Poetry Retrospective…

The Spring semester has come to an end. I have finished all my classes, all my papers and all my exams. But before I surrender to Summer vacation, I wanted to take a moment and think over some of the incredible poems that I have read this semester in my poetry class. The big favorite was Edna St. Vincent Millay.  I am currently reading a book of her sonnets (and loving them) and have my eye on a biography of her that looks fairly interesting. I also really enjoyed reading Billy Collins and after an afternoon of browsing at my local bookstore, I will most likely be adding some of his volumes of poetry to my personal library. “Siren’s Song” by Margaret Atwood was another favorite as was the two poems by Sylvia Plath that I recently mentioned here. I really enjoyed my introduction to Keats and had a lot of fun writing a paper that compared and contrasted his “Ode to a Nightingale” with Poe’s “The Raven” (Click here for a cool video of Christopher Walkin reading “The Raven”) . And, although I first heard them at a special event and not in class, I also count “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes and “Knock, Knock” by Daniel Beaty as two of the highlights of the semester.

Having said all that, there are a ton of poems that I just loved from the semester that I never got around to talking about here and I thought today would be a good time to mention some of the other notables that we read, including:

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

My Last Duchess
Ferrara  
by Robert Browning  

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 
Looking as if she were alive. I call 
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands 
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said     
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read 
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 
The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 
But to myself they turned (since none puts by 
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)       
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 
How such a glance came there; so, not the first 
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not 
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps      
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 
Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
Half-flush that dies along her throat:” such stuff 
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough       
For calling up that spot of joy. She had 
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad. 
Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er 
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
Sir, ’twas all one! My favor at her breast,       
The dropping of the daylight in the West, 
The bough of cherries some officious fool 
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 
She rode with round the terrace—all and each 
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,        
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked 
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame 
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill      
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will 
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let 
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set      
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, 
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, 
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;   
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet 
The company below, then. I repeat, 
The Count your master’s known munificence 
Is ample warrant that no just pretence       
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go 
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,       
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T.S. Eliot

 S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
 A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
 Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
 Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
 Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
 Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo. 

Let us go then, you and I, 
When the evening is spread out against the sky 
Like a patient etherized upon a table; 
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, 
The muttering retreats       
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels 
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: 
Streets that follow like a tedious argument 
Of insidious intent 
To lead you to an overwhelming question….         
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” 
Let us go and make our visit. 
 
In the room the women come and go 
Talking of Michelangelo. 
 
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,      
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. 
 
And indeed there will be time 
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, 
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;        
There will be time, there will be time 
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; 
There will be time to murder and create, 
And time for all the works and days of hands 
That lift and drop a question on your plate;      
Time for you and time for me, 
And time yet for a hundred indecisions, 
And for a hundred visions and revisions, 
Before the taking of a toast and tea. 
 
In the room the women come and go       
Talking of Michelangelo. 
 
And indeed there will be time 
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” 
Time to turn back and descend the stair, 
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—        
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) 
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, 
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— 
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) 
Do I dare       
Disturb the universe? 
In a minute there is time 
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. 
 
For I have known them all already, known them all: 
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,         
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; 
I know the voices dying with a dying fall 
Beneath the music from a farther room. 
So how should I presume? 
 
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—        
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, 
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, 
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, 
Then how should I begin 
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?        
And how should I presume? 
 
And I have known the arms already, known them all— 
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare 
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!) 
Is it perfume from a dress         
That makes me so digress? 
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl. 
And should I then presume? 
And how should I begin?

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?… 
 
I should have been a pair of ragged claws 
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
 
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!         
Smoothed by long fingers, 
Asleep … tired … or it malingers, 
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me. 
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, 
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?         
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, 
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, 
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter; 
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, 
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,        
And in short, I was afraid. 
 
And would it have been worth it, after all, 
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, 
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, 
Would it have been worth while,         
To have bitten off the matter with a smile, 
To have squeezed the universe into a ball 
To roll it toward 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.” 
 
And would it have been worth it, after all, 
Would it have been worth while,        
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, 
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor— 
And this, and so much more?— 
It is impossible to say just what I mean! 
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:        
Would it have been worth while 
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, 
And turning toward the window, should say: 
“That is not it at all, 
that is not what I meant, at all.”
 
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; 
Am an attendant lord, one that will do 
To swell a progress, start a scene or two, 
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, 
Deferential, glad to be of use,       
Politic, cautious, and meticulous; 
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; 
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— 
Almost, at times, the Fool. 
 
I grow old … I grow old …        
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. 
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? 
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. 
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. 
I do not think that they will sing to me.        
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves 
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back 
When the wind blows the water white and black. 
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.

There is just something about each of these three poems that really caught my attention. The philosophy behind “Musee des Beaux Arts” is really thought-provoking, particularly if you take a to look at the painting of Icarus that it references and I am sure that it will be on my mind the next time I am wandering through a museum.  I love irony of “My Last Duchess” – how this incredibly powerful man is so insecure that he couldn’t handle the fact that his wife smiled at people (as opposed to only smiling at him). There are some lines in it that just make me shiver. (“I choose never to stoop” and “This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together”). As a psychological profile and a dramatic commentary on power and insecurity, it is simply incredible!! As for Prufrock, I am almost at a loss for words. I am completely fascinated by this poem. There’s too much to go into here and my thoughts aren’t 100% completely formed yet – I am still mulling it over in my head – but there is just so much here that fascinates me. Somehow the beginning of the poem when he is travelling past “And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells” and down “streets that follow like a tedious argument” invokes a sort of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast sensibility to me. The fact that even in his fantasies, Prufrock can’t see himself as the lead of his own story but is instead the Polonius to someone else’s Hamlet, the John the Baptist to someone else’s Jesus,  the tone of treachery to women and women’s sexuality – either the mermaids luring him out into hostile waters to be drowned  or that allusion to John the Baptist who was beheaded at a woman’s request, his crushingly low self-esteem, crippling indecision and just enough self-awareness to know that he is being judged and mocked without knowing enough to fix it, it is all so tragic and so striking. At the end of the poem, I just wanted to hug poor Prufrock and introduce him to Walter Mitty. I think Prufrock and Mitty could have been very happy hanging out together.

I don’t know if anyone actually stayed with me to the end of this post, but if there is anyone out there, what poems should I read next. I’ve got lots and lots of free time on my hands for the next three months and I would gladly accept any recommendations of something good to read.

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About Ciarrai

Hi. My name is Kerry but here online I tend to go by the Gaelic version of my name, Ciarrai. I am a woman in my mid-30's who lives on Long Island, NY, with my husband, Rob, several guitars, a Nikon D40, more yarn, beads and books than I care to admit to and a cat who has a million nicknames and quite a few theme songs. I have a B.A. in Psychology and have recently returned to college to pursue a teaching degree so that I can eventually get a job as a High School English teacher. In addition to my major obsessions (Reading, Beading, Knitting, Music and Photography), I also enjoy playing Board Games, going to Renaissance Faires, Museums and Broadway Musicals.
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