“A Bas Ben Adhem” – By Ogden Nash

My fellow man I do not care for.
I often ask me, What’s he there for?
The only answer I can find
Is, Reproduction of his kind.
If I’m supposed to swallow that,
Winnetka is my habitat.
Isn’t it time to carve Hic Jacet
Above that Reproduction racket?

To make the matter more succint:
Suppose my fellow man extinct.
Why, who would not approve the plan
Save possibly my fellow man?
Yet with a politician’s voice
He names himself as Nature’s choice.

The finest of the human race
Are bad in figure, worse in face.
Yet just because they have two legs
And come from storks instead of eggs
They count the spacious firmament
As something to be charged and sent.

Though man created cross-town traffic,
The Daily Mirror, News and Graphic,
The pastoral fight and fighting pastor,
And Queen Marie and Lady Astor,
He hails himself with drum and fife
And bullies lower forms of life.

Not that I think much depends
On how we treat our feathered friends,
Or hold the wrinkled elephant
A nobler creature than my aunt.
It’s simply that I’m sure I can
Get on without my fellow man.
Ogden Nash

 

One has to read Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem ,in order to fully understand the poet’s lighthearted dig at mankind as a species. Leigh Hunt’s poem made fine undergraduate reading with an exquisite moral at the end of the poem. We understood the poem was about the greatness of the human species in the eyes of God. The Angel there noted Abou Ben’s name on the top of the golden list of all those whom God loved because his name figured not in the list of those who loved God but on the contrary ,in the list of those who loved humanity. The moral is exquisite and is not easily lost on a world where a renewed faith in humanity had just taken roots after a dark era of obscurantist religion and superstitious beliefs had come to an end with the flowering of reason and science. Of course one wondered if a “high moral” message can be turned into a poem merely by setting it to meter. And what is so special about it as a “poem”, one wondered.

Ogden Nash might have had a similar reservation about the poem. Actually he may not have anything against the poem or the poet. Here he merely debunks the myth that the human species is far superior to the other species, by way of higher intelligence and usefulness. Where was the usefulness of man against the other species in the reproductive functions which the other species are also equally capable of. His only claim to fame is that he comes from the stork instead of from the eggs. A playful jibe at mothers who tell their children the babies will arrive brought in by the stork, at their unwillingness to reveal the reproductive side of their bodies to children.The bird mom is not shy about where its chicks come from.
The only answer I can find
Is, Reproduction of his kind.
If I’m supposed to swallow that,
Winnetka is my habitat.
Isn’t it time to carve Hic Jacet
Above that Reproduction racket?

The lines sound like a limerick with a humorous play on words. “Winnetka is my habitat” ,just like any other species which has its habitat to which it belongs not out of its own choice but is born in and grows out of it. Reproduction of own kind is no big deal nor the habitat, made not by choice or design but by nature. Now is the time to call the bluff in the reproduction argument and give it a decent burial, carving “hic jacet” (here lies) for its epitaph. Mark reproduction racket the word used not just because it rhymes with jacet (as usually happens in limericks) but because of the noise they make claiming an anthropocentric universe.

The humanist argument goes that it is mankind that has a central role to play in the universal scheme of things and his reproduction is a continuous necessity in the universe that makes it a responsibility on the human species to multiply itself.That is the racket that the poet seeks to give decent burial to.

To make the matter more succinct:
Suppose my fellow man extinct.
Why, who would not approve the plan
Save possibly my fellow man?
Yet with a politician’s voice
He names himself as Nature’s choice.

Here the poet is not talking about the extinction of the human species as a whole, only of the “fellow man”, who names himself nature’s choice. The poet is of course speaking about the generic man but one in whose role at the center of the universe he himself is not a part. Of course he is making the fellow man extinct merely to make the matter more succinct. Who would not approve the plan except of course the fellow man himself , who is charged with the responsibility of running the world being Nature’s choice. That is merely hypothetical because no body will approve such a thing.

