Poetic Spotlight: Count That Day Lost

English: George Eliot

By Sir Frederick Burton: George Eliot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Mary Anne Evans, or rather, George Eliot as she is more likely to be known, was a writer’s writer of the 19th century–a scribbler, yes, but also a journalist and a translator as well. What’s more, her skill with a pen helped her to go on to be renowned as one of the foremost writers of the Victorian era.

 

First thing’s first: you may, in fact, be wondering about the rather stark difference of name. Yes, she was a female author that took upon herself a male pen name–an act, she noted, undertaken to guarantee her works would be taken seriously, and likely to safeguard her privacy as well. The limitations the stereotypes of gender put upon an author, she seemed to feel, were that women struck up romances, while men took up the loftier works of society–thank goodness time has beaten that engrained belief into a fine and scattered pulp.

 

Born to life on a farm, education was, for her, nevertheless a thing of voracious appetite. She devoured all that tutors, school, and her own explorations could unveil. Eventually, she would go on to editorship (officially, assistant editor–but she actually did most the running of the business) of The Westminster Review. Though she began to contribute pieces to this magazine, her works also began to make gradual prods out into the larger market. Success lay in her future, however–by the end of her days, Queen Victoria of England herself proved to be an avid reader and promoter of Eliot’s work by the end of her days.

 

Many of her works were rural in setting, and deeply psychological. She had a knack for character, and her methods and skill would go on to inspire future writers as well, Virginia Woolf among them.

 

Count That Day Lost

 

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went –
Then you may count that day well spent.

 

But if, through all the livelong day,
You’ve cheered no heart, by yea or nay –
If, through it all
You’ve nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face–
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost –
Then count that day as worse than lost.

 

~George Eliot

 

Poetic Spotlight: We Wear the Mask

English: Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 –...

Paul Laurence Dunbar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s poet was a true milestone in the poetic history of the United States, being one of the first African-American poets to gain national acclaim: Paul Laurence Dunbar.

A native Ohioan, and the son of escaped slaves, Dunbar lost his father at just 12 years old. The only African-American student in his high school, he appeared keenly aware of the pressure on his person–but did not let it, nor the death of his father, hold him back. Rather, he excelled. Becoming the editor of the school newspaper, and eventually, class president (as well as president of the school’s literary society), he proved consistently that a determined soul can achieve anything he wishes, no matter the obstacle.

By the time he was publishing his literature, he was also taking an active hand in the success of his works. Rather than leaving it to the publishers, this was a man that actively hit the streets, earning back his investments and making more than his fair share on the side by selling copies of his works personally. This said, his life was one of financial difficulty as, from a young age, he found himself having to support his mother in addition to himself. Much of his life was spent in debt, even as fellow writers delivered consistent, favorable reviews of each successive new work.

By the time of his death, Dunbar had written a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. He had even traveled abroad, to bask in the wonder of London’s own literary circuit. He made heavy–and engaging–use of dialect in much of his work, though he also proved over the course of time that he had no trouble conforming to the more picky poetic types’ concepts of poetry either.

He inevitably died, as so many others of the age, of tuberculosis, at the age of 33.

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

~Paul Laurence Dunbar

Poetic Spotlight: Dover Beach

British poet and critic Matthew Arnold viewed ...

British poet and critic Matthew Arnold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s spotlight falls on British poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Though remembered today largely for his essays and his prose, it was his poetry that actually won him early acclaim. Religious, and the very picture of a proper British gentleman, one of his greatest desires was for new literature “to animate and ennoble” the readers of his time. A graduate of Oxford University, he would go on to be a teacher, and later, a government school inspector, and education, above all else, became one of the driving forces of Arnold’s life.

Many of his poems struck at social issues, and reflected rather clearly the values of the era, while others struggled with the concept of psychological isolation. It could be argued the man had a certain lofty sense of self, based on some of his written self-assessments, yet given the praise he garnered in a time of Victorian sensibility, it’s small wonder. Today, however, his poetry is mostly to be found in school anthologies, and as such, many students may remember today’s piece–”Dover Beach,” one of his most well-regarded pieces.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

~Matthew Arnold

Poetic Spotlight: To L.H.B.

