Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Great Poetry E-Book Free-For-All!

The mission of the Poetry Super Highway is to expose as many people to as many other people's poetry as possible. To that end, Rick Lupert at PSH has come up with a crazy project in which poetry e-books will be freely available to all interested humans on Earth for a 24 hour period.

Throughout April he collected e-books from poets and writers interested in participating -- including yours truly. Then on May 1st, for a 24 hour period, a special website will go live with links to all of the e-books. For 24 hours anyone will be free to download, for free, as many of these e-books as they like ... a poetry e-book free-for-all.

On May 1st at Midnight (the evening of April 30), Poetry Super Highway will distribute a special e-mail letting people know the location of the web page with links to all of the e-book files. People will be free to download any or all of the titles, electronically, travelling all over the world. This web page will go off line 24 hours later at Midnight on May 2nd.

PSH will also list e-book descriptions on this web page along with links to the authors' websites.

When it's over, PSH will produce a list of how many copies of each book were downloaded for no reason other than you may find it interesting.

Check out the
e-book site today, and forward this information to anyone else who may be interested.

Oh, and let me know what you think of Used Poems: 1985-2004.

Thanks!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott"

Tennyson's poem, “The Lady of Shalott” is a brilliant piece of populist writing, displaying vibrant language and beautiful musicality. Part of its power, and continued readability comes from Tennyson's sense of what to leave out of the story.

Unlike “The Palace of Art,” which throws in every detail and then some, as well as the kitchen sink, “The Lady of Shalott” moves with the allure and excitement of a fairy tale, albeit one with a tragic ending. Consider its first verse:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road run by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

The reader knows right away this is a fantasy – if not by the evocation of mythic Camelot, through Tennyson's “once upon a time”-like scene setting: the river, the elemental grains that “clothe the wold and meet the sky,” the road through the field where travelers “[gaze] where the lilies blow” at the Isle of Shalott. More importantly, Tennyson hesitates to heap adjective upon adjective, leaving it to the reader to imagine the minutiae of the scene and contributing to the poem's universality. Compare this to the first eight lines of “The Palace of Art”:

I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house,
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
I said, “O Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear soul, for all is well.”

A huge crag-platform, smooth as burnished brass
I chose. The rangèd ramparts bright
From level meadow-bases of deep grass
Suddenly scaled the light.

Even though its four line stanzas are more compact, Tennyson's language – and eventual relentless cataloging – clogs and chokes the poem: “crag-platform,” “burnished brass,” and “deep grass” are not the worse offenders, but a far cry from the minimalist lines that begin and run throughout “Shalott.”

The tone of the language is also completely different. Whereas “Shalott” is conversational, “Palace” is grandiloquent and mannered. The approach in each instance is stylistically sound, and provides both poems with their own distinct personality, but the breathing room in “Shalott” imbues it with an urgency that the other poem lacks. For example,

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.

Does the Lady sleep? Where does her magic emanate from? What colors? Whose whisper? Why a curse? Why is she forbidden from viewing Camelot? The power here is not so much in the answers – which we as readers do not, and never will know – as in the implicit questions.

Tennyson's portrait in language of “The Lady of Shalott” is that much more vivid in its opaqueness; in fact, we never get any description of how the Lady looks, aside from being “robed in snowy white,” and Lancelot's comment, “She has a lovely face.” Lovely in what way? What color are her eyes, her hair? Is she pale or dark skinned? The reader fills this in, creating their own vision of The Lady. This is part of Tennyson's mastery in relating the story of the poem. By keeping his language clean and simple, Tennyson makes his poem appreciable to everyone, including the knights, burghers, lords and dames; abbots, shepherds, pages and reapers who populate it. That's no different today, where some poetry requires footnotes, and/or Byzantine knowledge to fully comprehend the Poet's Message, obfuscated as it is in tangles of rarefied and bloated language.

over-Its entirety could be dissected, and a series of questions posed from reading between the lines of the text, but “The Lady of Shalott” is not a poem that lends itself to pomo intellectualizing, surging forward instead on the weight of its emotions. It is those emotions – loneliness and want of love – that provide the core of the poem's power. Who has never been lonely, or unloved? We identify with the Lady's feelings because we have all felt them, and Tennyson elicits these character traits without resorting to bluntly spelling it out for the reader. On the other hand, emotion is on hold in “The Palace of Art,” whose protagonist only hints at feelings in its final four lines:

"Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built:
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt."

