#8 “Those Winter Sundays” (Robert Hayden)

“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden is a miniature classic of tremendous power. Like so many other poems on the Countdown, it seems (though who knows how it was really composed) to have proceeded from its last two lines, or even from its final line, one of the great iambic pentameters in the English language. Having found, or been “given” that line (poets sometimes speak of a “gift,” their term for their talent in general or a specially beautiful line in particular), Hayden appears to have worked backwards to “earn” the line. What are “love’s austere and lonely offices?”

To work backward from the conclusion, they are things that the speaker didn’t know anything about when he was younger. (He doesn’t say how much younger, but: younger enough to be ignorant, old enough to be ungrateful and embarrassed about it.) “What did I know?” And what were those offices that the speaker knew nothing about?

The poem is devastatingly straightforward; as so often with the best poetry, if there’s a “hidden meaning” here it’s hiding very effectively. The “offices” are domestic. Although the speaker’s father is a breadwinner (“hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather”), his weekend work is all at home. He makes the house warm, and he shines the speaker’s shoes.

The tensions in the poem are all on the surface; they are things that everyone in the family seems to know about but will not discuss. The home is full of “chronic angers,” and because of the anger, nobody ever thanks the father (or because nobody ever thanks him, he’s chronically angry; it’s a vicious cycle).

But because the surface crackles with tension, the things that the speaker ignores are things that he actually knows about. “What did I know?” – well, he knows and remembers everything. But the ritual of the house makes it impossible to communicate gratitude, or even to communicate resentment. The whole system of this kind of family is one of a smoldering discontent that is, because and despite its tension, the truest evidence of love.

#9 “Aubade” (Philip Larkin)

Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is the greatest English-language poem about death. Or perhaps, one should say the greatest poem about a certain view of death. Millay’s “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” captures the irretrievable loss of death for those who survive. Millay’s “Dirge without Music” is a great statement of defiance of death: “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground”; by contrast, Emily Dickinson can be blankly affectless in the face of death:

I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even
Some new equation given;
But what of that?

And Dylan Thomas is famously angry (or angry at the thought that a loved one might not be angry at the prospect of dying):

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Larkin is different. “Aubade” is less emotional than all these poems but Dickinson’s, but far more elaborate and analytical than Dickinson. “Aubade” is in some ways an essay on death. It has features in common with some of the great essayists’ thoughts on the “great stage-curtain.” Francis Bacon said “Of Death” that “It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful, as the other.” But Larkin would answer that it isn’t the pain of death that he’s worried about, but the absence of pain:

this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

Montaigne asked “how is it possible a man should disengage himself from the thought of death, or avoid fancying that it has us, every moment, by the throat? . . . Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.” For Larkin’s speaker, conversing and being familiar with death merely means that death has us all the more by the throat. Unlike Keats, “half in love with easeful death,” Larkin is flat-out petrified, and every additional thought of death
brings “furnace-fear when we are caught without / people or drink.”

But unlike even the most succinct prose essay, Larkin’s poem condenses whole territories of argument into single phrases. Fifty lines here say more than entire books can, and say it in a memorable, almost inevitable way that is scaldingly unflinching. “Death is no different whined at than withstood.”

That tremendous line shows another aspect of Larkin’s work: he tended to place the big payoff, the great line that serves as the kernel of a great poem, somewhat before the end of the poem, with the final few lines or last stanza as a denouement or (to use a more musical term) a coda. It’s not that he backs off a majestic statement, or qualifies it in any way, but that his more ironic sense of rhetoric won’t let him end a poem the way a high Victorian like Tennyson or Matthew Arnold would. He knows there’s always something more to be said. But that doesn’t prevent him from having his say.

#10 “Ode to a Nightingale” (John Keats)

For John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” I will provide a weblog glossary to the unfamiliar language of the poem. Once that’s in place, the magnificent Ode itself is a pretty straightforward poem, full of the tensions between Death and Beauty that characterize so much of Keats’s work.

