Posts filed under ‘Ze Guest Contributors’

Après la bataille

Victor Hugo

Listen (to Cyrano read)

Mon père, ce héros au sourire si doux,
Suivi d’un seul housard qu’il aimait entre tous
Pour sa grande bravoure et pour sa haute taille,
Parcourait à cheval, le soir d’une bataille,
Le champ couvert de morts sur qui tombait la nuit.
Il lui sembla dans l’ombre entendre un faible bruit.
C’était un Espagnol de l’armée en déroute
Qui se traînait sanglant sur le bord de la route,
Râlant, brisé, livide, et mort plus qu’à moitié.
Et qui disait: ” A boire! à boire par pitié ! ”
Mon père, ému, tendit à son housard fidèle
Une gourde de rhum qui pendait à sa selle,
Et dit: “Tiens, donne à boire à ce pauvre blessé. ”
Tout à coup, au moment où le housard baissé
Se penchait vers lui, l’homme, une espèce de maure,
Saisit un pistolet qu’il étreignait encore,
Et vise au front mon père en criant: “Caramba! ”
Le coup passa si près que le chapeau tomba
Et que le cheval fit un écart en arrière.
” Donne-lui tout de même à boire “, dit mon père.

There is a poetic English translation floating around on the net, but I find it a little contrived, and somewhat too far from the original. You’ll find it easily if you search for “After the Battle Victor Hugo”. I really like the fact that Hugo’s text flows easily and sounds pretty natural. So I’ll give you a verse by verse, pretty much a word for word translation.

After the battle

My father, a hero with such a sweet smile,
Followed by a single soldier whom he liked amongst all,
For his great bravery and his tall stature,
Was wandering on his horse, on the evening of a battle,
Across the field covered with bodies upon which night was falling.
He thought he heard a soft noise in the shadows.
It was a Spaniard from the routed army,
Who was crawling in his blood on the side of the road,
Groaning, broken, livid and more than half dead,
And who was saying: “Something to drink! Take pity, a drink!
My father, moved, gave to his faithful soldier
A flask of rum which hung from his saddle,
And said, “Take it and give a drink to the poor wounded man.”
All of a sudden, as the lowered soldier
Was bending towards him, the man, some kind of Moorish,
Steadies a pistol that he was still holding
And aims at my father’s forehead while shouting: “Caramba!”
The bullet went so close that the hat fell off
And the horse suddenly backed off.
“Give him a drink anyway” said my father.

Around 1800, Victor Hugo’s father was a general in the armies of Napoleon which invaded most of Europe to bring liberty, equality and brotherhood to the people oppressed in the neighboring countries. Surprisingly, the locals did not alway appreciate the wonderful presents that were forced upon them by foreigners. We now know better and such mistakes would not be repeated in the 21st century, but I digress.
This is a moving story told very efficiently as a modern filmmaker would. This would have made a great Kurosawa. Three shots. The camera pans across the bloody battlefield barely lit by an evening sky. Then the camera zooms in to the wounded Spaniard that we discover, low and back lit. Then a quick action scene, the explosion of a bullet, the camera follows the hat that flies off. As the camera zooms back out to the whole landscape, the famous last line is heard in a tired and weary voice, “Give him a drink anyway”.
This poem is quite famous in French speaking countries and several verses are often quoted, most notably the last one, when someone has a generous gesture for a fallen foe, –or cynically, whenever there is wine to be served, a common occurrence.

– Cyrano

Welcome Cyrano! Looking forward to more great readings from you! :)


February 20, 2009 at 11:47 pm 14 comments


Rudyard Kipling

Listen (to Slaybaugh sing)

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Ludwig writes,

Confessing to liking Kipling (i.e. the works) is not the most prudent thing to do. Depending on what company you are in, you may end up seeing people pull themselves together and become a bit more stiff and formal; maybe some of them will even begin to edge away from you as though they’ve found a snake in the bathtub. But what’s to be done, if you discovered Rudyard (“Kim” and “The Jungle Books” especially, but the rhymes also) before you acquired a political conscience, is it possible to not fall in love with the tales and the language? Even after the tinted glasses of political correctness have been donned, his oeuvre is compelling in the manner of the Ancient Mariner. Even if the claw like hand has dropped, the glittering eye will hold you.

So we freely confess, we like Kipling, his politics and weltanschauung be damned (if they actually do deserve to be, that is). The man had a way with language and imagination, animals have never been anthropomorphized the way they were in “The Jungle Books” (“Lion King”s may come and go…) and never will be. Above all, he had a touch for sheer _atmosphere_ that is perhaps unsurpassed. “Mandalay” is a serviceable example.