Guilt is a more intellectual emotion than loneliness or lovelessness, and predicated on action or reaction; “The Lady of Shalott” may dwell in a world of shadows, but she is more in touch with herself, and her feelings, than the sybaritic voice of “The Palace of Art.” Her selflessness is intrinsically more appealing than selfishness, and lends her pathos, even as an enigma.

There are a few explicit questions in the poem:

But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

And

Who is this? And what is here?

Lines uttered by onlookers as the Lady floats, dead, along the river to Camelot. Tennyson knows it is better to let them linger than to diminish them with concrete answers. It also strengthens the mythic qualities of the poem, and in turn its heroine, to leave them unanswered. The rules are the same, whether the questions are spoken, or implied: the inherent power of “The Lady of Shalott” lies in its omissions. Rather than wallop readers with the wholesale image-mongering technique of “The Palace of Art,” this quieter and more elusive poem gets under the skin and remains there, a poignant and mysterious masterpiece of understatement.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Robert Browning and Dramatic Monologue

Critics have nominated Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church” as 'perfect' dramatic monologues. I would agree that each is a stellar example of the genre on its own terms. Both draw the reader in from the first line or two:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. [Duchess]

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? [Bishop]

So, too, does “Fra Lippo Lippi”:

I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.

Browning begins these poems in the midst of implied action – the Duke pointing out the Duchess' portrait to the unwary envoy; the Bishop speaking to his 'sons/nephews' gathered at the foot of his death bed; Fra Lippo, apologizing to, then remonstrating gendarmes questioning him on the street. He also offers immediate details about each speaker or situation: the Duchess is dead, the Bishop is paranoid or delusional, and Lippi isn't just any poor schmuck caught out after curfew. This is a masterful and visceral poetic technique for ensnaring readers, particularly well suited to dramatic monologues, where a single voice is trying to suck them into a whirlpool of subjectivity. We know this isn't Browning speaking as Browning, but as a character, each with an apparent agenda demonstrated within their first utterances. In all three poems, we're hooked from the get go and primed for more.

Cornelia Pearsall argues in her essay on the subject that the essence of the dramatic monologue is the speaker's desire to achieve some purpose or goal. Even if that goal is simply bending our ear, that's true enough. “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” are tidy little packages achieving that essence, “Duchess” tidiest at a mere 56 lines. (“The Bishop” doubles that.) However, by definition, a monologue is a prolonged talk or discourse by a single speaker, especially one dominating or monopolizing a conversation. While not improved merely by lengthening, a more loquacious monologue provides time for the character to define him or herself by their thoughts, actions and deeds. “Fra Lippo Lippi,” at 392 lines, is three times as long as “The Bishop,” compelling readers by virtue of its sureness of voice and complexity of character and theme; likewise, it is never flat or prosaic. “Fra Lippo Lippi”'s ambitions as a monologue are grander, its stakes higher; it achieves its ends magnificently, almost transparently as we become like eavesdroppers on Lippi's conversation. The ego takes the wheel; the trip begins.

Another element that elevates “Fra Lippo Lippi” to, if not perfection, than a higher state of accomplishment than the other poems, is that of the unguarded moment. When the Duke begins his monologue, he is ostensibly in control of the situation. So, too, is the Bishop, who apparently has requested this gathering. Lippi is accosted by the guards, wrests control away from them, and begins pontificating on a variety of issues on his mind – the nature of art, freedom of choice, fate, and circumstance. This sounds today like real and, even considering its antiquated terms, modern speech and ideas. The portrait Lippi paints in words is as vivid as the art he is famous for, and as human – ironically, also at odds with the rarefied painting endorsed by the church that “makes [people] forget there's such a thing as flesh.” Yet he wouldn't have engaged in this philosophical diatribe if not for being accosted after midnight “at an alley's end / Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar.” Less likely embarrassed or merely guilty, Lippi is surprised by the intrusion, but quickly regains his composure:

Aha, you know your betters! Then, you'll take
Your hand away that's fiddling on my throat.
And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
Three streets off – he's a certain...how d'ye call?
Master – a...Cosimo of the Medici.

