, but Erykah pwned this bitch.  It's over.  I hope no other DJs think they should dare follow her.

Then again I'm thinking of using the Primo loop to back a poem recital one day.  And maybe I have just the poem.  Having learned about the terzanelle form from Heather Fowler a few weeks ago, I fell in love with the form, and I've been writing a sequence of terzanelles, one for each song on New Amerykah Part Two.  I'm on "Ummm Hmmm" and the first few stanzas of my poem are as follows:

Take some time to let your feelings run free
Heart's desire—thump! thump! I've been here before—
You can't hide away from what you'll be.

You can't hide; don't cheat I've been keeping score.
Place your bet, love; scared money don't make none.
Heart's desire—thump! thump! I've been here before.

Truth and Icarus dare, the money sun,
Angel bird, let's jump off into your world.
Place your bet, love; scared money don't make none.

Naturally it includes elements from Ndugu's song, as well as Badu's.  I can't find the lyrics to "Take Some Time" anywhere on the Net so I, ah, took some time to transcribe them myself.  As you can see from the square brackets and the ellipses, there are some parts I can't figure out right now, but I think I got most of it.

"Take Some Time" by Ndugu & The Chocolate Jam Company

Do you always conceal what you feel inside
Man does not ever drift with the flow of the tide
Makes it hard to see when [it attracts you and me]
And there comes a time when your feelings should run free

And understand that you're over me when you're ...
It'll lend you a helping hand when your [crimes] cross the tide
Takes you high in the sky of your heart's desire
Float through the valley of love; you'll start to fly
Like a bird in the sky who's just learned to fly
Makes you feel so proud you might want to cry

Shed a tear of delight; don't you worry about a fall tonight
Birds flying free; What about you and meNdugu Chancler

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

Well you're pride by your side when we're looking on
Keep your head to the sky through the weather of the storm

Take the compliment as if it came heaven-sent
From someone up above [with music] with love

What's the nature of your mind when the trouble starts to [grind]
Do you leave yourself behind, not to be caught up on the line
Signs of life is a lot to see that you hold in your [belief]

Free your time; what about your mind

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

You will find further on down the line
Is what you've got to do, to see you through

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

Quotīdiē ❧ A gratifying week in poetry

Corium Magazine

Got people swaying like
Brown Grass. Mud sucking up
against our toes, horns blowing salt
Through our noses.
There’s a flower now.
Red like liquor in a brother’s heart,
Pushing through the joint
Like it’s about to break free.
But that can’t be your lipstick
Cause you wear no lipstick:
You’re a soul flame.

—from "Demoiselle," by Uche Ogbuji

I've had some pleasant rewards in the past week, wielding both purple pen, and red.  I learned this afternoon that my poem, "Demoiselle" was published in the latest edition of Corium Magazine.  A few notes later about some of the other work that appeared in the issue.

I wrote the poem on 31 March 1996 in Dallas, briefly possessed at the time by the spirit of the Deep Ellum district.  I always tell people visiting Dallas that they can go to The West End and Dealey Plaza during the day, to get their tourist camera allocation, but that they need to go to Deep Ellum at night for their dose of unadulterated soul.

It was also just over a week ago that I featured seven of my poems here on Copia.

The red pen event is hardly worthy of the name, considering the excellence and pedigree of its headliner.  I was thrilled to present to the world "John," a new poem by Lewis Turco, and an interview of Mr. Turco by his altar ego (read the piece to ravel that pun) Wesli Court.  In "John" Mr. Turco contemplates through the glasses (telescope and microscope) of a nephew the utterly grand and the utterly small. It includes a brilliant, poetic take on the standard model of physics.  It also includes a meditation of the universe, rising to the following.

The paltry gods of Earth

were never meant to handle such immense
   phantasmagoria as these, were
never meant to represent these Powers,
Thrones, Dominions, eidolons of the mind

   of man, these firefly mysteries.