Alumna, Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some achieve lasting fame through epics that define a nation’s culture, its heritage, and cannot help but grind their way through bits and pieces into the hearts and minds of its people, as was the case with last week’s spotlight, but others do in few words what others struggle birth reams and reams of them. Such is the case with this week’s spotlight: short fiction writer and poet Kathleen Beauchamp, better known by her pen name: Katherine Mansfield.

This New Zealand writer was a woman blessed to write at the dawn of one century and the end of another. Born at the tail-end of the 1800s, Katherine was born to a socially prominent family, but did not suffer from the head-in-the-sand effect so many in her situation often did. Even as a young girl, she looked out at her home and saw beyond love and friends and nature–she saw alienation, saw repression of the natives around her, and wrote sympathetically for them in her literature. She was a modernist, drew inspiration from writers like Oscar Wilde, was a friend of people like Virginia Woolf, and traveled extensively where she could, becoming one of the era’s many bohemians.

She was also, from what historians now see, a rather unique individual of her time in that she pursued love not just to the accepted boundaries of the time–she was a bisexual, and wrote about it rather openly in her journals. However, one of the great trials of her young life came in the form of tuberculosis, which prevented her from returning to her homeland. It would also lead to her death at 34, though not before publishing volumes of short stories, many of which are still considered some of the best fiction of her time–pieces like The Fly and Prelude continue to be shared today.

Much of her writing reflects her childhood in New Zealand, focusing heavily on the notion of remembrance, but one piece of hers I’ve always found touching was a dedication to her brother, Leslie. Leslie died in 1915, as soldier fighting in WWI on the fields of France. They were close, these two, and his sudden death both traumatized and invigorated Beauchamp’s work, setting her to furious new paces in her scribbles, and sending her spiraling ever deeper into the sanctuary of nostalgia–memories of the land and the home they both had shared.

And thus, without further adieu, I offer unto you a most haunting poetic remembrance this week…

To L.H.B. (1894-1915)

Last night for the first time since you were dead
I walked with you, my brother, in a dream.
We were at home again beside the stream
Fringed with tall berry bushes, white and red.
“Don’t touch them: they are poisonous,” I said.
But your hand hovered, and I saw a beam
Of strange, bright laughter flying round your head
And as you stooped I saw the berries gleam.
“Don’t you remember? We called them Dead Man’s
Bread!”
I woke and heard the wind moan and the roar
Of the dark water tumbling on the shore.
Where–where is the path of my dream for my eager
feet?
By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands…
“These are my body. Sister, take and eat.”

~Katherine Mansfield

Poetic Spotlight: The Tale of Kieu

Last week, we shared a little rumination on the life and words of Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong, and what her works mean to the identity of Vietnam’s literary tradition. Today, we continue our journey through this nation’s heritage, to the scribbles of one of Huong’s contemporaries, and one of those responsible for making Chữ Nôm, the ancient writing script of Vietnam, into the accepted pen it is today: Nguyen Du.

Unlike Huong, Du was, perhaps, more typical of what one might expect in the writers of his time and area. He was a politician, and a diplomat, a man who made words his life even outside the creative fence. He was the seventh son of a former prime minister that would die by the time he reached thirteen years, and to a dynasty that would also fall within his lifetime. He himself would one day serve as his nation’s ambassador to China, a position that would seal his place in history, as it was during this time that he wrote his most famous work: The Tale of Kieu.

Though today regarded as the finest sampling of Vietnamese creative capabilities, The Tale of Kieu was not, in its day, written under Du’s own name. This is due to the fact that it, like those works of his contemporary, —, was at its heart quite critical of the social tenets governing the society of their time–Confucianism. A staggering 3,254-verse epic written in 6/8 meter, the poem recounted the life and struggles of a certain beautiful maiden by the name of Thúy Kiều, who would go on to sacrifice herself to save her family–forced through prostitution, and unwilling marriage, and all the horrors one can imagine accompanying such. It prodded the culture’s distaste for romance, and broached the notion of falling in love multiple times–under Confucian morals, you were supposed to be devoted to one person your whole life (as chosen by your parents, no less). It was actually based on an even earlier tale–Kim Vân Kiều, by Qing Xin Cai Ren, a Chinese writer.

