Thursday, April 16, 2015
A review of g emil reutter’s Carvings
Paperback: 144 pages
Publisher: StoneGarden.net Publishing (November 20, 2010)
Review by P C K Prem
A collection of verses, Carvings (Stonegarden.net Publishing California, USA 2010) celebrates life’s experiences picturesquely and underlines universal viewpoint.
g emil reutter is effortless and placid as he thinks, writes, and excavates the trajectory of life, its little experiences, happenings and words. He talks of feelings and tiny thoughts and recognizes familiar patterns in trivial happenings, otherwise infusing meaning to life. He looks at life, its wrecks, uproars and triumphs, losses, childlike promises and pains, paints pulsating and striking word pictures, clings to the soil of experiences and hides a few truths and half-truths. g emil’s lyrics dig deep, thrill, coax and abandon in between somewhere or possibly nowhere, and you still breathe in lyrical sparkles. He charms, haunts and taunts with the objet d'art. Like Anne Ridler, g emil’s lyrics focus on experiences is significant and it highlights modern perspective with subjectivity in narration of tiny incidents constituting life.
If a man aspires for more, life is miserable. Limiting desires enriches and world looks worth living even in chaotic settings. A petty man often does not boast but speaks truth in great lingo. If one humiliates a little poor man, even if wisely pragmatic it repulses. Men hide intrinsic flaws and inanity. Adoring man lives with a rationale ‘Brief Moments’ conveys. A man is hardnosed and uncaring to others’ sufferings. Ambulance and police car are symbolic of fake tragic anxiety- a paradox. ‘Sirens in the night’ is a wakeup call to get up, help the suffering, bring innovation and avoid a beaten track, for stupor and passivity immobilize an impotent shrunken age. Visiting and collecting remnants of past turns out a possession 26 he thinks.
A figurative reprimand in ‘Puddle in the dust’ pierces as thoughts of absolute void reoccur in ‘Rain and Linear Lines.’ Emptiness confronts a man with a lost objective. It is atypical when g emil raises eternal questions in ‘Ever So slowly’ 29, as destiny puzzles.
Pull up the shades open the window,
Fresh air fills the room venture out.
The time when one is alone,
Reality sets in, choices made,
A new home, time to move on.
Man takes birth, wakes up, works hard, grows bald, belly protrudes, and abruptly, he faces the enigma of redundancy from failure to success amid agonized tang.
Invoking nature for interpreting love is a strong weapon men pick to enhance intensity. ‘Nature’12 avidly talks of created beings as sunrays pierce and instill life. He recalls old romance as beauty and vastness of love of the beloved electrifies.
I know the myths of great
power, emotion, seduction; all that pale when
I look into your eyes…
I had forgotten long ago; your soft touch surreal
until your lips meet mine, my hands cup the
small of your back and reality takes hold.
Love-feelings seize in ‘Eliot and Love’ 15 as a beloved eternalizes a joyful experience. Magical feelings travel in ‘The Waters by New Hope.’ Time spent in love carries an ineffaceable impress –the eyes, the red cheeks and a warm embrace charm and thrill ‘as hope continues to /be restored each day I am /drawn closer to you’. To resurrect intensity defies portrayal and sharing, an exclusive experience that trickles in ‘Yellow Pages, Concourse and Shopping’ and speaks differently of love-tale-time gone, as memoirs revitalize thrills and pains.
Recognition of the eyes never seems to leave us
Histories exchanged we said our goodbyes
She as beautiful as that first day in junior high…
Intimacy continues undefined as a slow collapse in relations cautions. A voice known and still anonymous, perhaps an old love with unstipulated identity, turns an instant, sensitive.
Façade of elegance and grace
gives way to words
that draw me near
to bask in the radiant smile
eyes I cannot look away from. (Not an Old Testament Psalm 39)
Debris from past refresh old bonds lived and cherished passionately make running away edgily irresistible and create an aura of supernatural experience when a fanatical lover (Orbit 139) loves words dipping from the lips of a beloved…and takes a lover to unfamiliar land of ecstasy.
Ironically, experience of a night wasted proves acerbic. People drink but it offers no pleasure. A man enjoys life if sane or else stimulants dishearten and renounce. ‘Beer and Marlboros’ 13 signifies feral life wasted. In many verses like ‘Stormy Night’ 48, a night of drinks, passions and joys appears vain and sordid. A thought of joy flows in Blue Jay 17 narrating a strictly private experience. When one watches nature alone, one cannot share fulfillment. ‘Nature’ fills man with an experience of hugeness and stunning depth.
I cannot for if I do the flow will turn to a trickle the ocean will not be met.
Sun showers break out, droplets caress my skin and I envy the Atlantic.