The self-interview is a splendid mini-memoir tracing through the history of a too-often neglected branch of modern poetry, and it includes so much that inspires me as a poet and a student of poetry.  In one telling passage he describes how, sending poems out to periodicals in the middle-to-late 1970’s, he was amazed that magazines began accepting rhyming and metered poems more readily than syllabic poems.


What was going on? I thought I knew. The worm was beginning to turn again, and there was a big pile of younger poets who had been using The Book of Forms for almost a decade, writing in the old forms, experimenting with the Bardic forms, publishing in the little magazines, and even beginning new periodicals that published what they were interested in.


I've read Mr. Turco's poetry and criticism since I've been a teenager, and it has been an honor to work with such a creative, perceptive and hard-working gentleman.  I should also mention his Weblog, which is one of the best maintained and most interesting you'll find by a major contemporary poet.

Quotīdiē ❧ Tincture of tigritude

Who Fears DeathOne of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest idols, Nigeria's great writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka: "A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces." This tiger of a story [Who Fears Death] definitely pounced on me without proclamation or warning. I'm glad I was ready for it.

—Nnedi Okorafor—"The Tigritude of a Story"

Soyinka's famous quote, made in response to the Négritude movement of Senghor, Césaire, and other Francophone African writers has always resonated with me as well.  Afrocentrism that spends most of its time contemplating its own plumage was perhaps inevitable in those early days, so soon after the colonial yokes had been thrown off.  But having been immersed in our own reality, having, as Nnedi also mentions, endured wars of desperation such as the Biafran, having lived to see our resources squandered and the legacy of revolutionary leaders turned despots, we're past time for preening.  If we plan to survive, it's well past mealtime.  We'd better pounce.

To be fair, Négritude never really took off in Anglophone Africa.  In "Christopher Okigbo," Sunday Anozie quotes a letter sent to him by the great Nigerian poet.  In 1966 Okigbo had been invited to the Negro Festival of Arts in Dakar, where his poem Limits was awarded first prize.  Okigbo wrote:

About Dakar.  I did not go... I found the whole idea of a negro arts festival based on colour quite absurd.  I did not enter any work either for the competition, and was most surprised when I heard a prize had been awarded to Limits.  I have written to reject it.

As Anozie says, "This sums up Okigbo's whole attitude to the color stress in Négritude."  Soyinka's reaction was of the same kind.  Anozie does actually surprise me by going on to claim that Okigbo's objections are ultimately shallow, and Soyinka's "cynical."  To be honest, I find a lot that annoys me in Anozie's book, overall, but he also does more to plumb Okigbo's depths than anyone else I've seen, so it's still well worth a read.

But I do think Okigbo and Soyinka are right to shrug off the totems of tigritude, I think we're seeing a generation of African writers come into their own through the urgency of the modern African reality I describe above.  I look forward to reading Nnedi's own testament, which UPS delivered yesterday.

By the way, Nnedi says:

Amongst the Igbos, back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.

I had heard of female circumstances in parts of Igbo land, but I hadn't heard of its use as a counter to Ogbanje.  I wonder whether that custom was widespread in Igbo land (as for example destruction of twins was a custom more in the far south than elsewhere).  Time to ask our elders some straight questions.

Quotīdiē ❧ Modernism, 16th century style

Her face       Her tongue       Her wytt
So faier       So sweete        So sharpe
first bent     then drewe       then hitt
myne eye       myne eare        my harte

Myn eye        Myne eare        My harte
to lyke        to learne        to love
her face       her tongue       her wytt
doth leade     doth teache      doth move

Her face       Her tongue       Her wytt
with beames    with sounde      with arte
doth blynd     doth charm       doth knitt
myne eye       myne eare        my harte

Myne eye       Myne eare        My harte
with lyfe      with hope        with skill
her face       her tongue       her witt
doth feede     doth feaste      doth fyll

O face         O tongue         O wytt
with frownes   with checks      with smarte
wronge not     vex nott         wounde not
myne eye       myne eare        my harte

This eye       This eare        This harte
shall Joye     shall yeald      shall swear
her face       her tongue       her witt
to serve       to truste        to feare.

