Voices in the Cave of Being
Poems can take up residence, can’t they? Some march in and plump themselves down and never budge. Others arrive with a party and you don’t particularly notice them at the time, but they hang around afterwards. Or they sneak in, and later you come upon them lurking diffidently in a basement or attic and they are, well, kind of cute, and you say O.K. and become used to their presence.
Figures of speech, figures of speech. But words like “admire,” “love,” “respect,” “like,” “enjoy,” “value,” “cherish” are loose, and are particularly misleading where poems are concerned if they imply sharply different kinds of relationships.
“Favourite,” too, can be a bit tricky if it suggests an exclusionary valuing, an implication that these particular poems are better than all the umpteen others that they aren’t.
And it’s not as if they’re all there for you all the time, like courtiers at Versailles. Months or more can go by without your thinking of some of them at all.
But in one way or another, they are there—there for you to be with at different times, in different situations, different moods. Zones of being, patterns of experience, ways of coping, definings of parts of your “self.” And existing in time, not space—as voicings, not shapes on the page to be skimmed or scanned with the eye.
Perhaps you have them by heart and voice them silently or aloud from time to time, start to finish. Or sense what lies ahead when the opening lines come to mind, like an agreeable street whose details you don’t all remember, and which you don’t need to go along at that point. Or you find phrases from them flickering into your consciousness from time to time in particular situations.
And when you’re speaking them, or being spoken, other poems from the same hands are irrelevant. You’re not enacting bits and pieces of others’ biographies or autobiographies and pretending temporarily to be Yeats or Donne or Rimbaud.
Some of them may be ones that you’d particularly like to have written yourself. Together, perhaps, they constitute almost a new Borgesian hyper-poet, a creating and experiencing self that you would like to have been.
Other poems may be as good or better. But these, in their various ways, are “yours.”
Here, then, are some of mine, coming from over fifty years. They fit, so far as I can see, with the line of argument in “Powers of Style.” Partly they illustrate it.
Are they “classical”? “romantic”? How clumsy that dichotomy can be. Spectrums are preferable.
They’re also made—shaped, formed, crafted, coherent. And very largely self-explanatory. They could all be anonymous and no less meaningful. Nor, or so I judge, does the absence of dates affect them. You don’t need the Who or When in order to experience the How.
To my surprise, for I didn’t know what I’d be coming up with, I don’t mind the self that I discern there. I only wish it were me.
I have omitted several favourites because of length—Marvell’s “The Garden,” Yeats’ “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin” (brilliantly translated by Cecil Day-Lewis), Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” Baudelaire’s “Les Petites Vieilles,” Lawrence’s “Snake.” I used to have the first three by heart. They’re all available on other websites, I imagine.
As are a number of the poems here, but it seemed convenient to have them all in one place.
I quote or refer to a number of others in the Comments.
And who are some of the house-guests who didn’t make it?
Oh well, in no particular order of rank, how about:
Yeats’ “Meru,” Graves’ “Sick Love” and “The Cool Web,” Tate’s “The Mediterranean,” Waller’s “Go, Lovely Rose,” Hardy’s “I Need Not Go” and “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’,” Hopkins’ “Spring,” Winters’ “California Oaks” and “Two Dream Songs,” Pound’s “The Lake Isle,” Larkin’s “MCMXIV” and “At Grass,” Bishop’s “The Art of Losing,” Cunningham’s “To a Friend, on her Examination for the Doctorate in English,” “New York: 5 March 1957,” and “For a College Yearbook,” Raleigh’s “Three Things There Be,” Rilke’s “Autumn Day,” Rochester’s “All My Past Life is Mine No More,” Wyatt’s “Madam, withouten many words,” Bowers’ “Dark Earth and Summer,” Shakespeare’s “Since Brass nor Stone nor Earth nor Boundless Sea,” Praed’s “Good Night to the Season,” Herbert’s “Virtue,” Collins’ “The Story We Know,” Stevens’ “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad,” the ballad with the refrain “Johnny, I hardly knew ye,” the ballad “Edward, Edward,” Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening.”
If fragments were included, the Dante-esque passage from Eliot’s Little Gidding would certainly be there, and lines from The Waste Land, and Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy.
And, if there could be music, so would the words of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” and “These Foolish Things,” and “Loveless Love” as sung respectively by Louis Armstrong, and Greta Keller, and Billie Holiday.
And how about a limerick or two? But no, no, this has to stop somewhere.
The Comments, not written in the order in which they appear here, took me by surprise.
I’d intended just to reproduce the poems, with a few notes.
But then the words started coming, and I let them come. I was discovering things about poetry, and about my own dealings with it, and about some of the theoretical issues concerning it, that I hadn’t noticed before, or had forgotten, and that seemed of more than merely personal application.
There’s so much self-aggrandizing theorizing around these days, isn’t there?— so much bullying reductiveness, so much masked dominativeness, so much arid ideological decoding—and you want to do what you can to keep it at bay.
So what started out as a mini-anthology with a few notes turned into what is now, in effect, a longish exploration of “reading,” with particular poems as illustrations. Almost, in fact, a little book.
But you don’t need the comments in order to enjoy the poems. Or others like them.
Personally I like viewing poems on screen in a larger size than on the printed page. It slows down the mind’s eye, makes them more audible, and, if they’re familiar ones, slightly defamiliarizes them. Hence the size of the font here.
But you can change it if you wish. On my machine I click on View at the top of the screen, pull down to Text Zoom, and make the adjustment that I want. I assume that some such combination of terms will work on other machines.
My Webmaster, Rob Stevenson, has impressively solved the problem of wraps. When a line wraps here, the continuation is indented in more or less the way it would be on the printed page.
While I was transcribing the poems, I got the same effect by treating each line as a separate paragraph and setting the paragraphs for hanging indents. Which is to say, creating what in prose would be paragraphs in which all the lines after the first one are indented.