(Envy the Atlantic 34)
A man is a merely a droplet, a trickle before the huge ocean. Awfully engaged in various pursuits, ‘City’ paints a picture when roads bubble as ‘Sweat beads drip along her arching spine, / chest heaving forward—/moaning and alone./The homeless guys /wear coats in the summer’ 38. The kids run about and play mischief and worn-out women sit to relax without ever thinking why the cops run around. Everyone is busily hectic and lives in safe restricted dwelling. Anxieties of a father for a daughter who travels on an errand are genuine, for security perturbs in a difficult age and women’s safety worries parents.
you and remember all those things a father never forgets about
a daughter; you are with me, safe from your travel.” Travel 55
In an age of crisis, each one wants an identity. To leave footprints and identity in a period of convolution overwhelm. Man exists and still appears nonexistent. Life between yes and no, with no specifics, torments in contrasting mind-sets. Man thinks people love but hate governs life as he suffocates in stifling emptiness and builds shelter in a hollow carrying philosophic strain. He talks of pragmatic approach, warns against meddlers in life, for they do nothing but only talk, suggest and advice, gossip and run away from responsibility.
Nostalgia lengthens out, as one looks at the frames pegged on walls, opens windows but looks at the world inside.
people in frames hang on wall
shelves full of memories… (Window open, 14)
Breathing in reminiscences, offers contentment. Everyone goes back and back to reconstruct cheery meadows. ‘Snowstorm’ 27 is reliving ‘and I savor this small memory /of those who have passed on to another place.’ Man vibrantly recalls days spent in the warmth of mom, now dead but the house breathes in mother’s aroma. In Carvings 40, a common wish finds expression. Somewhere, a man wants people to remember or may be, if he comes back, he revisits areas of shared memories.
It makes one wonder
where these people have gone,
and if they are standing
as tall and proud as the tree.
Memories of dead relations stay refreshing. A man without feeling for human relations is almost dead, for among bonds one lives a happy and definite life. (Emil 79) Past opens a photo album, a journey begins and one finds the dead alive the moment one touches…for little memories are tiny ‘pieces of life’. A man ignores the living and enjoys in memories of the dead –a hypocritical, perhaps an unwise outlook. ‘Open Hearth’ relates to frightful tomblike experience. When man experiences death so near, he fears, tastes, defeats death to relate an experience and goes back, and observes a melancholic strain in depiction elsewhere in ‘At the Station.’
In a slightly different vein, ‘Leather Couch’ 43 talks about the mental state and gives feelings of hell and heaven. “in this moment of silence so much is said and I know/ what heaven is like, not what the pious say it is,/ just what it is when I sit on the couch holding you.’ A man lives in false awakening, false youth and dreams and as old age dawns he resurrect jaunts.
Curiosity rises each moment as one sits on the steps and finds a girl next-door smoking even as pleasantries excite, an old woman looking questionably at the man flinging glances and at another corner, old women’s talks barely interest adolescents, creates a scenic marvel. None is prominent, nothing happens ever and still ordinary people stay central. A few loving, warm and passionate moments offer unique stimulation. One rejoices in impish feelings as coffee, cigarette and smoke define movements of words, lips, feelings and passions.
The telephone rings and I hear
your voice, extinguish the smoke, the coffee goes
cold. I sleep in the warmth of your voice. (Warm January Night 44)
It speaks of the state of mind, a bare truth. Engaged in various pursuits, a man visits graveyards and pays floral tributes…in many verses he evokes tepid loving moments.
Plastic flowers can be as cold as granite
even when the intention is warm…
In that strange way, cemeteries are for the
living not the dead… (Resurrection 45)
He speaks of depth, of reluctance in expression and love unlimited and the strain of love continues.
“Do you think we will live that long?”
“Yes,” I say
And we will make it look dam good
Again ‘the beauty that is you/draws me near each day/the smile/that took away darkness’ (You 75) speak of love, earthily and ethereal. ‘A Day without You’ 81 demonstrates passion as the lover waits for the beloved and glorious time. Elsewhere, he requests to understand life, for each little episode or occasion is noteworthy. Genuine efforts to value the mysterious flow of life reveals rationale and import. In ‘Re-creation’ 122, the poet is thoughtful and talks of a botched, withered life, wishes to restructure life and trim ‘infected’ weeds to recreate a lost man.
He talks of a routine human attribute. One reads a newspaper, and observes most of the words provide irrelevant gratification and joy. Papers speak of incidents, events, politicians, persons noble and scoundrels, films and actors -hot and frigid that in nutshell constitutes psyche of society. Soldiers’ death somewhere does not create a stir. Families suffer but none worries. Men are inhuman and cold but sympathy looks false, a two-faced attitude. News about the price of rice, gas, oil and daily necessities attracts interest. A man lives in cocoons of self-image, and death of close relations creates little noise and so a man lives secure in self-built cubicle.