You can read it in at least a couple of ways. Directly, we dispense with the one we close our eyes and ears to and in general go “lalalalalalalalalala” at. This is obviously the political/cultural studies reading, where the poem is about imperialist exoticization of the Orient; male chauvinism; and yada yada yada.

There, that’s done. What remains is a very lyrical, very singable, enjoyable and evocative poem. Part of this admittedly has to do with the way Matt Slaybaugh sings it, the raspy drawl itself adds to the look and feel. Then there’s the language, the construction of phrase (“the temple-bells they say”, “dawn comes up like thunder”, “Ship me somewheres east of Suez” etc.), the attention to metre etc. about which someone more articulate and knowledgable should be able to hold forth on. There’s also the somewhat touching love story, of this man separated from a sweetheart and a land that he seems to be genuinely very fond of. There’s the echoes from Innisfree, about wanting to go back to a simpler happier life, and all that jazz.

All in all, we likes, and we submits for due consideration at pō’ĭ-trē. Flames may be kindly lit in the comments section, and/or directed at choultry[AT] Meanwhile, we’ve got to go off and so some serious daydreaming, see if we care…

some links:

[1] Commentary at The Skeptic Tank

[2] Frank Sinatra’s rendition of On the Road to Mandalay from Come Fly with Me. When the album was first released in the British Empire, this song was replaced by “Chicago”, due to objections from the Kipling family.

[3] The poem on wiki (with a couple of helpful hyper links)

[4] The Complete Collection of Kipling’s poems here.

[5] The Nobel bio and presentation speech from 1907.

Finally, Kipling on pō’ĭ-trē. Anyone wants to read my old favourite for us now? :)


March 31, 2008 at 7:50 pm 3 comments

Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge

Hart Crane

Listen  (to Hoon read)

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

Then, with  inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic  sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Talking about why he chose this poem, Hoon writes:

“The poem is also noteworthy for its intriguing mixture of modernism and elizabethan style, its use of the archaic pronoun Thou in its varied forms, the standard iambic pentameter that it’s written-in, but even beyond that, a rhythmic style, grandeur or solemnity, that sounds and feels Elizabethan, derived from King James. And so provides a venue to learning or review about the iambic line, in action as it were. Its probably useful to compare Crane’s Proem with a short speech from Shakespeare, say, Jaques’ Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like it. “

You can read more of Hoon’s thoughts on this poem, as well as a delightful poetic paraphrase of the poem here.

Hoon also provides a version of the text marked for prosody, accent and metrical scansion (plus an evocative background image) here, so you may want to listen to the poem while reading along with that.

Finally, for additional commentary on the poem see Minstrels here. You can also check out the other Hart Crane poems on poi-tre here.


November 26, 2007 at 4:06 pm 2 comments

The Flashlights of Innocence

Susan Birkeland

Listen (to Clara read)

Love is no matter what
Mercy is no matter how
Justice is no matter who
Hope is no matter when

Love is no matter how
Mercy is no matter why
Justice is no matter where
Hope is living here and there at the same time

Absolution is cool water in a heat wave
Restitution is the gravitational intention of a compassionate moon
Conversation is sex before bodies
Evolution is the tail of a jaguar in the rain
Love is no matter what

Crime is a fist pointed outward
Sadness is my fist in my own face
Longing is how strangers become friends

Silence is a warm room on a cold night
Reverence is the first touch of my fingers at your waist
Forgiveness is the inevitable scorecard of easy neighbors

Problems are a leg up onto a horse that rides around the sun
Solutions are new wheels on a rusty bike
Wine is the juice of crushed romance

Romance is the time it takes to remember
Remembering is the return of fresh eyes
Fresh eyes are the flashlights of innocence
Innocence is the circle by which

Love is no matter what
No matter when
No matter why
No matter how

Your hand in my basket
practicing scales on a pink piano
folding around

Clara writes,

“Susan Birkeland passed away last year – a great loss to the San Francisco poet community.

Her readings were always dramatic, pulling the audience into her world. The Flashlights of Innocence is a good example. One cannot read this poem ‘poorly’, because the language will not allow it to happen.”


November 1, 2007 at 6:01 pm 1 comment


Xu Zhimo

Listen (to Clara read the original – Cantonese)

Listen (to Clara read her translation – English)



Tr. by Clara Hsu

I am a cloud in the sky,
by chance it casts a shadow in your heart.
Don’t be surprised,
or happy,
in an instant it all vanishes.