The fellow man is bad in figure and ugly in face and has none of the beauty of nature’s other species. But

Not that I think much depends
On how we treat our feathered friends,
Or hold the wrinkled elephant
A nobler creature than my aunt.
It’s simply that I’m sure I can
Get on without my fellow man.

It is not that our feathered friends or elephant are nobler creatures  than our aunt but we sure can get on with the fellow man whose contributions are only such things as the cross-town traffic, the Daily Mirror and News and Graphics, among other things. And so many other trite things like the pastoral fight and the fighting pastor, the Lady Astor arriving from America by the ship Queen Marie.

A Bas Ben Adhem is a play on the words A Bas (French for “down with”) and the poem seems a spoof on the original Abou Ben Adham of Leigh Hunt.The humor of Ogden arises out of a gentle playfulness without rancor. At the most it raises a laugh like any limerick verse and equips us with the ability to laugh at ourselves as a human species.

 

“The snowman”- By Wallace Stevens

 

 
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
 
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
 
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
 
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
 
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
 
I call this a nature poem , a beautiful poem about the winter landscape. Do not project yourself on to the environment and call it by the name of what goes on in your mind, says the poet. When we perceive the snow-covered landscape we look at as it is and not humanize it ascribing qualities of bleakness and despair that may be prevailing in our  preoccupied minds. One must have a mind of winter to perceive its beauty.
 
On the other hand, be the winter you are perceiving, with the junipers shagged with ice and regard the frost and the boughs of the pine trees crusted with snow as though you too were, with the mind of the winter, engaged with them as part of the landscape. As if you too have been cold a long time and crusted with ice .
 
There is nothing bleak about the wind, which blows in the leaves, and has always been blowing irrespective of the state of your mind. The wind is not howling or being plaintive merely and you carry with you your own misery, that  has nothing to do with the sound of the wind.  The listener should  listen in the snow and nothing himself , and behold nothing that is not there and the nothing that is there.That is how the beauty of the place will come home to him.
 
I love the amazing visual imagery in “pine trees crusted with snow” , ‘junipers shagged with ice”, spruces rough in the distant glitter”. You now have a mind of winter and you behold the boughs of the pines which seem so rough and shaggy, being crusted with ice , they have been cold a long time, you see. A kind of time-lapse picture of snow slowly forming a crust around the bare branches and when the mind of winter beholds it , it is already crusted and can only see the branches swathed in ice.  Now when the mind of winter extends its glances across the landscape it will perceive the spruces rough in the distant glitter, when the sun shines brightly on them. For God’s sake let not the mind  perceive all this as an extension of one’s own misery because there is nothing bleak about it. Incidentally , watch out for the roughness image that continues throughout. The crust of ice is rough, the junipers  shagged, and the spruces rough in their sun-glitter. But the roughness here enhances beauty adding to its texture, the visual splendor of the landscape instead of depressing, with the loss of natural shape by the trees and the boughs.

“Some trees” – by John Ashbery

 

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Some comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Place in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

 
I like the title “some trees”,(not these trees,or the trees or trees) but “some trees”, in the sense they are some trees, not to be lightly spoken of. They are amazing,to say the least. Each joining a neighbor’s silence, while integrating in the general foliage of the wood. But still they are individual trees talking to the other trees, in the way they lean on each other,with a glint in their sunny eye.Their speech was a still performance.You and I will talk here, in a similar still performance.But the trees have something to say to us.

They tell us what we are.They tell us that their being there means something. After all they are some trees. They tell us more importantly that we may soon touch,love, explain. Their presence here tells that our talking will soon happen,our love,our explaining. Luckily we are not surrounded by a formal comeliness, a put on air of conviviality, a noisy atmosphere . We are here as far away from the world as we can make it. The trees provide a canvas filled with a chorus of smiles,against a winter morning’s quiet.

The place is in a puzzling light and seems to be moving. The way the tree’s shadows dance to the mild breeze. Our days put on such a reticence that these accents (the quietness of this place) seem their own defense.