You won’t read about families
grieving, devastated by loss
of never being complete again
those complaining about
the price of rice, gas and parking
of global warming
of how bad your day has gone. (News 18)
Greatly stressful yet warm, agonizing but pleasure giving strain travels in a few verses. Life in routine offers no pleasure. One meets people, talks, smiles, separates and forgets but life moves with a motif and still without purpose. Everyone looks at life through a window and experiences joy of a large park, a mere thought.
One is mechanical in acts and words, and acts even when none watches. Engaged in monotonous matters without inkling, a man feels focused. He starts with an objective and ends up without any purpose as vanity stares. ‘It is Just the Nature of Things’ 116 that a man grows and, ‘…sees the real nature of things, /‘as I move toward the noon of my life/ with these eyes that have witnessed the/ worst in the human condition…’ speaks of life’s experience in bits and in whole but a man reaches everywhere, and still nowhere.
He is graphic, vivid and genuine. ‘It’s Tuesday’ 133, a wonderful lyric tells about the business and jokes aged men indulge in, speaks of the puffs and dreams of youngsters at some isolated corners, of pastors getting ready for prayers… nothing escapes him -an observer par excellence. Bitter and unsavoury experiences and encounters educate. Time, place and persons do not always favour and gratify. Even adverse happenings offer a lesson but adversity also exists without a rider, for ‘Everyone has something nice to say.’
‘Smell of Pines Oak Canopy’ 59 sings song of beauty and charm. He is realistic- ‘winters are tough /energy drained /natures’ renewal/ fills me /a seedling/ canopy above.’ Love for nature thrills in ‘Boom Boom Boom’ with a different strain. He is disturbed when ‘gray clouds above weep/ and you/ can’t stop thinking … and ‘You can’t stop thinking/ as water beads streak across/ windows that surround you/ joining the gray clouds’ ‘Gray Day’ 123. A man relates pains and anguish to the objects of nature and nature sympathizes with the man in suffering, ‘April sun stands behind dreary/ clouds with no intention of casting/ streams of light, rainbows, just the/ melancholy of mist, gentle wind/ drizzle sprays the soggy ground,’ ‘Melancholy’ 124.
Melancholy haunts a sensitive poet and in contemplative moments, man tries to seek relief in nature, a perennial truth.
g emil experiences life in little bits and pieces and presents a rational viewpoint. He looks at life, paints fantastic word-pictures, and connects each one to everyone without philosophic stress. As one reads verses, one enjoys a pleasing fragrance without intellectual hang-ups and encounters enlightened realization in love despite balmy ennui life offers. Through seemingly little and often unobtrusive incidents and innocuous experiences, he builds a structure of thought and creates a favourable audience response and here, g emil demonstrates poetic strength.
An author of more than forty books in English and Hindi, P C K Prem (p c katoch) post-graduated in English literature from Punjab University, Chandigarh in 1970, taught in different colleges before shifting to civil services and then served as a Member, Himachal Public Service Commission. With three books on criticism in English, seven novels and two collections of short fiction, he has brought out nine volumes of poetry. Katoch Prem (a winner of several awards) is a poet, novelist, short storywriter and critic in English from Himachal, India
Monday, April 13, 2015
|Poet Donald Lev|
Where I Sit, poems by Donald Lev, Presa Press, P.O. 792, Rockford, Michigan 49341, 88 pages, $15.95.
Review by Barbara Bialick
The first thing I noticed about the book Where I Sit was the appealing cover painting of a young woman sitting alone in a restaurant with a glass of red wine. This collection must be by someone who knows a lot about life, I thought. Then I felt the paper, the paper of the book itself, which was so smooth, I could easily turn from poem to poem. I did not however, pick up sensuality as a theme, however. More like thoughts from a craggy, older, male journalist who writes for a living, never at a loss for a word he thinks will be a zinger.
“Spring has come,/With a lot of wind and sun/And rain./Pain, too,/To rhyme with rain./Not that I needed the rhyme. I just/Wanted it.”
Such are these poems. The author writes them short and quick because he “wants it” that way.
His style then is like in the poem “One Brick at a Time”—in which he steals bricks from a shopping mall construction site that seems to be overly loaded with them. The shopping mall long built, he still hasn’t built anything with the bricks he took. He’s still “working on it”…
But Lev has thought a lot about time. He’s older than us baby boomer poets who think we know it all. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, in 1945, he was already nine years old and “had known no other president…I thought I’d tell you this,” he wrote.
So if you buy this book you can probably learn a few ideas. In “All Art” he says, “I always begin with the frame./All art is limitation.”