We meet at sea, in the night,
traveling in different directions.
You may recall,
but perhaps it is better to forget
the glow when we cross paths.


The long promised Xu Zhimo is finally here!

Clara, our new guest contributor, is a mother, a musician, a philanthropist, an activist, a purveyor of Clarion Music Center (a world music shop of exotic musical instruments), a traveler, host of the Poetry Hotel and ultimately, a poet.

When Mjbesq put us in touch, she was in Marrakech, on her way to a couple of days in a desert. After a couple of months, of diligently tagging by email, we finally met and she recorded a couple of poems for me. Here is the first – Clara reads Chance by Xu Zhimo and her translation of the same.

Clara writes,

Xu Zhimo (1897 – 1931) is one of China’s most distinguished 20th Century poets. Xu brings raw emotions into his poetry to express human love and yearns for its eternity. His poems are revolutionary coming out of a culture that encourages conformity and suppresses individual’s innermost feelings. This short poem, however, is more in tune with classical Chinese poetry in its simplicity and philosophical outlook.


October 30, 2007 at 7:16 pm 3 comments

The Cat

Ryan Alexander

Listen (to Dore read)

She came to me skittish, wild.
The way you’re meant to be,
Surrounded by cruelty.
I did not blame her.
I would do the same.

A pregnant cat, a happy distraction
Some sort of normal thing
Calico and innocent.

The kittens in her belly said feed me.

And I did.

She crept with careful eye,
body held low to the dirt,
snagged a bite,
and carried it just far enough away.

She liked the MREs
the beef stew, the chicken breast, the barbeque pork,
But she did not like canned sardines.
I do not blame her.
I would do the same.

She came around again and again
finally deciding that I was no threat
That this big man wasn’t so bad.

I was afraid to touch her as the docs warned us
Iraqi animals were carriers of flesh-eating disease.
I donned a plastic glove and was the first to pet
This wild creature who may be

The one true heart and mind that America
Had won over.

After a while I forgot the glove and enjoyed
The tactile softness of short fur,
Flesh-eating bacteria be dammed.

Her belly swole for weeks
And she disappeared for some days
Until her kittens were safely birthed
In the shallow of a rusted desk
In the ruins that lined the road behind us.

She came around again slim
With afterbirth still matted to her hind legs
She was back again, but not quite as often
She came to eat and for attention
But there was nursing to be done.

One day she crept up with a kitten in her mouth
She dropped it at my foot and stared up at me
She expected something, but there was nothing I could do
The young black and white kitten was dead
It’s eyes not yet opened.

It looked like some shriveled old wise thing
Completely still, mouth puckered
Small body curled and limp.

She let me take the baby without a fight
She knew, but seemed unaffected.

She fetched me a gift,
A lesson,
among the worried nights
Shot nerves from poorly aimed mortar rounds:

Everything dies
the evil, the innocent
Her baby and

I thought I should say a prayer and bury
This poor little thing
But I did for it what will be done for me

I laid it in the burn can amongst the ash
And said I’m sorry.

Ryan Alexander
3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division,
Stryker Brigade Combat Team
Mosul, Iraq


I couldn’t have found a better poem to follow the Levertov and the Komunyakaa. The Cat complements both poems beautifully. It takes you inside the mind of a solider and it gives a voice to the other side in Levertov’s poem (then I must learn to distrust/ my own preference for trusting people).

So many elements in this poem can be interesting metaphors – the pregnant cat, the gloves, the MRE food supplies. Though the slow and hesitant, but trusting relationship between Ryan and the cat, in the midst of all the fear and destruction is deeply moving in itself.

Thanks for the poem, Dore!

Welcome our new guest contributor Dore! He hosts Tangents (a radio program that explores the bridges connecting various styles of music, such as world and roots music, and creative jazz hybrids). If you live in the San Francisco bay area, you must check out his Tangents Parties.


September 25, 2007 at 11:37 pm 3 comments

So Long? Stevens

John Berryman

Listen (to Hoon read)

He lifted up, among the actuaries,
a grandee crow. Ah ha & he crowed good.
That funny money-man.
Mutter we all must as well as we can.
He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with a odd

…something…something…not there in his
flourishing art.
O veteran of death, you will not mind
a counter-mutter.
What was it missing, then, at the man’s heart
so that he does not wound? It is our kind
to wound, as well as utter

a fact of happy world. That metaphysics
he hefted up until we could not breathe
the physics. On our side,
monotonous (or ever–fresh)—it sticks
in Henry’s throat to judge—brilliant, he seethe;
better than us; less wide.

