Tag Archives: poetry

Happy G.K. Chesterton on Sad William Cowper


In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton begins an illuminating passage on madness, predestination, reason, and poetry with some observations about the English poet William Cowper:

“[O]nly one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

Auden Explains Poetry, Propaganda, And Reporting


“Poetry is speech at its most personal, the most intimate of dialogues. A poem does not come to life until a reader makes his response to the words written by the poet.

“Propaganda is a monologue which seeks not a response but an echo. To recognize this is not to condemn all propaganda as such. Propaganda is a necessity of all human social life. But to fail to recognize the difference between poetry and propaganda does untold mischief to both: poetry loses its value and propaganda its effectiveness.

“Whatever real social evil exists, poetry, or any of the arts for that matter, is useless as a weapon. Aside from direct political action, the only weapon is factual reportage—photographs, statistics, eyewitness reports.”

—W.H. Auden, in “A Short Defense of Poetry,” an address given at the International PEN Conference in Budapest, October 1967

‘We are symbols and inhabit symbols’


“We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and death, all are emblems; but we sympathize with the symbols, and being infatuated with the economical use of things, we do not know that they are thoughts.” — Emerson, in “The Poet”

To clarify a little bit, a symbol is fully itself, and it stands for something else.

‘East Coker’


Two excerpts for Good Friday from “East Coker” in The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot:

 The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
...
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
 

Allusions and delusions


Poems, songs, and sermons often allude to things the writer believes to be already known by the audience.

Allusions are simply indirect references. In its oldest sense, an allusion was an indirect reference to classical or biblical literature.

So, at the beginning of Hamlet, the prince compares his dead father to Hyperion and his uncle to a satyr. These are allusions to Greek mythology.

And, toward the end of Hamlet, the prince says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” There, Hamlet is alluding to Jesus’s words in The Gospel of Matthew 10:29-30.

Shakespeare wrote in a time when, as he assumed, most of his audience would have some familiarity with both ancient pagan mythology and the Bible.

But, a writer can’t always control the makeup of the audience.

A quick example: While I’m a fan of T.S. Eliot for particular reasons, he wrote some poems that cannot be understood without a classical education and a broad reading experience. Sometimes, Eliot is just “over my head.”

His Anglo-Catholic point of view might have made some of his Christian poems just as opaque as some of his other works.

Eliot’s work was full of literary allusions, and I’m sure those references have made for some wild interpretations that would amuse Eliot and horrify him.

Those allusions could lead to nearly delusional interpretations in the minds of those who are not prepared to read them.

While a writer might have a specific audience in mind, she is probably not worried about keeping people out of the audience.

So when someone “sneaks in,” so to speak, the reader might find himself confused, insulted, exasperated, baffled, or mortified by what has been written, sung, or spoken, because the allusions don’t make sense.

The difficulty for the individual reader is to know when she has really misunderstood something.

For example, the first time I read them, I did not understand William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” or, in a different stream, Russell Edson’s prose poems.

But now that I’ve learned a bit more and spent a bit more time with those literary works, I at least can say I’ve started to understand what these writers were trying to accomplish.

I would not ask you to like those poems, and I would only discuss them with you if you had already expressed an interest in the writers, the works, or related matters. They’re quite different within the body of available poems. “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Edson’s prose poems aren’t for everyone — and few writers should even try to be for everyone.

If someone else “sneaks in” and noisily announces his confusion, insulted-ness, exasperation, bafflement, or mortification, well, that’s the risk the writer takes. The writer just hopes he can reach his intended audience.

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e.e. cummings for the offeratory


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On the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death, a consideration of his poetry


Like eyes of one long dead the empty windows stare
And I fear to cross the garden, I fear to linger there…

from the poem “Alexandrines” by C.S. Lewis

 

C.S. Lewis fan trivia includes the factoid that he died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy and author Aldous Huxley.

But 50th anniversaries tend to be big deals, and on this anniversary, while new documentaries honor JFK, Lewis is receiving a quieter yet substantial honor.

Lewis’s “devotion to [poetry] will be honored this month with the unveiling of a monument at the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, 50 years after his death,” writes Laura C. Mallonee in “The Imaginative Man,” written for PoetryFoundation.org.

Despite being best-known for The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity — as well as maybe The Screwtape Letters — Lewis really, really wanted to be a poet.

In recent years, that biographical factoid received serious scholarly study from Don W. King, who wrote C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse — a project that spurred a study of Lewis’s more-successful poet friend, Ruth Pitter.

In this brief post, I’ll say Lewis’s poetry is interesting for two principle reasons — although for a thorough examination of his poetry, see King’s C.S. Lewis, Poet.

First, Lewis wrote his poetry with an ear tuned to meter. For example, his poem “Alexandrines” is a collection of 13 of the lines for which the poem is named. An alexandrine is a 12-syllable iambic line.

Second, Lewis’s immersion in ancient mythology influenced many of his poems. See, for example, “Vitrea Circe,” which is about the Circe of Homeric legend.

Also see “The Satyr,” which follows a satyr “Through the meadows, through the valleys” where “all the faerie kin he rallies.”

Certainly questions of why Lewis has no intellectual and aesthetic heirs today — especially among the Christians who desperately want someone to pick up the Narnian mantle — can be answered with attention to his history and development as a person.

Lewis was saturated in English poetry and ancient verse, in languages living and dead, in stories historical and mythological.

I suspect many Christian writers who have tried to imitate Lewis jumped the gun and hopped directly into allegories of the Gospels, but Lewis never would have written a book entitled Mere Allegory.

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