Daily Archives: 10 November 2009

#12 “Eros Turannos” (Edwin Arlington Robinson)

“Eros Turannos,” the title of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s greatest poem, is Greek for “Love the King”: although the Greek word τυραννος, usually translated “king”, is also the root of the English word “tyrant”: remember that many ancient Greek states were fierce democracies and had no very high opinion of kings.

Using a unique form (four-stress lines in stanzas that rhyme ABABCCCB), “Eros Turannos” tells the story of a relationship, probably a marriage, that takes place partly in the public eye. Perhaps this is a small town. The setting is highly abstract. But the emotional detail in the poem is precisely etched.

The couple in the poem have stayed together for a long time despite many good reasons to separate. The speaker tells their story by alternating between their perspectives. The relationship is intricate, giving the old cliché “love/hate” a deep texture.

But the poem becomes truly great in its fifth stanza. After spinning a story worthy of a novel, the speaker steps back from the situation and admits that he really has no idea what goes on in relationships:

As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be.

People have a strong urge – once more, I suspect this is universal – to imagine the lives of others. Laura Kopchick has commented on this in a recent blog post; she was prompted by the coming appearance of PostSecret creator Frank Warren here at UTA. Virginia Woolf wrote a great story, “An Unwritten Novel,” about this phenomenon.

Gossip can sometimes harm people, but the speaker of “Eros Turannos” doesn’t think that he is engaged in malicious gossip. “We do no harm,” we writers of unwritten novels, because living itself is so much more excruciating than anything other people can say about it.

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#13 “The Tropics in New York” (Claude McKay)

Claude McKay was the great elder statesman of the literary movement that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. Like most of the poets of that Renaissance, McKay was not from Harlem; in fact, he was not from the U.S. at all. Born in Jamaica in 1890, McKay first came to the U.S. to go to college, and stayed on in New York to live, work, and write during the great ferment of artistic innovation after the First World War.

His great lyric poem “The Tropics in New York” is all about not being from New York. McKay was venerated by younger writers like Langston Hughes, but they didn’t often imitate his style, which was deliberately classicist and old-fashioned. Sometimes, to our ears, McKay’s diction can seem stilted. But in “Tropics” I think it strikes exactly the right note. Even the old spelling “grape fruit” (for once, that’s not a typo!) evokes a world where something as homely (to McKay, and to us in 21st century Texas) as a grapefruit can look out of place and exotic.

It’s a poem, if you will, about the world being flat. Nowadays, the fruit that McKay saw piled up at corner stalls in his post-WWI city is available in every supermarket in America. Not so much in the 1920s, when mangoes and “alligator pears” (avocados!) were rare luxuries. But New York, then as now, is a place where luxuries from every corner of the world are everyday sights. It is a city of immigrants – from around the globe and around the U.S. And it is a city where nostalgia is a way of life: for homelands far away, and for the past.

Both homeland and past converge in “The Tropics in New York” in one of the most delicately-rendered evocations of displacement in American poetry.

#14 “Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

I first encountered Edna Millay’s “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” in an anthology – perhaps the original Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). Some critic quoted there referred to “Childhood,” published in 1937, as “the first 21st-century poem.” Since this was long before the 21st century, it’s a curious thing to have said. The comment was evidently high praise: Millay, writing in the first half of the 20th century, was thereby considered to be well ahead of her time. But it’s also a call for 21st-century poetry to be like “Childhood”: free in form, ruthless in observation, drained of sentimentality.

The critic’s comment is also a kind of aggressive defense of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Even in the 1920s and 30s, when Millay was one of the most popular American poets, she was seen as slightly embarrassing to highbrow, avant-garde, and High Modernist writers and readers. Her poems were always very accessible – a key element of her popularity, of course. They discussed things of interest to women of the college-educated upper-middle and upper-classes. Millay herself was from a lower-middle-class background, but her years at Vassar brought her upward class mobility. Millay was associated with Greenwich Village in its most bohemian years, and could debauch with the best of them:

My candle burns at both ends;
    It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
    It gives a lovely light!

But at heart she needed a kind of starchy, proper, New England presence in her poetry, if only as a counterpoint to the somewhat risqué, leftist, and feminist ideas she could espouse. And that starchy diction, as in “Childhood,” drew scorn from the more experimental writers among her contemporaries (while her success, possibly, drew their envy).

“Childhood” is one of the great free-verse poems in the English language, completely cut loose from rhyme and meter. Strongly attached to its time, place, and social class (how many of us talk to bishops?) it nevertheless speaks to all of us, I think. All societies have their conservative elements and their finicky people, their cultural practices that enforce routine in order to stave off the thoughts of death, in order to socialize children into a world where we just don’t talk about or think about certain things.

Many of us have lost people very close to us in childhood, of course. Millay hardly means that children are guaranteed against such loss. It’s just that, when it happens, childhood is over.