– from: “The Dream Songs”, #219
Hoon adds,
An equivocating eulogy, saying almost as much about the author as the one eulogised, but perhaps this is in keeping with Stevens’ own solipcism — as well as his rugged commitment to truth, and against self-delusion.

The actuaries alludes to Stevens’ employment in the insurance business. An attorney, he rose to the position of vice-president at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The grandee crow, of course, refers to his poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (although given Berryman’s penchant for drinking it may also be an allusion to Old Crow bourbon whiskie as well).

What was it missing, then, at the man’s heart so that he does not wound?

While bringing Barryman’s own troubles into the circle of the poem, it also points out a problem that many readers have with Stevens’ style. Its abstractness, lack of references to other people inhabiting the universe, interpersonal relationships, love. This is a valid point. Perhaps any particular style cannot possibly suffice to fulfill all of one’s literary interests and desires. History gives us what it has.

A point of fact though, Stevens could wound. He got into a fight with Hemingway once in Key West. It was mainly Stevens, though, who got wounded; needing to take extra vacation time to allow his face to heal. Although Stevens was a large man, he was in his fifties at the time and Hemingway was twenty years his younger. Drinking was undoubtably involved.

August 24, 2007 at 8:24 pm 2 comments

Thirteen Way of Looking at a Blackbird

Wallace Stevens

Listen (to Hoon read)


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the black bird.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Hoon writes,

I can remember reading this in the lit books and thinking, “Eh?”. I think when you’re young you expect art, especially high art, to reveal something to you about life, instead of thinking of it as simply its own kind of artificial experience that occupies and hopefully improves the passage of time. So while “13 Ways…” deals with a serious subject, death let us say, the poem may not have a great deal to say to us other than: “Hey, this is a poem. Enjoy!”

Stevens seems to have posed himself the problem of whether a series of thoughts, impressions, he used the term sensations, sharing a common theme, but without clear logical continuity, could be somehow arranged to form an aesthetic whole, and enjoyed both as a whole but also as a disconnected, kaleidoscopic set. A verbal collage. What is needed to achieve then the barest sense of unity we might ask? While not saying much, and perhaps not to be agreed to by all, we will still assert that temporal art needs an opening, a progression of impressions or ideas, and a close. For a poem this can be achieved either semantically or phonetically, usually both. “13 Ways…” opens with a  winter scene and closes with, let us say, the same scene. A certain degree of cohesion is thus achieved. In between the episodes expand and contract, and move through various moods, rhythms, and associations. The sections are brief, haiku-like, but perhaps self-consciously so, and not to be taken too seriously as such. (“A man and a woman are one. …”)

The almost inevitable theme, given the large number of sections, is that death is everywhere, surrounding all we do (stanzas: 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13), in sex and love (stanzas: 4 & 7); and cannot be avoided (stanza 11); but possesses humor (stanzas: 2, 4, 5 – a blackbird whistling!), and like many of Stevens’ own poems, a quiet, austere beauty (stanzas: 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 13). To fail to see the humor in “I was of three minds./like a tree /in which there are three blackbirds”, and to search for some greater meaning there, well you might as well try to explain what semolina pilchards are. Many of the lines and sections end on unaccented syllables and this gives the work as a whole a generally unsettled feeling, which does resolve though quite effectively in the final verse. While a scansion of the poem is beyond the range of this discussion, such a metrical analysis would show such a wide variety of rhythmic patterns that the poem may be viewed as a study of metrical techniques. As such it deserves close reading, listening, study.

The work is anthologized a lot, so seems to achieve a satisfaction for a great number of readers, and has surely been imitated frequently, but I think that the failure of many of its imitators to achieve its level of popularity points towards the difficulty in finding an audience for this kind of loose associative structure (although I’m sure there are a lot who would disagree with that assertion).

