Poetry, Poetry Project

One: Rage – Goddess!

 Homer’s Iliad (9th-8th Century BCE)


Achilles’ banefull wrath resound, O Goddesse, that
Infinite sorrows on the Greekes, and many brave
souls losd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that
invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and
Vultures gave.
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom
first strife begunne
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike


So, why did I begin this poem-a-day project with what is essentially just a very small piece of a very large poem? Because, I’m attempting to cover 2,000 years in some kind of chronology, and because I’m choosing short poems in general every day. This is just a daily mind/mentality exercise, meant to act as something both meditative and creativity-inspiring.

What’s going on in this poem? Well, in this part of it, we have what is essentially an outline (a thesis! – the English professor’s brain never lets up) for the epic to follow. It seems somehow fitting that this poem is one of the first, best examples of its kind in literary history, that it begins this particular project, and that it ultimately alludes to death and the afterlife.

As inspiration, I find these lines ironically soothing (ironic considering the portends, and that most translations for this call attention to one primary word: RAGE). Having read Song of Achilles recently, this stanza also resonates with me because of that story’s influence. Thinking of the love between Achilles and Patroclus, and how well it was written — that idea of RAGE becomes even more profound. Did Homer (or whomever) mean to imply, eventually, the reason for Achilles’ rage as influenced by that particular relationship? Doubtful. In most of the classical stories, his, and other heroes’, rage is simply an awe-inspiring representation of virility and masculinity.

Still, I think our readings are always influenced by where we are in life, what we’ve been doing in life, other things we’ve been thinking about, other books we’ve been reading, etc. So, for this moment, I’m satisfied with my reaction to this stanza. It somehow connects me to my current emotional state: a determined passion, or a passionate determination.

2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics, Poetry, Sylvia Plath

Thoughts: Ariel (1965) by Sylvia Plath

220px-ArielPlathAs someone who tends to avoid poetry (with a few exceptions, such as the British Romantics, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman, all of whom I love), this new year has found me reading quite a bit of it! I’ve spent time with Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath. I’ll also be spending the next 15 weeks reading poetry in Old English (think Beowulf) as well as seventeenth-century poetry (John Donne, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Ben Johnson, John Milton, etc.). So, I guess you could say… I’m not shying away from poetry anymore?

Anyhow, my first “review” of the year is for Sylvia Plath’s 1965 collection of poems, Ariel. This book is on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list, and boy am I glad to have finally read it. It is coincidental that I read it within days of reading Lowell’s Life Studies, which I knew little about. As it turns out, Plath was a great admirer of Lowell and both of them were “Confessional Poets.” This seems to be a style I respond to, because I adored both collections.

Plath herself, as many know, suffered from clinical depression. She married the infamous Ted Hughes and would eventually separate from him, after having two children. She committed suicide two weeks after publishing her now-classic novel, The Bell Jar.

Ariel was published posthumously in 1965, two years after her death. It was originally edited and compiled by Hughes, who apparently dropped twelve poems that were intended for the collection and inserted twelve others. He also altered the arrangement — fortunately, a restored version  was published in 2004. I look forward to reading that edition, eventually.

Ariel is intensely personal, which is to be expected from confessional poetry. The darkly lyric poems address issues of sexuality, motherhood, marriage, depression, suicidal thoughts, family and depression. These deeply personal poems, delivered with such raw directness, were perhaps too much for publishers of the time. Despite the positive critical reception of her first book, Colossus, the poems in Ariel were roundly rejected by many publications. Even The New Yorker refused to publish more than a few lines (it’s worth noting that The New Yorker also shied away from some of J.D. Salinger’s darker pieces).

Nevertheless, this later collection includes what would become some of the best-known poems in the English language, including “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” and “Morning Song.” I was moved by many of the poems, deeply touched by their personal and emotional expressiveness.

In addition to the famous poems mentioned above, some of my favorites of the collection include, “Nick and the Candlestick,” “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “The Rival,” and “Edge.” The intensity of these poems is at times difficult to bear. Take, for example, the first stanza of “The Moon and the Yew Tree:”

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue. / The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God, / Prickling my ankles and murmuring their humility. / Fumey, spiritous mists inhabit this place / Separated from my house by a row of headstones. / I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

This is a stunning example of awareness of self-in-the-world. Plath is applying direct symbolism to her surroundings and illustrating how the environment she’s in directly affects her mood and state of mind. She’s also expressing, in this poem, the realities of her masculine and feminine natures (the yew tree and the moon) in a way that is somehow divine but also dangerous. There’s a nod to Mother/Female and Father/Male figures, but where one would expect the Mother/Female symbols (the light, the moon) to be soft, warm, and nurturing, here it is cold, dark, distant. Similarly, the Father/Male symbol (the tree) is akin to Eden’s “Tree of Knowledge” – there is wisdom in it, but the tree is black, its fruit poisonous.