—Sir Arthur Gorges—"Her Face"

To start where credit is due, I first read this 16th century love lyric on Hypsarrythmia's LiveJournal page, linked from discussion of The Guardian's poem of the week selection, Sir Philip Sidney's "Certain Sonnets #30" AKA "Ring Out Your Belles."  And Bravo! to The Guardian.  Now and then they really fall flat with their choices, but for the most part, their "Poem of the Week" series is a fine, ongoing discussion of poetry on the Web, with very intelligent discussion, and some real discoveries to be found on the comment boards.  I'm hoping to provide another such, aimed at a somewhat different audience in my "Poetry for the Nervous" series.

It's long annoyed me to hear so many of modernisms's characteristics treated as 19th or 20th century inventions.  No disrespect intended to Whitman or Dickinson, but whether it's Whitman's list-making or Dickinson's occasional fragmentation, you find the traces well before them in the past.  British critics often look to Hardy and Hopkins and The Rhymer's Clubbers in charting the course to modernism, and Americans and Brits both look towards the movements of French poets that heaved off the "strait-jacket  of the French Classical alexandrine," in Robert Graves's words.  Graves goes on to say "English has worn no strait-jacket since the Age of Obsequiousness," by which he meant the age dominated by Alexander Pope.  Graves is right, but he forgets that the French tradition was also shanghied into their straits, as anyone can tell with reference to no less obscure example than Villon.  It always strikes me that neither set of critic tends to give non-European influence the credit it deserves.  Many are all keen to rave about "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," but they forget how much attention Fitzgerald's translation focused back on "exotic" sources.  That's all topic for another day.

In Britain, it's a nonce of effort to find modernist characteristics from Chaucer to Dryden, the influence of whose massive body of work was the main strap in the subsequent strait-jacket.  Lewis Turco points out the line from Skelton to Hopkins (that Weblog is another wonderful and well-maintained resource for lovers of poetry.)  Anyone who's seen carmina figurata, e.g. the visual experiments of Herbert and company will recognize that, barring the limits of Renaissance typesetting, they were heading straight for Concrete Poetry.  Imagism can be traced all the way back to Sappho, for example, or the extravagant tropes of Provençal troubador poets, never mind the Metaphysical poets.  I've heard that the checkmate of supposed 20th-century innovation is the collage style: the use of fragmentation itself as a device to complete expression and fuel emotional immediacy.  I've heard that cinema and discoveries in psychology from archetypes to gestalt were prerequisites of this collage style.  I've never really credited this, and I'm always pleased to find classic examples of poems squarely in recognized traditions of modernist critics which demonstrate precedence.

"Her face" prefigures collage style in its fashion, including the use of layout to enhance the sense of fragmentation.  Of course, since this is in the hands of a fairly skilled versifier, the layout becomes not just a visual device but an aural one as well.  When I read it, the spacing has the effect of slightly promoting the iambs to spondees.  I find myself struck by the sense of rhythmic incantation, and it truly heightens the tone of supplication to the lover, enhancing the literal sense.

I've never had a problem with the fact that whether of ancient or truly new origins, modernism has focused unprecedented critical attention on such techniques.  My problem is that so many people have taken this to mean that modernist devices should replace traditional ones, rather than complementing them.  I'm hopeful that some of the 21st century reactions to modernism that I'm seeing as an editor will eventually work us towards embracing the importance of traditional technique as well as modernist consciousness.

One final note on Sydney's CS #30 is that The Guardian prints it without the indentation I've seen for it.  I prefer the indented version.

Ring out your belles, let mourning shewes be spread,
   For love is dead:
      All Love is dead, infected
      With plague of deepe disdaine:
      Worth as naught worth rejected,
      And Faith faire scorne doth gaine.
          From so ungratefull fancie,
          From such a femall franzie,
          From them that use men thus
          Good Lord deliver us.