He may say he’s “clueless” that he’s had a “long, clueless life”, but that is his “boast.”
He’s not really clueless at all… Donald Lev, born in 1936, lives in High Falls, New York, where he publishes The Home Planet News, which he founded with his late wife, Enid Dame in 1979. He went to Hunter College and worked at both The Daily News and The New York Times. He is the author of eleven collections of poetry including A Very Funny Fellow, NYQ Books, in 2012. He has coordinated poetry readings at many venues and hosted “Open Poetry” on WNYC Radio.
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
The Moon in the Pool
Poems by Gary Metras
Review by Dennis Daly
Riding the downward arc of life through dreams of innocence and the corrupting madness of unresolved history, Gary Metras finds resolution and rebirth in the gravitational rush of flood waters and nature’s indifferent but wondrously mnemonic tokens. Right at the onset of this collection Metras stakes out his territory. In his piece Seven Stones for Seven Poems the poet considers how the human mind connects with the past utilizing tangible mementos infused with poetic power and timeless wisdom. But when the past intrudes, watch out. Unsettled memories and discomfort may ensue. Here follows one of the seven poetic sections, a telling but uncomfortable one,
In Biloxi, Mississippi, in the filth
I saw a stone so ugly
it could have been carried great distances
by trolls. I shot it
with spit, walked on and heard
someone shout, “Hey Yankee!
Fuck you in your Yankee asshole!”
I didn’t know it
then, but I was safer
walking among the beggars of Istanbul.
my own age asked me,
in their forceful way, to lick
and take it with me, which I did.
This is the stone of hatred.
Unrequited dreams command attention when they nuzzle into the work-a-day world of survival. Metras accommodates love’s ignored details in his aptly titled poem Working Class Villanelle. Hardships of patched denim and diapers and food stamps aside, dreamy obsessions will out. The poet’s sense of lyrical balance and tone in this formalized piece, which doubles as the title poem, leaves one breathless. The composition concludes with a measure of pluck,
Oh yes, work and denial have a grace.
But what becomes of the love
Drowning in the lack of midnight?
Come, moon. Come, shouts a ten year dream.
There is money in the bank to be spent.
The lovers are loving in the grace of midnight
In the moon in the pool.
Passing on a hammer from generation to generation serves multiple purposes. First, it gives one a token to remember the past. Second, it connects lives over time by creative function. Thirdly, it instils almost a godlike (think Thor) responsibility to pass on stored memory to those who come after. By this transfer of knowledge seniors offer continuing protection to human kind. Often this stored wisdom needs to be tweaked or repaired wholesale in the face of changing nature or alien threats. The importance of tools and practicality Metras reflects on in a poem that he, not surprisingly, entitles The Hammer. Consider these lines detailing the efficaciousness of this powerful symbol from the heart of the piece,
And now the hammer needs a new handle. Thirty years
of apartments and houses,
of shelves for clothes and books and out-grown toys,
of warped and ant-eaten clapboards,
door jams out of plumb, tree forts,
even the stuck faucet felt the hammer’s weight.
Its wood handle gripped and stained with sweat and
Its steel head dull but solid, older even than I am.
The wood handle split down the middle one day
when banging chisel to name a rock in the flower bed.
When the hounds of heaven are loosed Trappist monks and certain poets pray. Metras, after invoking the ghost of Thomas Merton, seems to number himself among those poets in this collection’s masterwork entitled The Rain, The Flood. In this seven section piece Metras’ Cistercian-like persona voices his personal stoicism in the face of collapsing society. Surrounded by the merciless music and madness of existence, the poet counsels acceptance and forgiveness. Water acts as a great destroyer, but also exhibits even greater powers of cleansing. Metras puts it this way,
Who questions rain
pitting the asphalt of our lives,
clotting in the turnings of culverts
and storm drains with the litter
of our lust, when all it wants
is that singular, downward journey?
Down the river bank
the old beech tree at the bend,
its roots rain-bared a little more
each year, will soon plunge
into the welcoming surge with
the grace of a clipped-wing angel.
Set in Istanbul Turkey Metras’ piece entitled Meditation on Chestnuts emits in its smoky timelessness an exotic fragrance indeed. I like this poem a lot. Outside the Grand Bazaar (I’ve stood in that exact spot—years ago) this purveyor of roasted chestnuts tends to his business through the centuries. Details change but the essentials survive and connect the ages. The poem opens inscrutably,
The chestnut roaster on the street outside
the Grand Bazaar ignores tourists coming
and going, ignores the glitter and noise
inside the shops, so busy cooking and
peeling, so intent arranging chestnuts –
arcs inside of arcs on the hot plate, row
after row, some cooked, some raw, all
arcing like a prayer…
Toward the end of the collection Metras places his poem April. Tulips and melting snow bring with them more unwelcome happenings. It is, after all, New England. Cruel jokes, thawing dead animals, and gossip carry the day. Yet there is beauty as seen from above by the universal lunar observer. The poet urges connection and cautious engagement and he expects nothing but the raw material of living. Metras opens this poem with man’s adaptation after the tumble of a failed dream. He says,
A neighbor is a builder. He loves April,
digs foundations, whistling. That before
the housing crash. Now he has some
sheep and goats. He doesn’t sing to them
as he shovels hay in, manure out.