  • Nightingale: “A secretive bird” with a proverbially beautiful song; associated with nighttime, of course, and thick vegetation. “Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree,” says Juliet to Romeo, trying to persuade him to stay awhile longer, “Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”
  • hemlock: POISON! as this website says. When the Athenians got tired of Socrates, he exited this life by knocking back some hemlock.
  • Lethe: A river in Greek legend. Once you drink of Lethe, your memory is gone forever. Kind of like the garbage-pail punches I drank as an undergraduate, but with a more systemic effect, i.e. instead of just forgetting one weekend in October 1978, you’d forget everything.
  • Dryad: Another regular character from Greek mythology. Dryads are forest spirits, leafy, secretive like the bird Keats compares them to. Sort of nubile and sort of vegetable at the same time.
  • Flora: A Roman vegetation goddess; as her name might suggest, connected with flowers. She gave her name to a whole branch of living things, of course.
  • Provençal: Associated with Provence, in the Southeast of France. A country not unlike Texas in its climate, in other words an awful lot unlike rainy, cloudy, chilly, miserable England.
  • Hippocrene: The fountain of the Muses, and one can imagine that the Muses serve something more potent than Diet Dr Pepper.
  • Bacchus and his pards: Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, and here he is pictured in a sketch by Delacroix, his chariot packed with wine jugs and drawn by two leopards. Actually these look to me more like saber-tooth tigers, but Delacroix had a lot of imagination. “Pard” is an earlier English abbreviation for “leopard,” as in Shakespeare’s soldier “Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard.” Though why 17th-century English people needed an abbreviation for “leopard” is beyond me.
  • White hawthorn: Prickly, showy, fragrant hedge plant common in England.
  • eglantine: A variety of rose, also called sweetbrier. Prickly too, with a lovely open blossom.
  • musk-rose: A huge number of rose varieties are called “musk-roses,” and Keats uses the phrase more for its sound and its suggestion of scent than for any visual cue.
  • clown: No, not Bozo. Keats means the word in its original sense, that of a none-too-refined country man.
  • Ruth: In the book of Ruth, the title character, a young widow, says to her mother-in-law Naomi: “Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after [him] in whose sight I shall find grace.” (Rth 2:2). (And by “corn,” she means “barley.”) This patient gleaning got Ruth a husband, but she had to leave home and hie herself into a strange country to get him. If you have been to a Christian wedding in this country, you have probably heard Ruth’s words: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people [shall be] my people, and thy God my God” (Rth 1:16). Of course, what they usually don’t point out at weddings is that she said this not to her husband but to her mother-in-law.

#11 “Notes on the Peanut” (June Jordan)

When I was in elementary school in the 1960s, we didn’t look back to the Civil Rights era during Black History Month – well, we didn’t have Black History Month at all in the schools I went to in Southern Illinois and South Jersey. It was the middle of the Civil Rights Era, and its history was being contested, sometimes right outside of the schools I went to. No, when we looked at the history of African-Americans, we looked at Crispus Attucks, and at Booker T. Washington, and of course, at the most eminent faculty member at Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the great agronomist and botanist George Washington Carver.

As the linked bio indicates, the most amazing thing we learned about Carver was that he invented 325 different products based on the peanut. (Plus another hundred from the sweet potato. I did not know that.) In fact, I somehow always thought that Carver had invented peanut butter, which would have placed him high in my personal foodie hall of fame, but come to find that “nut-butter” was patented by none other than Kellogg of Battle Creek.

Now, I am as amazed as anyone else by inventions like peanut sausage and peanut linoleum; the list of Carver peanut products behind that link above is every bit as wild and strange as the fictional list created by poet June Jordan in her “Notes on the Peanut” (written in 1980). But as we ritually admired Carver’s ingenuity every year in school, there arose the nagging question: was the entire contribution of black people to American intellectual history located between the halves of a peanut shell? Everywhere else in our history books, we saw only white folks and the occasional Pocahontas or Sacagawea. The one black man we had as a role model was a nutty individual who apparently ran around all day fixing peanut bisque, driving a car powered by peanut diesel.

June Jordan must have shared that suspicion. In her brilliant satiric poem, she pumps tons of hyperbole into Carver’s peanut resumé. She imagines Carver as a lecturer firing up an audience with peanut facts. The absurdity of his inventions mounts, till at some point in the poem it spills over the bounds of parody. We start to see a Carver trapped inside his own peanut universe. The little corner of human endeavor and the natural world that he has been granted by American historians starts to become a grotesque obsession.

The tone of the poem is sharp, unrelenting. Is Jordan laughing at Carver, or with him? At her audience, or with us? When does humor segue into anger, or vice versa? And at what point does stand-up comedy become political?

#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.

#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.