And thus in the remaining stanzas.

Quotīdiē ❧ Milton, Graves, Eliot and Ars Versificandi

He scarce had ceas't when the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shoar; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round
Behind him cast; the broad circumferance
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.
His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the
Mast Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkd with to support uneasie steps,
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavns Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur'd, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call'd
His Legions, angel Forms, who lay intrans't
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th'Etrurian shades
High overarcht imbowr;…

—John Milton—from Book 1, Paradise Lost, quoted in "Eliot & Milton Studies", Sherry, Beverley, Versification 5 (2010)

I finally caught up with the new edition of Versification, (presently the front page of the site) a bit of Sunday morning therapy through prosody.  The first article, on the possibly exaggerated modernist credentials of Emily Dickinson, is a bizarre thing that seems to want to be edgy and cool, spending time comparing Dickinson to a visual poet who played at Möbius strip-mining with Eikon Basilike (a bit of a look-forward to the later Milton piece), and with whom there is no conceivable connection.  It also does go on about an apparent saw that you can sing all Dickinson's poems to the theme of Gilligan's Island, an rather sophomoric bit of pablum.  The second article is a punctilious, frequently baffling, over-argued, and generally dreary exposition of pervasive syllabic verse in W.H. Auden.

Luckily I persevered because the last two pieces were true delights.  The last article is a review of Latin Word Order: Structured Meaning and Information, by Devine and Stephens (Oxford University Press, 2006).  It sounds like a wonderful volume, and I've added it to my Amazon wish list for whenever I can afford the $85.  Any book that dwells with insight over the contrasting word order of socerum tuae filiae versus filiae tuae socerum is irresistible to a language geek.

The third article, "The Legacy of T.S. Eliot to Milton Studies" discusses "the Milton controversy" of the twentieth century, triggered by Eliot's early attacks on Milton.  I've never seen the controversy as a big deal.  In my own taste I go from enjoying Milton's earlier "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" to admiring but not at all enjoying his magnum opus "Paradise Lost."  I certainly understand the urge by Eliot and cohort to elevate Donne and the Metaphysics, cavalier spirits of rotund urbanity, compared to the dour asceticism of old Roundhead Milton (and yes, I know The New Critics would have shied away from such biographical tinting, but I'm not really one of them), but many of their specific criticisms have never really been credible, and this article presents a useful survey of the vigorous response to the anti-Milton camp.

One flaw I found is in Sherry's lumping in with the New Critics Robert Graves's own anti-Miltonism, best known from his novel Wife to Mr Milton.  It's important to separate Grave's objections, which were more on moral grounds tha n on prosodic, from Eliot, whose objections focused on his poetics.  The Graves who wrote the "These be thy Gods, O Israel!" lecture would be furious to find himself lumped in with the agenda of "the 'most 'significant' modern writers."  Mr. Triple Goddess Graves could never tolerate any betrayal of the women in a poet's life, despite the fact that his own relationship with Laura Riding included every usual human frailty.  As far as he was concerned, Eliot's sins were even more foetid than Milton's.

Graves's own words, in "The Ghost of Milton," which he wrote in response to criticism of his treatment of Milton in Wife to Mr Milton:

My attitude to Milton must not be misunderstood.  A man may rebel against the current morality of his age and still be a true poet, because a higher morality than the current is entailed upon all poets whenever and wherever they live: the morality of love.  Though the quality of love in a painter's work, o a musician's, will endear him to his public, he can be a true painter or musician even if his incapacity for love has turned him into a devil.  But without love he cannot be a poet in the final sense.  Shakespeare sinned greatly against current morality, but he loved greatly.  Milton's sins were petty by comparison, but his lack of love, for all his rhetorical championship of love against lust, makes him detestable.