The interesting things I have found in the poem are:

“some”, “something” (discussed earlier)

The auditory sense invoked through the poem:

A still performance

Silence already filled with noises : Read a blank canvas of silence filled with the sounds of smiles and there is nothing to fill now by way of communication between us.

The visual sense invoked

Place in a puzzling light,moving.

The puzzling light refers to the sunlight sieved through the tree branches as they gently wave in the breeze.It also may refer to the puzzling communication between us that is not filled with words.
we may touch,love,explain

Say nothing except what the trees say in their chorus of smiles or touch,love,explain.Touch leads to love and an atmosphere conducive to explaining one’s own actions to clear misunderstandings.

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“Solitude”-A poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

English: Portrait of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Fron...

English: Portrait of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Frontispiece from her book of poems “Three Women” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain. 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

A delightful little poem that does not leave you in confusion about the poet’s theme. The imagery is simple on the face of it but has layers of meaning and interconnections, if only we try to make out a running thread behind them.
The sad old earth does not have much mirth and has trouble having enough of it. The sadness refers to the essential tragedy of the human condition, an inherent pathos in all that we do and say.It has necessarily to borrow some of it from whoever has excess of it. But we can only laugh together , whenever there is something to celebrate but not all the time when we have to enact our own little private tragedies. So if you have some cause for celebration ,do laugh but together with others so that the sum total of the earth’s happiness will increase or the negative balance of its happiness will decrease(i.e. the sad old earth will be a little less sad)
Weep and you weep alone because there is no point in burdening the sad earth with more sadness. Even nature refuses to sympathize with your suffering because you shall suffer alone and your sighs are lost in the air.But if you sing, the hills will reverberate with your music. On a bright morning if you sing to the hills they will echo to your sound in joy but if you cry they shrink away from your tears.
 It is not nature alone that shrinks away from your sadness but your  fellow human beings who prefer to sing and dance with you in your happy moments but leave you alone in your grief.”Succeed and give” and it helps you live but no man can help you die.
I love the imagery of the last four lines, also exquisite in their music.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.
Beautiful words these. There is room for everyone in the lordly train(a  royal pageant or a procession)  in the halls of pleasure ,where the celebration is done in big groups,by singing and clapping.We sing and dance together the common joys of life, spreading happiness around. But our own personal sadness must be gone through alone.Our personal unhappiness cannot be shared and we have to file on through the narrow aisles of pain. A separation or a death is an intensely personal experience that has to be gone through alone, just like the others who are ahead of us in the line and those who are waiting behind us.
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“An Al­most Made Up Po­em”- By Charles Bukowski

I see you drink­ing at a foun­tain with tiny
blue hands, no, your hands are not tiny
they are small, and the foun­tain is in France
where you wrote me that last let­ter and
I an­swered and nev­er heard from you again.
you used to write in­sane po­ems about
AN­GELS AND GOD, all in up­per case, and you
knew fa­mous artists and most of them
were your lovers, and I wrote back, it’ all right,
go ahead, en­ter their lives, I’ not jeal­ous
be­cause we’ nev­er met. we got close once in
New Or­leans, one half block, but nev­er met, nev­er
touched. so you went with the fa­mous and wrote
about the fa­mous, and, of course, what you found out
is that the fa­mous are wor­ried about
their fame –– not the beau­ti­ful young girl in bed
with them, who gives them that, and then awak­ens
in the morn­ing to write up­per case po­ems about
AN­GELS AND GOD. we know God is dead, they’ told
us, but lis­ten­ing to you I wasn’ sure. maybe
it was the up­per case. you were one of the
best fe­male po­ets and I told the pub­lish­ers,
ed­i­tors, “ her, print her, she’ mad but she’
mag­ic. there’ no lie in her fire.” I loved you
like a man loves a wom­an he nev­er touch­es, on­ly
writes to, keeps lit­tle pho­to­graphs of. I would have
loved you more if I had sat in a small room rolling a
cig­a­rette and lis­tened to you piss in the bath­room,
but that didn’ hap­pen. your let­ters got sad­der.
your lovers be­trayed you. kid, I wrote back, all
lovers be­tray. it didn’ help. you said
you had a cry­ing bench and it was by a bridge and
the bridge was over a riv­er and you sat on the cry­ing
bench ev­ery night and wept for the lovers who had
hurt and for­got­ten you. I wrote back but nev­er
heard again. a friend wrote me of your sui­cide
3 or 4 months af­ter it hap­pened. if I had met you
I would prob­a­bly have been un­fair to you or you
to me. it was best like this.
Charles Bukows­ki