I could go on and on about this poem, and others in the collection, but suffice to say I found myself wholly absorbed with Ariel as a whole, though some poems spoke more to me than others. Plath had an uncanny ability to make her poems equally about the self and about the universal. Anyone who has experienced self-doubt, loneliness, and depression, or a terrifying love (like the love of a parent for a child they fear they might lose, fail, or corrupt) will find Plath’s poems deeply affecting.

Arthur Rimbaud, Book Review, GLBT Challenge, Poetry

Review: A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat by Arthur Rimbaud

A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat is a collection of short prose poems, the title poem of which is perhaps one of the shortest (but most well-received).  “The Drunken Boat” is a longer (six pages) prose  poem, added to this collection for length, I’m assuming, and perhaps to afford the reader another view of Rimbaud the writer.  Though the poems are engaging and interesting – I admit, I tore through the fifty or so pages in just under 45 minutes – it is clear to tell why 1) Rimbaud wasn’t that well-respected in his day (though much of this really was personal, rather than professional, objective criticism) and 2) That Rimbaud’s writing was done at an early age, without time or chance to grow and develop. 
The Good:
Despite much incongruity or disconnection amongst the poems, there were still certain dominate themes present throughout the collection.  Sexuality, for instance, though rarely blatantly was touched upon.  The danger of engaging in homosexual relationships at the time, the agony of not wanting a sexual/familial partner of the opposite sex, so then being doomed to loneliness or unhappiness.  Gender roles and the marriage question – relationships built on dowries rather than love.  Christianity and religion, parenting, and – perhaps most obvious – the loss of romance to science.  Rimbaud’s pain at the scientific endeavors of man, the desire – the need – to have everything explained and re-explained until you are convinced a hundred times over of what is factual and not.  The loss of a type of innocence and humanity, though that innocence was resulted in Original Sin and the banishment of man from Eden.  Man’s descent into Hell, not because of sin, but because of this existence in mundane mediocrity – everyone feeling they know more than they do, think higher than they’re capable of thinking, express less than what they wish they were able to express.  Many times I was reminded of Dostoevsky’s own comments on mediocrity and mankind’s descent into a world of steam engines and science.  Also, I couldn’t help but draw on the Romantic elements and tensions present in Shelley or Stevenson.  These emotions, the fears and the disappointment, are certainly the best imagined moments of the poems, and the most enjoyable.  I was also particularly impressed with Rimbaud’s honesty – the struggles mentally, the disconnect he was feeling from the world around him, the phantoms haunting his memories and his imaginings.  These were the passages in which language and imagery were used most beautifully and effectively, though many of the poems were too brief or perhaps not quite focused enough to be consistent throughout.
The Bad:
Poetry has never been my forte, and I must admit this up front in order to do any justice to my critique of what I find to be the negative aspects of this collection.  While I found much of the language engaging, as previously mentioned, and the translation quite well done, I didn’t find much that was or will be particularly memorable.  “The Drunken Boat” was, for me, the more enjoyable of all the poems.  The best of the A Season in Hell collection was probably “Morning,” nearer to the end of the collection.  Aside from these two, though, I was not much enamored.  Rimbaud came across largely arrogant and often whiny.  His words and phrases were lofty, but he doesn’t seem to say much.  Again, I have to qualify this with a reiteration of the fact that, I just don’t “get” poetry most of the time; in this case, though, it feels different.  Great poetry – Shelley’s Mont Blanc, Keats’ Endymion or The Eve of St. Agnes, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abby, or Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – they leave you with something.  Even if I couldn’t understand half the references, I understood the mood, the tone, the emotion.  The pitch, the fear, the anger.  In Whitman’s Song of Myself, I sense a universal connection of man, a unity and a sense of self in the “all.”  What makes poetry great for me, despite whether or not I truly like or enjoy it, or even understand much of it, is the permanent impression I’m left with at the end.  The power of the words and the language and the emotion.  The urgent sense I have to feel something, do something, understand something.  Rimbaud, while good and while enjoyable, left much to be desired, for me.  I was moved at times – but, ultimately, and in similarity to someone like, Poe, whose poetry was often interesting and even charming but never his strongest work (compared particularly to his Short Stories or Essays), Rimbaud too seems to have much to say and to express, but perhaps didn’t give himself enough time and confidence to do it right.  I imagine he could have made quite impression on me, as he was obviously talented, but he gave up too soon.
The Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0
At first, I was going to give this collection a 2.5/5.0 but I decided that was unfair because, really, I did enjoy more than half the collection.  I respect what Rimbaud did do, and in such short time (and so young in life).  The things he did express, he expressed quite well.  I truly felt his frustration with the status quo and, simultaneously, his fear for the future of science and technology.  He demonstrated a disconnect and disdain, even, for his fellow man (and woman), yet also a painful realization that, all being in this boat together, we’re all equally doomed to a miserable (re: boring, pointless) fate.  Some of the language was quite beautiful, especially, I imagine, in the original French.  Ultimately, though, I’m not sure I walk away from the collection having learned or felt much.