These poems in total beget silence and contemplation. Like fast moving water from ice-packed heights, Metras’ words fall over us, crystalline and cleansing. Their impact: indisputably bracing.
Tuesday, April 07, 2015
Monday, April 06, 2015
David Ferry and a Difference with Poetry:
Ellery Street, a new selected from The Grolier Press
article by Michael T. Steffen
Because he has been accomplished and acclaimed as a translator of literary classics in poetry (Gilgamesh, Horace, Virgil), the achievement of David Ferry’s original poetry has been little taken on. It is a question that made Poetry magazine’s editor Christian Wiman speculate in his presentation of Ferry’s Ruth B. Lilly Prize back in 2011. Wiman’s thought was that in time Ferry’s own poems would be equally acknowledged and appreciated. One step toward that has been taken. As part of the Grolier Series of Established Poets, Ifeanyi Menkiti has brought out a choice selection of Ferry’s original poems with the title Ellery Street, after one of the poems selected from Ferry’s 1983 Strangers: A Book of Poems (and an actual street near the Cambridge Public Library where the poet lived between 1960 and 1996).
One thing poetry most definitely allows the individual is a space for private revolt. In the case of Ferry, who has been so diligent, reliable and true under his classical poets—really what could we expect but the snail (an image from Ferry of the beauty of the body) struggling from its elaborate onerous shell and just relishing in venting some complaints about the tomb of scholarship from the point of view of just a man with lungs to fill with air, eyes with light, looking back at the reading room and calling the scholars out for their “imbecile gaze.” Ecclesiastes warns us there’s weariness in writing many books.
It is an amusing paradox for the reader, and a testament to the persistent inspiration of poetry, as well as to the poet’s brilliance with the dilemma to sing of “human unsuccess” (Yeats) with Ferry’s demonstrative rather than literal way about it. Beyond letting out that there is something “imbecile” about erudition and this earnest game of poetry, inextricable—du-uh—from language and scholarship, Ferry’s poetry wants to be awkward, say, enough to include a snail, an old lady with terribly scarred legs and a fat girl as examples of “how beautiful…the body” to consider along with the supposedly enviable, obvious image of youth in its prime:
A boy passes by, his bare
Chest flashing like a shield in the summer air;
The king, going to the drug store.
The bare chest “flashing”—like the shield of one of Virgil’s heroes! And the discreet seemliness of the couplet separated by the spacing (…bare/…air). David Ferry possesses the wherewithal to write as he chooses. Yet for his private fedupness with the insistent triumphal shades and laurels of the fifth art, and genuine sense of humility and love for ordinariness, he chooses to be patient and illustrative rather than argumentative, meandering rather than terse and punchy. It is original, very different in its allowances from the streamline verse that fills so many new books and journals these days.
It is as if, shedding the pomp of Roman empire hexameters, odes and epodes, Ferry has woken another old friend, William Wordsworth, to go outside and look around, at—impatiens in the garden. Or to listen to the timely clicking of leaves on an impossibly hot October afternoon. His ear is so attuned to what’s going on with nature and human nature around him. He picks up on the subtlety of a mature man’s lesson about temperament conveyed to a teenager, through the deliberately slowed rhythm of dribbling a basketball. The ball bounces like the formal scansion of a line of poetry. As there’s a “court” in playing this and other ball games, Ferry reminds us of the original higher ideal of our bearing in this play, called sportsmanship, giving the poem the title “Courtesy.” How we played sports (we used to be told) was just as important as competing to win. Brutal victory at any cost was frowned on. Ferry goes about to remind us, though he is not preachy or pedantic about it, of such effaced virtues. Doing so, Ifeanyi Menkiti has brilliantly observed in his introduction to Ellery Street, these poems countenance “a certain way of managing the breakdown of our various powers and affections, so that all is not lost.”
This particular continuity of sensibility endures the paradoxes of time, to a somewhat disturbing glimpse of the body in the poem “At a Street Corner” from Ferry’s 2012 National Book Award winning Bewilderment:
Look here, look at my hands,
They look like little wet toads
After a rainstorm’s over,
Hopping, hopping, hopping.
