Wallace Stevens

This week on the radio show I’ll be playing poetry written by Wallace Stevens. Stevens has been described as a modernist poet. Detractors have said his work can, at times, be unnecessarily complex and inaccessible. Others have described him as a master stylist and a philosopher of aesthetics.

Personally, I think Stevens has left a legacy that we’re going to continue enjoying.

Back in May I discussed W H Auden’s poem Death’s Echo which I compared to Herrick’s To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time. I could equally have mentioned The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens as another work that advocates the carpe diem mindset. After all, do we care about any emperor other than the emperor of ice-cream?

The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. 

Wallace Stevens

Thomas Hardy

This weekend, on the radio show, I’ll be playing poetry from Thomas Hardy. I’m not wholly familiar with Hardy’s work. I know he was a prolific novelist as well as a competent poet. But my main area of knowledge with his writing comes from the following triolet.
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee!
– Have the slow years not brought to view
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Nor memory shaped old times anew,
   Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee
How great my grief, my joys how few,
   Since first it was my fate to know thee?
It’s sad to admit but I only know this piece because I’ve taught students to write triolets and used this one as an exemplar. The triolet is eight lines of end–rhymed poetry that follows a pattern of A B a A a b A B (where capitals indicate refrains or repeated lines). And, whilst Hardy’s triolet does work well to demonstrate how the form can be used, I don’t think it’s his best writing.
Personally, I feel this poem, from his Wessex Poems, is a piece of more accomplished writing.
We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
–They had fallen from an ash, and were grey.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing. . . .
Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with greyish leaves.
That third verse is heart-breaking: The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing... Hardy has already prepared us that this romance is going to end poorly. He’s already set the tone for this upset. We’ve been immersed in grey leaves, fallen from an ash to land upon a starving sod. Now we’re seeing the misery of the doomed relationship in all its sad, sullen glory.

I don’t know what other treats I’m likely to find in Wessex Poems, but I know I’m already excited at the prospect of finding out more about this writer.

I H8 Internet

I was searching online this morning for a copy of a particular poem: ‘Clown in the Moon’ from Dylan Thomas. This is a version of it.

Clown in the Moon

My tears are like the quiet drift
Of petals from some magic rose;
And all my grief flows from the rift
Of unremembered skies and snows.

I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream.

Dylan Thomas
I’m not going to bother praising the poem’s merits. If you’ve just read the above you can see the simplicity of his writing, you can understand the efficacy of meaning through the clarity of lexical choices, and you can sense the shift of focus from the first quatrain with its rhyme and poetic precision, to the unrhymed crafted chaos of the second quatrain.  
Instead of praising Thomas’s accessible and rhythmic poetry, I thought I’d moan about the difficulty in finding poetry on the internet.
This morning I first visited one of the more successful online poetry archives. They’ve decided to use software that now ‘reads’ the poem aloud. As a facility to help the visually impaired, I think this is brilliant. But, unless this is a facility intended to annoy the rest of us, I don’t think it works.
Listening to a computer read poetry, a computer that is bereft of humanity and compassion, is like listening to the tone deaf playing music and singing songs. (Ironically, the site was also littered with adverts for the latest One Direction album, but that’s a rant for another morning). Admittedly, I don’t like any website that assaults me with noise: whether it’s adverts, music, One Direction or Shakespeare performed by the Casio Speak ’n’ Spell. I think I’ve lost more years to those bursts of unexpected noise than can be attributed to all the decades I spent smoking and drinking.
Consider the rhythmic quality of Thomas’s famous villanelle, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.’

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
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.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas
Don’t get me wrong. Computers are good. But text-to-voice technology isn’t yet sufficiently advanced so that a computer can read Dylan Thomas as he’s supposed to be appreciated.
I’ll be playing a selection of Thomas’s poetry on Saturday night’s poetry show. None of the readings will be performed by computer. This is the poet reading his own work. This is how a poem should be enjoyed.

What If?

 This weekend on A Poetry Show, we’re going to be playing poetry from war poet Wilfred Owen.

Owen died one week before the First World War ended. He had published some poems before he died but the main body of work we know today came from the efforts of Owen’s fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, collating and compiling the pages found in Owen’s effects. This was the preface that Sassoon found amongst Owen’s possessions.
This book is not about heroes.  English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.  Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or power,
                                     except War.
       Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
       The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
       The Poetry is in the pity.
       Yet these elegies are not to this generation,
               This is in no sense consolatory.
       They may be to the next.
       All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
       That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

       If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives Prussia,–my ambition and those names will be content; for they will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders.
Perhaps one of the most maddening aspects of Owen’s poetry is that it was invested so much in the war that eventually killed him. It’s understandable that he should write about the horrors and atrocities that surrounded him. But, given his ability to convey a clarity of sentiment, one has to wonder what poetry he might have produced if he had been able to write during peacetime.
Obviously, he was demonstrating the truthfulness of the true poet. But, still, it would have been interesting to see what insights could have been provided from the author of works such as Dulce et Decorum Est, Anthem for Doomed Youth and the following, seldom visited sonnet: The End.
The End
After the blast of lightning from the east,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot throne,
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased
And from the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall Life renew these bodies?  Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
Or fill these void veins full again with youth
And wash with an immortal water age?
When I do ask white Age, he saith not so,–
“My head hangs weighed with snow.”
And when I hearken to the Earth she saith
My fiery heart sinks aching.  It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified
Nor my titanic tears the seas be dried.”
Wilfred Owen
Join us on Saturday night on A Poetry Show to hear more work from this extraordinary poet.