It doesn't take Lippi long to drop Medici's name, further elevating his station in the guard's eyes. From there, his story unfolds at a breathless clip – the orphanage, his natural artistic talent discovered and exploited, the church's admonishment of the liberties he takes painting “the beauty and the wonder and the power” of the world. While he has asserted a dominant role in the poem, his monologue has an air of the confessional to it. Sometimes we will be painfully honest about ourselves or our situations to complete strangers, whereas we cannot always trust the confidence of our best friends and family. It is that schism that also lends “Fra Lippo Lippi” its rare poignancy and power.

These three poems are each brilliant, in their own way. “Duchess” and “Bishop” are earlier works – 1842 and 1845, respectively – whereas “Lippi” was written in 1855, the same year Browning wrote “Love Among the Ruins,” “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” “The Statue and the Bust,” and more. Would he go on to write a more fully realized dramatic monologue than “Lippi?” No. Despite the pleasures inherent in much of his work, it remains a masterpiece of tone, control and character unique among his poems, if not perfect than the nearest thing to it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tennyson's "In Memoriam"

Many people consider Alfred Tennyson's “In Memoriam” to be his masterpiece. In fact, it is many things: emotionally draining, exhilarating, philosophically curious, solipsistic, exhausting (and exhaustive), dogmatic, and demanding. One constant, however, is Tennyson's poetic music. Throughout its 131 sections, prologue, and epilogue of equal form (isometric stanzas comprised of iambic tetrameter quatrains with the rhyme scheme ABBA), Tennyson maintains his regimented rhyme scheme with an ease that is startling in its ability to reinvent itself. While the poem as a whole may, at times, stagger under its own weight, the stanzas move with the same organic tide flow as the ocean bearing Tennyson's close friend, and the inspiration behind "In Memoriam," Arthur Hallam's body home to England from Vienna.

It would be cynical to dismiss this achievement by sheer fact of the time involved in completing “In Memoriam” – Tennyson devoted seventeen years to it. However, it was composed not as a whole, but as a series of separate poems, many of which were likely edited and/or adapted to fit the uniquely self-enclosed quatrain form that it employs, since Tennyson reportedly had no intention of combining the disparate poems together until it appeared in print in 1850. I would imagine that writing “In Memoriam” amounted to a type of psychotherapy for Tennyson, and doubt that while purging himself of his immense grief over the sudden and untimely death of his best friend, he fretted over the poetic form his exorcism was taking.

As examples of Tennyson's masterful control of language, I am going to randomly choose a few stanzas from “In Memoriam,” since I might be predisposed to defer to those that I find particularly persuasive otherwise.

The yule-clog sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.
(LXXVIII, Stanza two)

This is the form Tennyson never diverts from: eight syllables per line, and the enclosed rhyme scheme that, in effect, posits each stanza as a stand-alone entity. The choice to limit each line to eight syllables is both brilliant and foolish – brilliant since ultimately he pulls it off (without drawing attention to itself), foolish because he risks stagnancy by limiting each line to a mere eight beats. Yet the lines never feel mechanical, or sound stilted. Notice, in the example above, how mellifluous the long and short “O” sound is in yule-clog, frost, region, brooding, something, and lost; and the “I” sound with keen, wing, wind, region, things, quiet, and something; and how naturally the lines speak and breathe individually as well as in concert. Both sounds allude to the tone of the verse as well – melancholy and hushed.