This is one of the values of the selection: having the occasion to let Ferry’s original poems echo off one another, with variety reflected in the poet’s signature themes, his suspicion for language and concepts, the intractable element of the world in our observations and experiences (which leave us “bewildered”), the dissociation (even dispossession) between ourselves and our bodies—memorably recorded by the ambiguous arrival in “At a Bus Stop; Eurydice” :
She was amazed, amazed.
Can death really take me?
The bus went away.
It took the old lady away.
Ifeanyi Menkiti has taken great care in editing and introducing this selection. Maybe one reader will wonder, Where is “Everybody’s Tree”? or What about “Learning from History”? Generating discourse will be another great benefit of this wonderful book showcasing one of the Boston area’s and one of America’s most prized and genuinely appreciated poets.
Ellery Street by David Ferry
edited in the Grolier Established Poets Series
is available for $18.00
at The Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Friday, April 03, 2015
There Will Be Time at 100 Years: T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Michael T. Steffen
T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Michael T. Steffen
The tuning of the ear for poetry changes so much in the course of 100 years from poet to poet individually as well as for a collective readership. Indeed, within only a few years of first publishing
The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock in the June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine, T. S. Eliot was on the verge of processing the crux of his secular experience, upon the threshold of writing The Waste Land and joining a more rarified coterie of appreciation—becoming seriously challenging for readers. He was making moral terminology blare, scrivening names for their tonal rather than referential significations, forging nature and objects into symbol, codified, as in this passage from “Gerontion”:
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles…
It is still important to know there was little innocence creeping toward World War II. Yet for readers of poetry who want lines they can fathom and appreciate, the passage from Prufrock beginning with “The yellow fog that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” will light up curiosity and recognition in most attentive readers being enchanted to the vision of a feline anima in the quiet gliding movements of wisps of fog:
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
It is a durable passage, so long as there are cats that behave in the character of cats and fog in the world for readers to have something to make the lines and its images relevant, and brilliant in the metaphor of their superposition.
Inspired by the title of Kipling’s “The Love Song of Har Dyal,” Eliot called his poem a love song. It proves a very peculiar love song at that, I thought upon first discovering Prufrock, at 21 going on 67.
At that still mostly world-protected age, the sour ingredients of life recorded in the poem had not been experienced very much. I hadn’t had that close of an encounter with “a patient etherised upon a table,” “half deserted streets,” “yellow fog” or “yellow smoke.” I hadn’t come to the intellectual exasperation and rage to out-Herod Ecclesiastes with “time to murder and create”—(the expression of a generation’s bitterness with the institutional politics making decisions for the trench warfare killings in France).
I was just then only becoming aware of the “bald spot in the middle of my hair.” I had a slight, maybe somewhat nervous laugh for Prufrock’s loneliness, the narrow streets he walked, his caution at eating a peach and delicacy to call it a peach.
With that peach, and other images in his early poetry, was Eliot irresponsibly making risky suggestions to his innocent reader? Or have art and literature been permitted more license in their depictions of the serpent whispering to Eve in the garden? Is truth to outweigh grace? Going back at least to Chaucer, one of the distinctions of poets writing in English has been their failure to idealize or chastise their subjects too much. In his essay on Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, Eliot cautioned us against mistaking identities between Hamlet the sympathetic character and Hamlet the play of his world of intrigues and miscarried acts, let alone mistaking the character for the dramatist. Prufrock descends via Browning in
a tradition of dramatic poetry whose readers should understand the distance between character and author, between mirror and gavel.
My early reading, as it is said of our hearing sometimes, was selective, according to my young optimism for a good and pleasurable world. In spite of the decadence and anxiety that imbue Prufrock, the poem evokes a sort of euphoria in its imagery, in a music of formal rhythms and resonant rimes. Holding onto the good, letting the bad sift through, or downplaying it (even Prufrock’s weariness with his pleasures and comforts), the poem, reading it over, kept swaying me with its “evening spread out against the sky,” “our visit,” “the women come and go” and “Michelangelo,” his “collar mounting firmly to the chin,” his “necktie rich and modest,” and, promising sensuality, “arms that are braceleted and white and bare” and again “Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.” I hadn’t come to historical criticism yet, to think that Eliot wrote these lines during the “war to end all wars,” when the word “arms” connoted with undertones of dissonance. (Nor would this be the first time I’d encounter the association between Venus and Mars.)