And now, a taste of what’s is perhaps Vietnam’s most significant literary work, through one of its many translations…

The Tale of Kieu

Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.

By lamplight turn these scented leaves and read
a tale of love recorded in old books.
Under the Chia-ching reign when Ming held sway
all lived at peace—both capitals stood strong.
There was a burgher in the clan of Vuong,
a man of modest wealth and middle rank.

He had a last‑born son, Vuong Quan—his hope
to carry on a line of learned folk.
Two daughters, beauties both, had come before:
Thuy Kieu was oldest, younger was Thuy Van.
Bodies like slim plum branches, snow‑pure souls,
each her own self, each perfect in her way.

In quiet grace Van was beyond compare:
her face a moon, her eyebrows two full curves;
her smile a flower, her voice the song of jade;
her hair the sheen of clouds, her skin white snow.
Yet Kieu possessed a keener, deeper charm,
surpassing Van in talents and in looks.

Her eyes were autumn streams, her brows spring hills.
Flowers grudged her glamour, willows her fresh hue.
A glance or two from her, and kingdoms rocked!
Supreme in looks, she had few peers in gifts.
By Heaven blessed with wit, she knew all skills:
she could write verse and paint, could sing and chant.

Of music she had mastered all five tones
and played the lute far better than Ai Chang.
She had composed a song called Cruel Fate
to mourn all women in soul‑rending strains.
A paragon of grace for womanhood,
she neared that time when maidens pinned their hair.

She calmly lived behind drawn shades and drapes,
as wooers swarmed, unheeded, by the wall…

~Nguyen Du

Poetic Spotlight: Spring Watching Pavilion

(Though this segment’s been on hiatus here with my lack-of-work-related-absence, it’s been continuing strong at dVerse Poetry Pub. That said, I am to restore it here as well…so enjoy today’s spotlight.)

中文: 胡春香 《佳人遺墨》

Ho Xuan Huong. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Surely if I spoke of Han or Sengoku, Ming or Edo, the majority of poets would smile–whether they know the history behind the words, the words themselves hold some image, some base concept to most that know anything of Asia. Too often, I think, it is the works of Japan, China, and India that the world allows to serve as their notion of “Asian poetry”–but the truth is so much more engrossing. I have spoken to you of haiku, and tanka, even some of the classic Chinese bits before–and undoubtedly shall again before the year is out–but today we turn to Vietnam for our dose of eastern poetics.

For that matter, we turn to a woman that indeed could be argued to form one of the foundations of her country’s poetic legacy: Ho Xuan Huong. Though her origins shift depending on the historian telling the tale, what we know for certain was that Ho was a child of turbulent times: witnessing the end of a dynasty–the Lê Dynasty, Vietnam’s longest-ruling dynasty–by rebellion, and the birth of a new.

She was a wife of politicians, a concubine, but first and foremost, a poet, and a curious one at that, for much of her works paint the figure of an independent-minded woman, one resistant to societal norms and to the ideas of being chained by someone else’s whims. She used common expressions in a time–Confucian, mind you–when the proper and formulaic was all but key, and poked fun with the use of sexual expressions most would have been shocked to see leaving a “proper” woman’s pens. By writing in the traditional Nôm language–like her contemporary, Nguyễn Du, who will serve as next week’s focus–she was also one of the figures responsible for elevating the Vietnamese tongue to an accepted literary language, as opposed to the Chinese characters most often used.

So today, you are welcome to a helping of Ho Xuan Huong’s talent in the form of the translation of “Spring Watching Pavilion”. Hopefully, the translation does it justice.

~Chris Galford

Spring Watching Pavilion

Gently Spring evening comes to the pavilion,
Unclouded in the least by worldly sins.
Three times the temple’s bell surges like a wave
Unsettling the puddle where sky and water mingle.
Truly the sea of Love cannot be emptied
And the stream of Grace flows easily everywhere.
Now, where, where is Nirvana?
Nirvana’s here, nine parts in ten.