The stern were mild when thou wert by,
The flippant put himself to school
And heard thee, and the brazen fool
Was softened, and he knew not why...
(CX, Stanza three)

We again get echoes of the “I” and “O” sounds from the prior stanza, in addition to “E” in stern, wert, himself, heard, thee, brazen, he, and knew – a terser, more bitter sound. By alternating short with multi syllabic (or visually elongated) words, Tennyson creates the illusion of a less severe score for his poetic music. The brevity of the lines is further disguised by indenting the second and third of each stanza, which cumulatively gives “In Memoriam” the appearance of a flowing steam or river undulating down the page, and helps to enjoin all its myriad stanzas into an ultimately unified whole.

Gnarr at the heels of men, and prey
By each cold hearth, and sadness flings
Her shadow on the blaze of kings:
And yet myself have heard him say...
(XCVIII, Stanza five)

Unlike the prior two selections, this stanza begins in mid-sentence and ends with a pause, via a comma. However, it doesn't sound or feel sliced out of context, even if it makes less immediate sense as four lines on their own. This is a tribute to Tennyson's facility with language: even in a truncated context, his lines sing, and flow. Here, he chooses an overriding “A” sound – gnarr, prey, hearth, sadness, shadow, blaze, and, have, heard, say – within the confines of the stanza, lending it a more guttural music that directly plays on the themes of death and disgust within the section.

The use of enclosed rhyme in each verse creates a seemingly contradictory motion within “In Memoriam.” It renders each four lines as a complete thought unto itself, as if Tennyson were having difficulty coming to terms with, and moving onward from Hallam's death. It also conveys the hesitancy with which the poet is absorbing all the information on both intellectual and emotional levels. However, by choosing the ABBA rhyme scheme, and alternating rhymes from verse to verse, instead of locking into an established aural rhythm, the poem moves in a slow but steady progression toward its ultimately celebratory conclusion – the marriage of Tennyson's sister. The music inherent in each stanza also works in this way, as the listener's ear is naturally drawn to each variation on the theme, wonders and cannot possibly guess what awaits in the next quatrain.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pilcrow Lit Fest: Five with...

I'll be a panelist at the Pilcrow Lit Fest next month. Amy Guth, the irascible and endearing brains behind same, mailed me a questionnaire to be completed beforehand.

Here's my answers to Ms. Guth's probing inquiries.

Amy, thanks for asking!

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Haystack in the Floods

I went through a Victorian reading jag a short while ago. That doesn't mean I donned my frock coat and scarf and took to the streets reciting The Bab Ballads; but because of a recent self-medicating dose of Robert Browning's work, I found myself wondering what other writing was out there I had missed (or misunderstood) from that era.

One such overlooked poet is William Morris. Morris was a painter and a Socialist as well. “The Haystack in the Floods” is a surprisingly 'modern' poem, one with an immediate impact that resonates in the mind (and gut) long after it has been read. Unlike Tennyson's idylls, beautifully written yet with their Spielbergized approximation of Arthurian times, Morris' view of the medieval goes beyond castles, heroic quests, and moats, delving into psychologically deeper recesses and addressing, to quote Hannah Arendt on Adolf Eichmann, the banality of evil.

Set in 1356, after the defeat of the French at Poitiers by Edward the Black Prince, an English knight, Sir Robert de Marny is traveling through France with his mistress Jehane, heading for the English-controlled safety of Gascony when they are suddenly surrounded by French enemy, Godmar and his troops. The opening five lines of the poem establish a fatalistic tone:

Had she come all the way for this,
To part at last without a kiss?
Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain
That her own eyes might see him slain
Beside the haystack in the floods?

Morris' poetry sounds like pulp fiction, a hundred years ahead of its time. You can almost imagine a narrator reading those same lines, with minor vernacular changes, in the opening minutes of a poverty row film noir – Jehane the femme fatale, Robert the fall guy, and Godmar the heavy – filmed in stark black and white. All the elements are there: passion, filth, rain, self-pity, existential angst and, of course, murder. The mood continues:

Along the dripping leafless woods,
The stirrup touching either shoe,
She rode astride as troopers do;
With kirtle kilted to her knee,
To which the mud splash'd wretchedly;
And the wet dripp'd from every tree
Upon her head and heavy hair,
And on her eyelids broad and fair;
The tears and rain ran down her face.

