Daily Archives: 27 August 2009

#63: “Terence, this is stupid stuff” (A.E. Housman)

A. E. Housman (1859–1936) was one of the masters of the short, classic English lyric poem. He studied hard to achieve this mastery: he was a professor of classics, one of the greatest experts on the texts of ancient Latin literature. The untitled poem that begins “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” is actually one of the longer pieces he ever wrote.

There are a few proper names in the poem that may pose some difficulty, but they are not as hard as they look; they’re just awkwardly placed. “Terence” in the first line seems difficult if you don’t know who Terence is. But I assume that the poem is a dialogue. The first speaker, unnamed, tells Terence he’s stupid. The rest of the poem is Terence explaining why he’s not stupid. It’s sort of a Point / Counterpoint debate.

“Mithridates” in the very last line is just the name of the king that Terence has been describing at length. All anybody knows about Mithridates is that he tried the poison-protection program outlined in the paragraph before Terence mentions his name.

“Burton built on Trent” refers to the greatest brewery city in England and the river that gives its breweries water. You could substitute “why was Milwaukee built on Lake Michigan,” but that wouldn’t fit the pattern of the poem. Besides, Housman was from England, not the Midwest, and Milwaukee wasn’t yet famous in the 1890s. Meanwhile, “Ludlow fair” with its “Ludlow beer” could be anywhere that offers some kind of comfort substance. We’ve all probably been there.

And then there’s Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost “to justify the ways of God to man.” Housman suggests a quicker way of appreciating the Universe than having to read Paradise Lost.

Do you agree with the main idea in the poem – that by reading poetry (you could substitute “listening to music,” “looking at art,” or other aesthetic experiences) you become toughened up for what life will throw at you? Or is it too early yet to tell? Is Terence being cynical? Rationalizing his own depression?

Terence’s challenging philosophy is one reason to love this poem. But another and greater reason is the humanism of the poem’s take on the person who has “left his necktie God knows where.” The ideas in the poem could possibly be expressed in prose. But Housman conveys great, emotionally sensitive respect for the human tendency to lose ourselves in whatever gives us comfort (beer here, but it could be TV or ice cream or baseball or pop music). Life can be depressing. Housman, possibly, was depressed. His poetry, because it understands both joys and sorrows, is neither depressed nor depressing.


#64: “Incident” (Countee Cullen)

“Incident” by Countee Cullen (1903-1946) is, as I mentioned in class earlier this week, a “kick in the teeth.” If you demand energy from poetry, this poem generates tremendous energy from a single word. “Nigger” is the most lethal insult in America. Though our society is awash in the word, often in humorous or ironic contexts, it has never been OK to use it as it’s used in this poem. The little boy who uses the “N-word” is not joking. He’s not even being paternalistic in some bizarre sense where he can later claim “that’s just the word we used back then.” He sees a peer, a mirror image of himself in everything but color. And he very deliberately and pointedly uses the word to show that, as segregated society goes, he is the speaker’s superior.

(By the way, I’ll use the word “speaker” to stand for the “I” of any given poem. It’s preferable to “author” because the speaker might not always be the author. We don’t know that this ever happened to Countee Cullen, the human being; we know that he chose to create a dramatic poem where it happens to the “I” of the poem.)

So why is this great poetry and not just another autobiographical “incident”? The quality, for me, comes out of the balance between great rage and hurt in terms of content and great control and coolness in terms of form. A kid’s view of the world is shot through the heart by something he can’t ignore and can’t forget. Yet the poem presents this terrible incident in perfectly calm and controlled lines of traditional formal verse. The contrast couldn’t be greater: the poet has transformed rage into art.