I was lulled by how “the afternoon, the evening sleeps so peacefully!”—not understanding that exclamation mark, that the reason Prufrock found himself walking those argumentative streets through the night till dawn was because he’d been napping earlier in the day. Yet I went on relishing in the “tea and cakes and ices,” “the cups, the marmalade, the tea … novels … teacups,” the “sprinkled streets,” the “skirts that trail along the floor,” and “mermaids singing…riding seaward on the waves, Combing the white hair of the waves blown back…”
While Prufrock was amusing and genuine in his intellectual dilemma, Eliot who channeled the genius
of the poem’s language, suggesting a considerable literary culture, impressed me. I was getting how much a poet could mean to his culture and what authority that gave him. You’d have to be afraid of her before you could get cheeky enough to ask, Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf ?—with help from the popular song for the Disney cartoon. The great writers and intellectuals of that age were awarded a dignity, even with a little disdain, that is difficult by our standards to comprehend. History with the European wars had heroes and authority in the making. My parents’ generation was shaken by the Civil Rights movement, which for the West challenged and softened, in some cases altogether blurred or erased, relationships of authority, not only between white and black and men and women, but also between parents and children, teachers and students, guides and hikers, writers and readers.
No more than seven hundred years ago Dante wrote the lines recording a conversation which took place in the other world—imagined, spiritual, instructive, motivational—between himself and the spirit of Guido da Montefeltro. Guido, Wikipedia tells us,
was condemned to the eighth circle of Hell for providing counsel to Pope Boniface VIII,
who wished to use Guido’s advice for a nefarious undertaking. This encounter follows
Dante’s meeting with Ulysses, who himself is also condemned to the circle of the Fraudulent.
Just six hundred years later, six lines from Dante spoken by Guido (da Montefeltro) appeared as the epigraph of Prufrock, with its authority lending Eliot’s new poem consideration, even respect. The passage may have also suggested an awareness by Eliot of the moral risks involved in writing drama and fiction.
In time Prufrock would gain a wider popularity than The Waste Land—a more mature, more meaningful poem. Just because it’s popular, doesn’t make a poem great. Because of my exposure to it, and because it was very catchy, the jingle from an ad run for Libby’s canned fruit will be somewhere on my mind probably for the rest of my life: When it says Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s on the label label label, you will like it like it like it on your table table table… Repetition and pleasure find homes in our inner-ear, making their way to residency in memory. Music alone, with no immediate semantic definition, is, many say, the most sublime of the arts.
Rime and meter ideally help make poems memorable. There are other mnemonic devices, such as the alphabet, our primary encounter with consciously signified language. Many poets have used the A B C motif to organize poems. Robert Pinsky wrote what was to become also a quite popular poem titled “ABC” of twenty-six words, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet and worked in sequence:
Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,
Libby’s labels and tables is not bad in the way of prosody for poetry, playing to our love for liquid consonance and rime, entertaining tongue and ear. The jingle’s triadic repetitions also help drum it
into our minds. I’ll skip the critique of advertising and its aim on our impulses, and just point out that the epigraph from Dante and Eliot’s text voicing the inner thoughts of his fictional persona are, though much more complex, similarly sonorous and pleasurable:
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza più scosse.
Ma perciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
The sibilants in the quote from Dante imitate Guido’s whisper, as he is preparing to confide a guarded, innermost secret, that of the ruin of his converted life and salvation. Eliot’s lines comically skim a like topic. And a like topic inspires the widely remembered lines of another immensely popular poem from
the 20th century, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl :
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking foran angry fix…
Read in proximity to the lines from Dante and the couplet by Eliot, the lines by Ginsberg are shockingly direct. Part of the impact of the poetry of Ginsberg’s time is that they write “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…looking for an angry fix,” whereas the sensibilities for poetry in Eliot’s time would have him write about “tea and cakes and ices.” Then again, where the données of Yeats’s social climate would have him speak of a rose dying on a cross, Eliot would be so bold in the third line of Prufrock to mention “a patient etherised upon a table,” shocking in itself for the time.
Back to the epigraph for Prufrock. It is noteworthy that, by his choice of those six lines from the Dante passage, Eliot’s interest is less in the events of Guido’s undoing than in his prefatory deliberations about relating the story. If what Guido has heard is true, that what is said in Hell stays in Hell, the story can never return to the living. Guido hasn’t thought about this enough to realize that part of being in Hell
is that there is no such reliable authority as truth (il vero) in that region of torments and, therefore, he should doubt what he has heard. It makes a case for the parenthetical placement of his statement—s’i’odo il vero, if what I’ve heard is true—in the line by Dante. It is syntactically spotlighted, noticeable.
Most often, that a story has no chance of being considered is a cause for people, direly for poets, to give up on taking the pains to make an expression at all. These silences build up in a collective reservoir, ever being replenished, of what we call the ineffable, the things that are there but that we can’t say, are under some enchantment from saying. Finding out how to skim from that reservoir and awake the reader can serve as a good inspiration for poets when their joys and pains, loves and losses go silent for a day or so.