This is an incredibly vivid passage, rich with details: the wet, naked trees; muddy ground; Jehane's matted hair and face streaked with rain and tears. Morris writes with terrific restraint and simplicity, creating tension and dread even before Godmar has arrived on the scene. These are desperate people, not even bothering to put up false facades of hope or joviality. The landscape is dark, dreary, and wretched; they are driven by a basic instinct to survive, and little else.

Robert is either headstrong, or stupid, or a fatal combination of both:

By fits and starts they rode apace,
And very often was his place
Far off from her

Answering to “a murmuring from his men,” Robert “turn[s] back with promises” (or is it sudden false bravado?) that they are close to safety at Gascony. Approaching the “old soak'd hay” of the title, “that Judas” Godmar appears, accompanied by thirty of his men. Robert tries to soothe fears among his own ranks by evoking the English victory at Poitiers, even though they are outnumbered nearly two-to-one. His troops are somber and silent, offering no resistance as Robert is pulled from his horse.

Godmar speaks matter-of-factly when Jehane refuses to “yield ... as [his] paramour”:

Jehane, on yonder hill there stands
My castle, guarding well my lands:
What hinders me from taking you,
And doing that I list to do
To your fair willful body, while
Your knight lies dead?

This necrophiliac scenario of rape and murder doesn't quiet Jehane. She threatens to kill Godmar while he sleeps, by strangling him or biting through his throat. Godmar explicates the French peoples' reaction to a returning, treasonous Jehane:

'Jehane the brown! Jehane the brown!
Give us Jehane to burn or drown!' –
Eh – gag me Robert! – sweet my friend,
This were indeed a piteous end
For those long fingers, and long feet,
And long neck, and smooth shoulders sweet;
An end that few men would forget
That saw it – So, an hour yet:
Consider, Jehane, which to take
Of life or death!

Godmar's leering description of Jehane’s “long” fingers, feet and neck, and “smooth” “sweet” shoulders is the speech of a sociopath and sadist. Jehane dismounts, “totter[s] some yards” and “with her face/ Turn'd upward to the sky,” falls into a dreamless sleep (or is it faints?). Awakening, she reiterates, in a “strangely childlike” fashion – or state of shock – that she will not go with Godmar. “With a start” he acts, and she observes

The long bright blade without a flaw
Glide out from Godmar's sheath, his hand
In Robert's hair, she saw him bend
Back Robert's head; she saw him send
The thin steel down; the blow told well,
Right backward the knight Robert fell,
And moaned as dogs do, being half dead,
Unwitting, as I deem: so then
Godmar turn'd grinning to his men,
Who ran, some five or six, and beat
His head to pieces at their feet.

This gruesome climax has been foretold from the beginning. Morris' language is vivid and kinetic – the flawless “long bright blade” coming down to sever Robert's head; Robert moaning “as dogs do,” half-dead; Godmar's men rushing in to smash the head “to pieces at their feet” in a febrile frenzy. Jehane, hands cold, smiling ruefully and perhaps driven mad, is off to prison in Paris to be burned or drowned as a traitor. An incredibly nihilistic conclusion, the hopelessness of which is hammered home with the final two, perversely plainspoken lines:

This was the parting that they had
Beside the haystack in the floods.

Morris casts a cold, clear eye on his characters. He eschews affection toward them, and is not afraid to see them as they are. Even if our sympathies go out instinctively toward Robert and Jehane, the ostensible victims in the poem, that feeling is artificially enhanced when compared to the cruelty and Darwinian drive of Godmar. There are no larger-than-life heroes, no stereotyped villains here. There is no need to look for motivations, hows or whys; things just happen. “Had she come all the way for this?” The answer is yes, in Morris’ pitiless universe of cause and effect.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

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