With all possible deference to his admirers, Milton was not a great poet,  in the sense in which Shakespeare was great.  He was a minor poet with a remarkable ear for music, before diabolic ambition impelled him to renounce the true Muse and bloat himself up, like Virgil (another minor poet with the same musical gift) into a towering, rugged major poet.  There is strong evidence that he consciously composed only a part of Paradise Lost; the rest was communicated to him by what he regarded a supernatural agency.

The effect of Paradise Lost on sensitive readers is, of course, overpowering. But is the function of poetry to overpower? To be overpowered is to accept spiritual defeat. Shakespeare never overpowers: he raises up. To put the matter in simple terms, so as not to get involved in the language of the morbid psychologist: it was not the Holy Ghost that dictated Paradise Lost—the poem which has caused more unhappiness, to the young especially, than any other in the language—but Satan the protagonist, demon of pride. The majesty of certain passages is superhuman, but their effect is finally depressing and therefore evil Parts of the poem, as for example his accounts of the rebel angels' military tactics with concealed artillery, and of the architecture of Hell, are downright vulgar: vulgarity and classical vapidity are characteristic of the passages which intervene between the high flights, the communicated diabolisms.

This underscores the moral nature of Grave's objections.  Graves admits Milton's "remarkabl e ear for music," which Eliot accepted only much later, when he famously took back much of his anti-Miltonism.  They may both have scorned Milton, but their motivations and arguments were entirely different.

In fairness I should point out that later in the above Essay Graves says, with regard to Lycidas:

the sound of the poem is  magnificent; only the sense is deficient.

Which seems to echo Eliot's objections, but Graves goes on to clarify his quarrel with the sense, and it turns out to be a Pagan Celtic sanctimony every bit as fulsome as the Christian sanctimony of his quarrel with Paradise Lost.  Again nothing to corroborate Eliot's points in substance.

Eliot's points always carried on far too much of Pope's nonsense in "An Essay on Criticism," a reasonably enjoyable poem as long as you never make the mistake of thinking it has any instructive value for actual criticism (another area in which I depart from Graves, who insists that a poem must be true and apt in order to be enjoyable).  Eliot seems to have slavishly applied Pope's petty standards for marking sound against sense, and became thoroughly misled.  Sherry uses the main quote of this post to debunk Eliot's claim, and I think she makes a decisive point, except that even she cannot excuse the sheer drudgery of Paradise Lost in the large, which, if you ignore the moral overtones, I think Graves covers in his charge that it is "the poem which has caused more unhappiness, to the young especially, than any other in the language."

It's also worth pointing out the undue attention Sherry as well as Eliot and other critics before her, pay to the influence of Milton's blindness on his poetic faculties, which is more of that infuriating 20th century habit of conflating the nature of language, the senses and experience in ridiculously simplistic ways.  Graves is far more sensible on the matter, accusing Milton himself, if anything, of making too vulgar a use of his blindness as a device to encourage approbation.  You would expect a tidy New Critic such as Eliot to know better than to hypothesize extravagantly about that anatomical detail.

I suppose the upshot of today's reading is that I'll be spending a bit more time revisiting Milton's actual text, but unless I suddenly find him much less soporific than I did when I made a serious attempt to appreciate him in the past, I'm not going to pretend I have the stamina for much of his work.  The point of escaping into poetry is to enjoy the amenities of the alcove, a notion I would have thought was obvious, but which I've had to suggest to others several times, recently.

Thanks very much to those responsible for Versification for having giving me these hours of enjoyment and reflection.  It must be a truly thankless task to produce a journal on Prosody these days.

✄ ✄ ✄

Editorial note: You might have noticed I expanded the title of this post beyond the customary "Quotīdiē."  I plan to continue doing so.


So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.

Sylvia Plath — "Daddy"

I quoted this poem when prompted for influences in the comment board for "Growing up Misfit." It has been a favorite since I was a teen because it does something that the best poetry does—it immerses me completely in a separate experience.  I've been lucky enough to have a happy marriage, but I now know from experiences with others close to me, and cultural observation all around, that I still may never have been exposed to a greater description of a miserable union than "Daddy".  Quite possibly it has contributed to my determination not to have an unhappy marriage.

