Daily Archives: 15 September 2009

#49 “Nobody Comes” (Thomas Hardy)

Thomas Hardy wrote “Nobody Comes” in 1924, when he was 84 years old. He had had several careers. He was trained as an architect, and worked at that profession till he was in his thirties. For the next quarter-century, he was one of the greatest and most distinctive of British Victorian novelists. If you think of the world of long British novels from the 19th century, you often think of settings dominated by Thomas Hardy: hardscrabble farmers and shepherds, arcane half-forgotten trades, mysterious decayed lineages, blasted heaths, villages where a veneer of society covers unspeakable evils. Hardy’s novels won great popularity but also drew great criticism for immorality – criticism that scarcely makes sense 120 years later.

Hardy’s novels (including Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure) drew so much criticism that he abandoned novel-writing for fiction in other forms (including epic verse) and for lyric poetry. In the first three decades of the 20th century, Hardy wrote some of the great lyric poems in English. At a time when modernist writers like Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot were reshaping the forms and concerns of English-language poetry, Hardy kept plugging away at the themes that had made him a great Victorian writer. It’s almost as if, long after the deaths of Hendrix and Joplin and Morrison and Lennon and Elvis and Michael Jackson, somebody like Bob Dylan were still writing and playing music in the year 2009. My God, perhaps he is 🙂

And so, “Nobody Comes,” a tremendous, tiny lyric poem. Two elements of technology stand in close contrast to the emptiness of the organic world. The telegraph wire in the first stanza should be an image of progress, of globalization, of a new information economy. Instead it’s a “spectral lyre,” a haunted instrument that suggests nothing except a kind of eerie image of dissociation. (The telegraph, an invention of Hardy’s youth,

In the second stanza, the car (not a common sight on English roads till Hardy was already a senior citizen) comes up, but instead of bringing the speaker into closer contact with the rest of his community, it merely leaves “a blacker air”: making the setting even lonelier by contrast to the brief impersonal light it’s shone on the surroundings.

“Nobody Comes” is a tiny distillation of loneliness. It’s simple. Great poetry emphatically does not have to be complicated.

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#50 “To a Waterfowl” (William Cullen Bryant)

“To a Waterfowl”, by William Cullen Bryant, is one of the oldest poems in the Countdown, dating from 1821, long before Bryant had turned into one of the greyest-bearded of American “schoolroom” poets. The language is a little archaic even for 1821. Few Americans except for conservative Quakers were still using the old second-person singular forms thou/thee/thy (or associated second-person verb forms like “dost” and “seek’st”) in 1821, even if the King James Bible kept those forms continuously in the public ear.

“To a Waterfowl” is in dialogue with poems up and down the Countdown, including “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”. Part of its appeal comes from the wonder we have in the presence of animals. They are so far from our way of being – and, in the case of birds, often so far from our earthbound realm. What is their existence really like? To fly enormous distances at heights that a pre-airplane poet could only fantasize about, the bird must enter a realm that might as well be supernatural.

In particular, the mysteries of migratory creatures – from geese to monarch butterflies – are still not well understood by science. Their behavior is so impossibly complex that an appropriate human response is simply to marvel.

Bryant’s expression of marvel, in “To a Waterfowl,” is one of the noblest and most famous of the 19th century. It is an expression steeped in faith, but a faith that knows no specifics. In the word “He” that begins the final stanza, it comes closest to being a monotheistic God. But previous elements of the poem, like the word “Power” and the general sense of awe that the bird inspires, seem to hark back to Deist, even animist ideas about the omnipresent life-force of Nature.

The poem seems caught between a faith in Nature and a faith in a personally involved God. The speaker seems to have to reach into the abyss of the unknown to encounter that God. He does so with a kind of sublime feeling that aspires to serenity on the surface but seems far more turbulent below.

#51 “A Song in the Front Yard” (Gwendolyn Brooks)

“A Song in the Front Yard,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, is a famous anthology piece of great energy. The theme is danger, as in “The Steeple-Jack” or “The Armadillo,” but here the danger is deliberately courted by the speaker. She seems impelled by what Edgar Allan Poe called “The Imp of the Perverse.” Success, in her society, and particularly for a young woman, black, and middle-class (or at least with middle-class aspirations), depends on never putting a foot astray. But all the fun of life seems to consist in straying.

I continue to be amazed (because unless at some deep unconscious level, I didn’t plan it that way) that so many of these great poems depend on flower imagery or flower metaphor. In Brooks’s poem, weeds and roses become shorthand for back yard and front yard, danger and safety, libido and self-control. The binaries become a kind of system of metaphors, corresponding to one another, where to think about any of the pairs is to think about the rest.

The form of the poem is like that of Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”: lines of different lengths and rhythms, with frequent end-rhyme. But it’s also a colloquial poem. The speaker is educated; her native tongue is Standard English. But along with the stockings and the weeds and the back yard, she wants to play with a non-standard dialect that she finds more lively and exciting.

But does she really want to walk on the wild side, or does she merely want to play? “I’d like to be a bad woman,” she says, but the tone is still hypothetical. Poetry provides vicarious experience. Are most of our desires to pursue more dangerous experiences essentially vicarious? Maybe all poets, and lovers of poetry, are front-yard people longing for an evening “down the alley.”

#52 “Skunk Hour” (Robert Lowell)

Poem #52 on the Countdown, Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” is related to a couple that we’ve read already this semester. It is the direct counterpart to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Armadillo”, and it’s similar in setting (though worlds apart in tone) to Marianne Moore’s “Steeple-Jack”.

Lowell and Bishop wrote these two poems to and for each other, almost as a challenge match. The results are more remarkable than any writing challenge since William Cowper wrote “The Task.” “The Armadillo” is simple and austere (too austere for some of our tastes). “Skunk Hour” is all over the place. It starts in some tiny shore community, full of safe, fussy people. There’s even a church spire! But the safe, fussy people are down-at-heel. The place is full of “eyesores,” its local curiosities “auctioned off,” its “fairy decorator” (the one regrettably dated note of homophobia in the poem) unable to earn a living.

As if giving the lie to Moore’s suggestion that “it could not be dangerous” to live in this kind of town, the speaker of Lowell’s poem goes lavishly out of his mind. As with “The Armadillo,” the poem is titled by and works around to an animal. Again, I think it’s more a literal animal than an emblematic animal. It’s just a skunk, one of the most common North American creatures. Skunks are more comical than dangerous, though their capacity for annoyance is not to be underrated. The skunks that Lowell’s speaker sees don’t threaten him directly. But they seem to have a mind of their own, zombie-like. I especially like the way they get into, mess around with, and otherwise take part in the margins of human lifestyles. Their unhumanness seems a perfect, desperate counterpoint to the speaker’s psychological predicament: to, if you like, his melancholy.

The form of the poem is free verse (no attention to rhyme or meter, just to how the sentences break across the lines). The mode is “confessional,” a mode we’ll see again in the countdown. I wouldn’t conclude from the term that confessional poets open their veins directly onto the page. All poetry is dramatic to some extent. The poet creates a persona, a speaker / character / mask, and lets that persona do the talking. A poem works when we are fascinated by, and identify with, that persona.