 
I like this  po­em  for the stark  sim­plic­i­ty of the theme .Bukows­ki,  a  po­et of the low life ,as he is called ,tries to un­der­stand a fel­low po­et, a wom­an, whom he had nev­er touched but on­ly writ­ten to. Do we find sar­casm here? I do not think so be­cause she is to be judged not as a wom­an to make love to but as a po­et , who writes about an­gels and gods in up­per case let­ters. But the oth­ers who judged her were the ones who made love to her but cared more for their fame and left her , sit­ting on the cry­ing bench near the bridge as a riv­er flowed un­der it.
But Bukows­ki would have loved her more ,if on­ly he had sat in his room hear­ing her piss sound in the bath room .But that was not to be.He on­ly knows her in her con­fes­sion­al let­ters and in her po­ems about an­gels and gods, all in up­per case. She had gone to Paris to drink from the foun­tain of life there with her blue hands.But the fame of her fa­mous friends did not rub on her one bit. Nor their love and com­mit­ment . They have all for­got­ten her in the“ flush” of their own fame. Fi­nal­ly ,she had com­mit­ted sui­cide. It was best like this .Had Bukows­ki met her i.e. had ev­er heard her piss sound in his bath­room ,he would have had to bear the blame for be­ing un­fair to her like the oth­er fa­mous peo­ple who had loved and left her. This way , no hard feel­ings be­tween them.
I on­ly won­der what the po­et is try­ing to say about the po­et friend. About her po­et­ic prow­ess he is clear­ly try­ing to be sar­cas­tic(“an­gels and gods”, “up­per case”). But he ad­mits there was no lie in her fire.Ev­ery­thing she said had the ring of sin­cer­i­ty.She has struck up friend­ship with fa­mous peo­ple and be­ing in their cir­cle or drink­ing from the foun­tain of beau­ty in Paris hadn’t helped her one bit .Many of them had heard her piss sound in their bath­rooms but not one of them had re­turned her love. This is her tragedy.
We do not see Bukowsky drop­ping his guard even once in the po­em to be mushy about the wom­an po­et who could have been in­volved with him. He has no re­grets and is thank­ing his stars that such was the case. Oth­er­wise he would have had to car­ry a guilt com­plex about her and she about him.
The po­em may not be re­al. It is al­most a“ made up”po­em. Per­haps the po­et is speak­ing from his own per­ceived su­pe­ri­or­i­ty. A bru­tal way of as­sert­ing male su­pe­ri­or­i­ty over a wom­an whose po­et­ry is den­i­grat­ed as on­ly about an­gels and gods and whose on­ly claim to fame is through li­aisons with the fa­mous. Imag­ine his own po­ems are in low­er case, a fact which does not give him any edge over the wom­an po­et who us­es the up­per case. This way the po­em is al­most made up and may not be ap­prox­i­mat­ing to the truth of the sit­u­a­tion. A faint self-mor­ti­fi­ca­tion by the po­et can be felt in the words : an al­most made up po­em.

“A Nameless Grave”-A poem by H.W.Longfellow

‘A soldier of the Union mustered out,’
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.