A friend recently criticized the poem for Plath's comparison of her suffering to that of Jews in the Holocaust, calling the tactic "incredibly over the top and melodramatic."

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been sacred of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You----

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.


And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.

In considering the charge against this device, I separate aesthetic grounds from moral grounds.  Some people have a strong moral objection to making any comparison against the Holocaust.  I reject that objection just as I reject all sacred oxen.  Every experience, regardless of how horrible, is open to us as a device for self-expression.  That is a fundamental basis for empathy.  We can and should argue degrees in action and suffering, but we should never be forbidden to enter into such arguments in the first place.  There is also my wariness of convention that confines the Holocaust to Jewish experience.  Not for nothing does Plath mention her "gypsy ancestress", and I read the line "I may be a bit of a Jew" entirely as a metaphor.

That brings me to aesthetic grounds.  I agree with the argument that Plath's comparisons tend towards the the grotesque, and it is only her immense expressive skill that rescues it.  In general, Plath cannot escape the charge of egotism that goes hand in hand with the confessional movement.  What redeems Plath is that her craft and command of words overwhelms and infact elevates her regular meanness to something that escapes escape the trivial quality of her peers.  Her poetic faculties expand her work beyond the microscopically narrow paysage in which she threatens to trap the reader, who thus ends up with entire worlds of insight at his unexpected disposal.  It's tempting to wonder what Plath might have accomplished had she not fallen so deeply into the school of confessional poets.  If she had elevated her themes, as even her husband and tormentor generally attempted; could she have been as definitive in expressing her times as, say, Sappho?  Then again that might be ridiculous speculation, because it's quite likely that her style suited the mean more than the large.

"Daddy" is indeed over the top, but it is hard to imagine a better way to express the overwhelming extent to which marriage to Ted Hughes suffocated her in a coffin telescoping at its long polygon to her father, and at its short polygon to her suicide.  In reading it even as an impressionable teen, I never thought for a moment that her personal tribulations came close to the sufferings of Hitler's genocide victims (Jews and otherwise).  Yet the savage insistence of the metaphors did bring to a gut level her overwhelming despair with an intensity so extraordinarily difficult to accomplish through any other means. I think that is what poetry must deliver, even if it sometimes strains natural correspondences in the effort.

I find it interesting to compare Plath to another poem about a broken marriage, one widely admired, and by no less than E.A. Robinson, "Eros Turannos."

She fears him, and will always ask
      What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
      All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
      Of age, were she to lose him.

The failing leaf inaugurates
      The reign of her confusion:
The pounding wave reverberates
      The dirge of her illusion;
And home, where passion lived and died,
Becomes a place where she can hide,
While all the town and harbour side
      Vibrate with her seclusion.

I respect Robinson's effort, and the tidiness of his verse is almost heroic, with each line refusing enjambment and perpetuating a series of small finalities.  I have a soft spot for such virtuosity, but I think that "Daddy" demonstrates by contrast the power of immediacy at all costs.

Plath's influence on me is very profound.  It was really study of Plath that allowed me to grow into acceptance of free verse.  So many of the other high priests of free verse, in English and French, including Whitman, Ginsberg and Kahn, left me utterly cold, though recently I've been able to appreciate these a little more.  I never believed that LaForgue, Eliot and Pound took as much freedom many claim, and it was Plath, who really showed me that craft and free verse were not incompatible.  She made it possible for me to listen properly to the great African poets such as Senghor, Césaire, Okigbo and Brutus for the first time.  I wander through my own Journey in Plath (and Hughes), and how it relates to my family in "Slender Mitochondrial Strand".  "Morning Song" for Udoka and "Metaphors" for his mother are my touchstones upon the birth of my third child.
Having said all that, I think it's perfectly fair for someone to find "Daddy" too grotesque for their taste, and in such cases, I tend to recommend "Mushrooms" instead.


Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.