Friday, April 20, 2012

It's Spring! (plus a little poetry lesson)

We’re beginning to wonder if it’s really summer here in the south, but most of the rest of the country is celebrating the end of a long, dark, snowy winter. And, since I’m reading a Really Long Book that I don’t plan to finish until next week at the earliest, I figured it would be nice to explore a little springtime poetry by some of my favorite poets.
e.e. cummings is just about the springiest poet I can think of. He was a Modernist, and he’s known for playing with language. Here’s a good example:

(If the formatting of this poem isn't really weird - meaning if it's lined up on the left, click over to the blog.)

  a)s w(e loo)k
S                                                         a
  rIvInG                         .gRrEaPsPhOs)
Whaaaaaaat? you ask? This is a poem about a grasshopper leaping. cummings, though, doesn’t stop at describing the leap – the words themselves form a visual image. Without the spaces, it might make a bit more sense: “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r who a)s w(e loo)k up now gath PPEGORHRASS ering t(o-aThe): leA!p:s a (rrIvInG.gRrEaPsPhOs) rea(be)rran(com)gi(e)ngly ,grasshopper;” Remember Poetry in Motion from the 1990s? It’s like a performance on paper.
Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have started with such a (only seemingly) tough poem. Here’s another:
Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and
changing everything carefully
spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and
without breaking anything.
This one’s about the coming of spring and how gradually it appears and how subtly. e.e. cummings takes some brainwork, but he’s totally worth it.
Here’s another poet I associate with spring. And another modernist. Like e.e. cummings, Hopkins plays with his word choices. Here’s “Spring”:
Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
  When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
  Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
  The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
  The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
  A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
  Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
  Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
This is a good poem to say out loud so you can appreciate the lushness of the wording. Where cummings makes his poem look like the grasshopper, Hopkins uses a traditional sonnet (14 lines, set rhyme scheme) to emulate the sounds of spring – the growth and blooming and beginning.
Here’s another poem by Hopkins that you might recognize from high school or college English classes. It’s called “Pied Beauty.”
Glory be to God for dappled things—
     For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
      Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
        And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
      Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
        With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:
                                           Práise hím.
This poem isn’t specifically about spring, but it gives a similar sense of freshness. It’s about how things that might not appear perfect really are. Hopkins is playing with sounds again. Note the accents over some of the letters. Hopkins wanted the reader to hear the poems just like he thought they should sound, so those accents are over syllables he thought should be emphasized even though they might not be naturally stressed. (I read this poem for the first time when I was in high school, and I thought it was the Corniest Poem Ever. I don’t think I learned to love Hopkins until grad school. Which also goes for the next poet.
Ahh, Whitman. I have a love-hate relationship with Whitman. I really like some of his stuff, and I hate the rest equally. I’m not sure he doesn’t fall into the summer category rather than spring. Most of his poetry is a bit long for a blog post, so I’ll just post bits and pieces. Here’s part of “Song of Myself”:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if eer there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, [take that, Yeats!]
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
“Song of Myself” isn’t one of my favorite Whitman poems – I find it annoyingly celebratory – but I love this part. I read it a couple of times, and my eyes tear up. Whitman, by the way, is another modernist. He goes to show how diverse the Modernism movement was.
Just one more. How can there be spring with no Wordsworth? I’m including his poetry last for contrast. Most of my favorite poetry is modern or postmodern, and sometimes I skip over the roots. Wordsworth was a Romantic poet whose major works appeared around 1800, a century before the Modernists. Wordsworth (and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” fame) tried to write in common language, as opposed to the super-formal language of his poetic peers. It might not seem that that’s the case now, but Wordsworth was a revolutionary. Here’s “Lines Written in Early Spring”:
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
See the difference? This is a totally different kind of poem than that of the Modernists. All of the poems here are of the optimistic variety – if you want some rainy day spring stuff, I might direct you to my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, and his Waste Land (“April is the cruellest month”) or A.E. Housman‘s Shropshire Lad, both of which are totally awesome.
It's raining!
So happy spring! It’s my favorite time of year.

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