 

Though the poem is fairly simple in the theme and the poet has handled it without complicated imagery, I love the way the poet used certain terms to bring home the pathos of an unknown soldier killed in action, “unwept”, “unhonored” “unsung” (Using Scott’s famous last line in Breathes there.…)

Mustered out:

Mustering means gathering in assembly.Mustered out should therefore imply a fallen soldier being taken out of the active soldiers group. The man has no name and is merely “a” soldier of the Union. He is merely mustered out.

Unknown grave:

The grave is unknown bearing no name of its occupant on the inscription. Since no one knows him, his grave remains unknown by the sea.

Nameless and dateless:

Nameless is heart wrenching but more so when the inscription bears no dates of the soldier’s existence. He could have been from any period of human history, an archetypal soldier who dies for others and is quickly forgotten.

With secret shame I feel my pulses beat:

He died for me and here I am ,my own pulses guiltily beating. I do not even know his name . As he sleeps in an unknown grave I realize he has given me his life as well as his name.I flaunt my name here and my pulses still beat because this unknown soldier of the Union mustered out and is lying here without a name. That is my secret shame.

“Sylvia’s death”- By Anne Sexton

Sylvia Plath

Cover of Sylvia Plath

Anne Sexton

for Sylvia Plath

O Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,
with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in a tiny playroom,
with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roofbeam, into the dumb prayer,
(Sylvia, Sylvia
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)
what did you stand by,
just how did you lie down into?
Thief —
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and the quiet deed?
(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
O Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,
how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy
to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,
and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,
and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides
and I know at the news of your death
a terrible taste for it, like salt,
(And me,
me too.
And now, Sylvia,
you again
with death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
And I say only
with my arms stretched out into that stone place,
what is your death
but an old belonging,
a mole that fell out
of one of your poems?
(O friend,
while the moon’s bad,
and the king’s gone,
and the queen’s at her wit’s end
the bar fly ought to sing!)
O tiny mother,
you too!
O funny duchess!
O blonde thing!

 

Between the two of them,Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton had cooked up a grand scheme of death, a taking away of  own life. Death seemed such a romantic thing. The scheme has been hatched in a car journey”that ride home with our boy”. Sylvia ditched Anne who took her raising potatoes and keeping bees seriously and waited for the drummer boy to beat on her eyelids.In the meantime ,Sylvia went alone into the death, death which Anne wanted so much for herself.Death both of them agreed they outgrew,the one they wore on their skinny breasts.

 

But what can the bar fly do but sing? Now that the king is gone and the moon is bad. Death was not a new thing for Sylvia, just a mole dropped from one of her poems.
I love this death poem, that talks of death , so handsome and so reluctant to terrorize. Our own handsome boy  who we drink to. The one they talked of so many times, talked of analysts and cures,downing three extra martinis in  Boston.
Death for the women is not a terror but a smooth talking  young boy, a sleepy drummer who beat an old story on their
 eyes. How they waited for a sadist death who would make it such a terrible affair! Contrary to their expectation he turned out to be such a soft spoken guy!
Not a tightly constructed poem, the stanzas overflow into each other and the images overlap. But the subject of death is not serious business for the poet who pretends that the friend’s death was only to be expected and was the best thing to take place. Wasn’t it what they had planned all these years? But the funny thing was how Sylvia upstaged her friend by crawling into death alone. Death is a creepy  thing but to crawl into the death was being one up on death.
Interesting  images/usages are
O tiny mother, you too!
(Caesar’s accusation to Brutus:Sylvia has betrayed Anne by stealing a march on her)
A mother of two children :meteors wandering loose in a tiny playroom
( meteors wandering loose in a play room is a nice image)
“with your mouth into the sheet/
into the roof beam,into the dumb prayer”
(The way the mouth is shut up under the sheet,gaping at the roof beam,into a dumb prayer)
In Boston, the dying ride in cabs
(dying ride)
I see now that we store him up
year after year,old suicides
and I know at the news of your death
a terrible taste for it, like salt
(Old suicides are preserved in salt and their news leaves a terrible taste like salt)
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