Daily Archives: 8 October 2009

#31 untitled (“Fish in the unruffled lakes,” W.H. Auden)

I love it when the Countdown presents me with a poem of such simplicity that commentary seems beside the point. However, commentary is always a joy in itself. Many’s the time I’ve commented on a blog or forum with “Word,” “This,” “LOL,” or D’oh!” Eloquent as the non-comment comment can be, criticism isn’t about just saying you like something; it is, as Anatole France said, “the adventure of the soul in the presence of masterpieces.”

W.H. Auden’s untitled poem that begins “Fish in the unruffled lakes” is the third poem today that compares human experience to that of animals. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the elderly speaker distrusts salmon, mackerels, and any birds except mechanical golden ones. He even distrusts young men and women whose animal natures neglect the pleasures of the mind and soul. He wants to be anything but an animal.

In “Too Marvelous for Words,” by contrast, the speaker thinks that animals are capable of a finer expression of love than human language can convey. To account for a love beyond words, he resorts to borrowing birdsong, or at least says he’s doing something akin to borrowing birdsong. (Music may be more animal than language.)

In “Fish,” the speaker is entirely on the side of the animals. They do what humans can’t: they live out their compulsions and don’t feel bad about it afterwards. (When did you last see a cat slink away after snarfing down a tin of Fancy Feast, guilty about going off his diet?)

Because humans are conscious of past and present, because our memories fix the moments we wish had been different but let slip our greatest comforts and ecstasies, we might well “turn an envious look” on fish, birds, and cats.

But if we lack an animal sense of devil-may-care, we are capable, in return, of doing all things animals can do, and knowing that we have chosen to do them. And as the end of the poem suggests, knowing that we have chosen to do them for others, and that others (as in “Jenny Kissed Me”) have chosen those things for us. That’s hardly the worst recompense for our tortured consciences.


#32 “Too Marvelous for Words” (Johnny Mercer)

“Too Marvelous for Words” by Johnny Mercer is the second (and, I will disclose, last) of the jazz standards from the American “songbook” to be included in the Poetry Countdown. (It only hits #344 on the jazz-standard countdown behind that link. But hey, a lot of those standards have no words to speak of 🙂 )

Again, it’s incumbent on me to defend the choice of a song lyric, however standard, as really matching up with “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Fish in the unruffled lakes.” And I do think that “Too Marvelous” is not only Mercer’s best song lyric, but a lyric poem that would stand up on paper through time even if all the music of the 20th century went the way of the mummies of the Pharaohs.

First of all, the lyric just swings, in a sense that once meant the highest praise in the lexicon of popular music. It is perfectly timed, perfectly rhymed, and intricately patterned – while being eminently sayable and singable.

But then there’s the deeply lyrical idea in the poem. Not just that of love, though to love someone beyond words is one of the most venerable ideas in literary history. (“I were but little happy, if I could say how much,” says one of Shakespeare’s in-love characters.)

But how do we convey a love beyond words? Obviously, by using words. But the poetry here aspires to the condition of music. In fact, it aspires to the condition of nature itself, to an animal call that is beyond, behind, and before language: “A love song from the birds.”

Poetry has never achieved a better expression of the paradox of language stalling at the limits of its own expressiveness – and still wanting to tell somebody about it.

#33 “Sailing to Byzantium” (William Butler Yeats)

The “no country for old men” in William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” is probably Yeats’s native Ireland, famous for its salmon and its mackerel. But it might be anywhere (which is why Cormac McCarthy swiped the line for the title of a story that couldn’t have less to do with Ireland, or Byzantium either, for that matter). “No country for old men” is anywhere physical life goes on to its fullest, while those who lead less-active senior lifestyles are left in the dust.

Age was a factor for Yeats when he wrote the poem in 1928. But he was only 63 that year; he had a young wife and two young children. And though you’re proverbially as old as you feel, he wasn’t quite a “tattered coat upon a stick” just yet. He would live for another ten years – much of it spent writing poetry about how old he was feeling.

But it isn’t just old age that can get you feeling out of place in a country where the young are in one another’s arms. “Sensual music” is a beat not everyone can dance to. “Sailing” is a poem for any of us who have felt out of place, in a world where people are out enjoying the physical to an extent we can’t. And when we can’t, we often turn to art for a pleasure unavailable in the physical world.

“Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” Sitting down with your guitar is OK, but listening to Jimi Hendrix is better. “Byzantium” in the poem is not Jimi Hendrix, who came on the scene a couple of years after Yeats had left it. Nor is it necessarily the literal capital of the great Greek empire that flourished after the fall of Rome. (By 1928, there had been no Greek empire in Byzantium for almost 500 years, and nobody had used the name “Byzantium” in over 1,500. It was Istanbul, not Constantinople, now.)

Byzantium is any culture that provides a rich medium for the flowering of an art form. It was a dead culture by the time Yeats wrote, but lived on in its art and in reproductions and accounts of that art. Just as Jimi Hendrix, of course, is now as dead as Yeats; he lives on only in recordings. The paradox of art is that it stays dead as a doornail, forever; but it is one of the most inspiring things in life. Such is the fate of the poet who flees the physical to become “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.” You can’t have it both ways. And one of the things that I love about this poem is that even while the speaker says he wants to become a nonliving, artificial thing, the poem looks back over its shoulder, longingly, at those “mackerel-crowded seas.”