~Ho Xuan Huong

Poetic Spotlight: The Waking and Saginaw Song

Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke.

Now today I have to say, our poetic guest star today holds a rather special place in my heart. Not because of any particular blood or spiritual connection between myself and the poet, no, but because of more territorial concerns. This week we’re striking the rich golden veins of the 20th century in our hunt for poetic greats, and the turn of pace takes us to one Theodore Roethke.

Roethke was an American poet, a Pulitzer Prize winner (1954, for his book, the Waking–which certainly adds to the coincidence of discovery here, since it’s a full two thirds of my blog’s name), and a two-time winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. Known for his graceful and varied use of rhythm, rhyme, and natural imagery, his poetry was the very embodiment of American artistry. It also happens he came from my own hometown–a little place called Saginaw, Michigan.

The strong nature imagery that often shows through in his work largely stemmed from his own youthful experiences–a childhood raised in the presence of a 25 acre greenhouse owned and operated by his family. It was home, in more ways than one, but even the serenity of a perpetually green world can be shattered. His father died of cancer when he was just 15, on the cusp of adulthood, and his uncle committed suicide later in the same year–agonies that would haunt him for the rest of his life, in thought and verse alike. Pain he drowned in drink.

Yet he was also a man that pushed through the Great Depression. He earned two degrees from the University of Michigan, and turned to Harvard University–he may even have gone down the path of a lawyer if the Depression hadn’t forced him to abandon it. Instead, he taught English for years at universities across the country, until he began to show signs of manic depression. Yet in that time he taught many students that would, themselves, go on to fame and creative wonder. Inevitably, he died of a heart attack while visiting friends in Washington.

Today, the words shared in his memory will be those of The Waking (the poem, not the book). Also, if you read on here, unlike my earlier post at the dVerse Poetry Pub, you’ll get a second little poem of Roethke’s…

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

~Theodore Roethke

And as I said, the man and I do hold Saginaw in common, so I think it would be terrible manners of me not to share his work on the city as well. Feel free to think of it as an extra gift for the memorial day weekend too–after all, how many poets can effectively use the word “fart” in a poem, and still have it punch? (And yes, I’m aware some of you are probably now staring at me with quirked eyebrows. Just read on, curse you.)

The Saginaw Song by Theodore Roethke
In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
The wind blows up your feet,
When the ladies’ guild puts on a feed,
There’s beans on every plate,
And if you eat more than you should,
Destruction is complete.Out Hemlock Way there is a stream
That some have called Swan Creek;
The turtles have bloodsucker sores,
And mossy filthy feet;
The bottoms of migrating ducks
Come off it much less neat.In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
Bartenders think no ill;
But they’ve ways of indicating when
You are not acting well:
They throw you through the front plate glass
And then send you the bill.

The Morleys and the Burrows are
The aristocracy;
A likely thing for they’re no worse
Than the likes of you or me,—
A picture window’s one you can’t
Raise up when you would pee.

In Shaginaw, in Shaginaw
I went to Shunday Shule;
The only thing I ever learned
Was called the Golden Rhule,—
But that’s enough for any man
What’s not a proper fool.

I took the pledge cards on my bike;
I helped out with the books;
The stingy members when they signed
Made with their stingy looks,—
The largest contributors came
From the town’s biggest crooks.

In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
There’s never a household fart,
For if it did occur,
It would blow the place apart,—
I met a woman who could break wind
And she is my sweet-heart.

O, I’m the genius of the world,—
Of that you can be sure,
But alas, alack, and me achin’ back,
I’m often a drunken boor;
But when I die—and that won’t be soon—
I’ll sing with dear Tom Moore,
With that lovely man, Tom Moore.

Coda:

My father never used a stick,
He slapped me with his hand;
He was a Prussian through and through
And knew how to command;
I ran behind him every day
He walked our greenhouse land.

I saw a figure in a cloud,
A child upon her breast,
And it was O, my mother O,
And she was half-undressed,
All women, O, are beautiful
When they are half-undressed.