August 23, 2007 at 6:16 pm 2 comments

A Postcard from the Volcano

Wallace Stevens

Listen (to Hoon read)

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

Hoon adds,

Stevens’ verse, as I found it in the various lit books I was brought up on, was always a puzzle to me. Nothing in it seemed to make sense. It all seemed lacking  in purpose and, for lack of a better word, beauty. Much later in life, when I began to record poetry, my main motivation was a belief that hearing a poem recited, especially a difficult poem, makes it more comprehensible; since a certain amount on the meaning is encoded in the interpretation, in the prepared inflections of the reader. Thus it was natural that I should turn to a poet whose work I never felt I understood as a source for material to test this proposition. It was. then, a considerable and pleasant surprise to me that I should become so taken in with Stevens’ work. But what surprised me even more than my being able to understand the stuff was the sense of lyrical delight that comes with reciting Stevens. The works are clearly conceived with much more than just a regard for semantics, but with a deep appreciation for the sound and rhythm of words. It was “A Postcard…”, from IDEAS OF ORDER(1936), it’s rhythm and phrasing, which first opened my ears to how carefully Stevens composes in this regard.

And so on to the semantics.

I hate to discuss the meaning of this poem since it seems so much better that the reader/listener should engage the poem repeatedly and have its meaning revealed, reconstituted, in such a slower, more personal and self-reliant way; and I encourage the reader to break off reading here to pursue such a course. But Stevens can be difficult, and not just for the novice reader.

Edward Hirsch in his book Poet’s Choice(2006) gives a miserable interpretation of the poem under the chapter heading “Poetry Responds to Suffering”. Responding to the “Volcano” mentioned in the title, and phrase “gutted world” near the end, he reads the poem as “a prophetic elegy for a civilization that will be destroyed”. The sense is of a civilization in decline, but hardly destroyed.

The notion of a future generations handling, desecrating, our bones is not new. Hamlet’s graveyard scene comes easily to mind. The ignorance with which these future children do so leads directly to, is subsumed by, the general naivete that they bring to past culture, the words of the past, “the look of things”, their whole cultural inheritance. Indeed the central metaphor of the poem is the dilapidated mansion, which stands, quite simply, for this collective culture, but especially poetry. (Stevens’ symbols can be frequently, and somewhat surprisingly, stiff and conventional).

Their miscomprehension of the past takes place in a physical world that is itself devoid of a sense of aesthetics, that “cries out a literate despair”, eclipsing even the children’s naivete. The children though are “still weaving budded aureoles”, still growing halos of holiness and innocence. They walk past, presumably, the mansion on their way to school, and encounter it in their studies, where they may well “speak our speech and never know”: will only dumbly come to terms with their inheritance, but will dimly sense in it a haunted, lingering, “storming”, presence, the presence of the poet, the creative spirit of the past. This is the Volcano. The children’s neglect is, of course, something that recurs with every generation. Similar to how Wallace himself, let us say, disdained the Romantics. This would be all quite depressing, especially to the restless dead; or the under-read, unappreciated poet of the present; were it not partially compensated-for by the ever rejuvenating presence of the sun which copiously “smears” the mansion, and the whole landscape, with the same spirit that originally informed the poet. (This triumphal compensation is the surprise that the poet has been setting-up all along).

So did Stevens foresee the destruction of civilization?
Certainly he saw the radio, and the telephone, and the movies that they
made, and these things, in their own ways, destroy or erode literary culture-
I think he foresaw that.

There will be more Stevens this week. And, Xu Zhimo.


August 20, 2007 at 11:59 pm 3 comments

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

Wallace Stevens

Listen (to Hoon read)

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Hoon adds,

The poem is from Steven’s TRANSPORT TO SUMMER (1947). He was 67
when it published.

For me it is remarkable how similar in mood this poem and music are. One thinks of Steven’s affection for the tropics and his love of the guitar, which he himself played. I don’t know if he played classical or not; or listened to Segovia who championed Ponce’s work and made recordings as early as 1927, but it’s nice to imagine that he had. The poem is in iambic pentameter, and though formatted as couplets makes more sense as verses of 4,5, 3, and 4 lines respectively. …The truth in a calm world,/ In which there is no other meaning, itself/ Is calm,
In this line it seems that Stevens, who was an atheist, is trying to demonstrate to the mind that requires a belief in a God-head, that the universe viewed from a non-believing point-of-view, is not necessarily chaotic; or at least has its own moments of meditation and quietude, that are as perhaps profound as those discovered by the believer. As in The Place of the Solitaire, and The Snow Man, the state of the mind is wonderfully reflected in the way the external world itself is presented to it. (Yes the guitarist is non-other than hoon).

(The music is of the Mexican composer Manuel M. Ponce (1882 – 1948), his Prelude No. 6 for guitar of 1930.)


July 12, 2007 at 1:45 am Leave a comment

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