Guido, however, a gossip, liar and an instigator, would rather that the story of his betrayal not mean anything, stay secure in the promise of Hell’s silence, the condition which especially allows him to confide in Dante. A polar opposite to the poet and his ambition for the renown of his lines (So long as men can breathe or eyes can see), or at least for contemporary appreciation, Guido’s bitter relish in telling his story is that his words will not live. One keen pleasure for countless readers of the passage over the last seven centuries lies in the irony that, in spite of Guido’s certainty that his story will not get around to spread his infamy, the account in fact has wound up before all of our eyes to read again, memorably expressed in one of the most widely read and carefully considered literary works ever produced!
Closely paralleling its epigraph, again and again the Prufrock text protests at the obstacles, impossibility, even futility, of significant expression:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’…
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?...
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?...
(It seemed important to Ginsberg to witness “the best minds of my generation…dragging themselves through the…streets at dawn,” a very different portrait of bachelor loneliness than that given by Eliot.)
Would it have been worth while…
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say, ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it at all’…
It is impossible to say just what I mean!...
Add to these the famous student composition lines,
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…
and Prufrock’s pathetic (truly with pathos) doubt about the destiny of the inspiration he has happened to be audience to,
I have heard the mermaids singing each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me…
That’s a good deal, 22 of the poem’s 131 lines, just less than a fifth, given to or echoing the theme announced by the epigraph from Dante, justifying Eliot’s use of it as a rather direct thematic reference. This becomes especially clear in contrast to the more tangential, generally allusive bearing of the lines from Virgil’s Aeneid, with the boys questioning the Sybil in her cage at Cumae, used to introduce
The Waste Land.
It is clearer in this light that Eliot’s techniques are somewhat obvious (for Eliot) in his early masterpiece. Prufrock is by no means a simple poem. Ezra Pound was astonished, by the evidence of its lines, at how Eliot had been able to “train and modernize himself” apparently on his own.
For a popular poem it is somewhat long, running just over Poe’s definition of 100 lines for an ideal read of one sitting. Yet because of its complexity, the irony destabilizing or blurring Prufrock’s genuine frustration and despair with thoughtful responses, cultural reference and wit (“the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate”), Prufrock sustains the reader’s attention with surprise and variety, avoiding lapses into tedious effort.
The sonority of the rimes, “cheap hotels” and “oyster-shells,” “window panes” and “stand in drains,” “sudden leap” and “fell asleep,” etc., are nearly Seuss-like in their playfulness and aptly serve, I think,
to ballast the poem’s topical sarcasm with a subtle encouraging music. Baudelaire had fascinated the French half a century earlier with his use of masterly waltzing Alexandrines in regular riming patterns to depict the cacophonous characters and attitudes of the streets in Paris. That incongruity between form and content made the poems from Les Fleurs du mal bizarre and intriguing.
In his critical essay on Dante, Eliot famously stated that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. His appreciation of Laforgue, Baudelaire and the French symbolist movement led him to compose poetry for effects of music, erasing or confusing as much of the plain semantic register as possible. The very contrast of the “poetic” second line and the troubling third line with its medical term creates an effect of mood otherwise inexpressible:
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table…
Similarly there are leaps and shifts of mood and tone between the sensible, educated, often ironic Prufrock persona who evokes Michelangelo, Hamlet, John the Baptist, and the self-deprecating comedian that mentions the thinning of his hair and arms and legs, and yet again the more solemn, sensitive Prufrock that sees the cat in the yellow fog and despairs at the eternal Footman who snickers at him and prompts him to confide,
And in short, I was afraid.
Few, if any of today’s poets, write with as much tonal complexity, playfulness, doubt and delicacy as Eliot did in this very early poem. Perhaps some of the persona’s anxieties about adequate speech derive from the prominent and ample music of the poem’s language itself, its suspensions, its arpeggios of mood and wit. To an extent, this admits to and somehow wants to excuse the poem’s luxuriousness.
The statements of frustration about not knowing just what he means, as it were, awake the reader from the enchantment of the music. The poem’s concluding lines make a reprise of this turn of linguistic mood:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
In light of the indulgent social and volatile political climates at the time Prufrock was being written,
in the poem’s anticipation of what lay ahead for his readers in England and America, this was not an inconsiderable trope, mesmerizing and awaking the reader, for Eliot to have devised and made sense of, with his habit of showing rather than telling.
On the occasion of celebrating the 100th anniversary of a poem, with its epigraph from Dante reaching back another 600 years +, we come by a very tangible, localized means, the poem, to the consideration of a more elusive end, that of perpetuity, of another hundred years, and another hundred, for the poems being published newly today to be celebrated for their ability to relate the lasting things, ideas, attitudes and feelings of their language and cultural moment.