“Iris”-A poem by William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

Cover of William Carlos Williams

A burst of Iris so that
come down for
breakfast

we searched through the
rooms for
that

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea
struck

Irises

Irises (Photo credit: dottieg2007)

startling us from among
those trumpeting
petals

I like the enjambments and the doing away with the syntax. Word after word builds up the expectation of the burst of Iris , its fragrance taking the reader through the rooms,(from the upstairs:come down for breakfast), trying to trace its source.The lines have no break and spill into the next, throwing grammar and punctuation to the winds. Iris is a blue flower between the color of blue and violet, of sword-shaped leaves.It has energy that bursts on your conscious like the blue sea that suddenly emerges from behind the trees, startling the wayfarer who is not prepared for its emerging.

The deliberate syntactical awkwardness mystifies the existence of the flower, which is first felt only through the odor and by the time we come to the last but one stanza we come upon the flower visually:

1) We began with the expectation of a “burst” of Iris, an explosion of color and energy, a violence associated with the color between purple and blue
2) We come down for breakfast and search through the rooms for the source ,tracing the sweetest odor to its source
3)Then, a blue as of the sea “struck”.Notice the violence of the words ‘struck”,”startling”,”trumpeting“(associated with war)
4)The “trumpeting” petals are a visual metaphor invoking the likeness of the petals to the shape of a trumpet.At the same time the trumpet is an auditory experience from a war scene ,in which the victor trumpets his glory.

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Patterns -A poem by Amy Lowell (from Men, Women and Ghosts, 1916)

English: Daffodils at Brodie Blocks of Daffodi...

English: Daffodils at Brodie Blocks of Daffodils in the walled garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whale-bone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

And the splashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.

Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
“Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday sen’night.”
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
“Any answer, Madam,” said my footman.
“No,” I told him.
“See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer.”
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
Each one.
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.

In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
Now he is dead.

In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Gorgeously arrayed,
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?

 
The poem has struck me as a very modern poem,not a piece of nineteenth century war poetry it is usually classed under.It is not about the war but about the power of an individual to choose ,an act of free will to get away from “patterns”.There are patterns everywhere in our cultural attitudes, societal mores that restrict us within the confines of the patterns. Like the heavily brocaded dress of a lady that stifles the female body on a hot summer day. Like the patterned garden that grows according to the landscaping given to it.Not like the daffodils and squills freely waving in the breeze.There is a pattern everywhere and all life must proceed within its pre-designed structure.

Gentlemen must go to war and fight anonymous Dukes in Flanders and footmen must come with a letter from a messenger with a curt message about Lord Hartwell who died in action Thursday sen’ night. That is the pattern it follows. Any answer? The footman should ask and No, she should say but should be polite enough to ask to see that the messenger takes some refreshment.

The letter should be put in the lady’s bosom for a tearful reading in the shade of the lime tree.Just near the place in the bosom where a lime flower had dropped.That is how the pattern is.

Is there nobody to break the pattern? He who was willing to break the pattern is now dead. The heavily decorated Colonel would have embraced her softness duly protected by his big brass buttons but that is a pattern nevertheless.He therefore fell into another pattern called war.The man who would loose her in her heavily brocaded dress is lost to another pattern.

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“Anecdote of the Jar ” -By Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The poem is like Keats’ ode to the Grecian Urn but only on the face of it. The jar is here a symbol or not a symbol depending upon the reader’s own thought.It can be just a jar in a painting surrounded by wilderness as if it is a hillock and a wilderness is growing around it . The jar is round and gray as everything else in the poem is , devoid of nature. Keats’ Grecian Urn contains ashes of time , with the evanescence of human existence caught immortally in timeless art. This one is empty , both inside and on the outside. On the outside it is bare and gray,containing no art.But it does sport nature in the form of a slovenly wilderness that rises up to it. But once it rises up it it is no longer wild but is just stays sprawled around as if it is art or stillness painted on a two-dimensional plane.

The jar is round upon the ground and tall and of a port in air. But unlike a hill it does not give of bush or bird. It essentially remains art although it imitates nature. Keats’ poem was an ode .This is a mere anecdote- a narrative told by a poet as part of a conversation. The poet is not praising anything. He is merely illustrating whatever he is saying by a story, which is what this one is.

On the face of it the meter seems in a mess with lines spilling out of four iambs in some . There is order dealing with art and lack of it as we deal with nature -“slovenly wilderness” .There are lines of four iambs and lines going beyond this structure exactly as it would happen in art and nature.

The interesting thing about the poem is the anecdotal nature of the poem-the way some one narrates an event to illustrate a point. The scene of action was Tennessee with the narrator placing a jar on a hill in Tennessee.What made the slovenly wilderness surround the hill? Imagine you paint a jar and in the background is a hill, bare and round. Will not the wilderness rise up to the top ,sprawled around and become less wild?

There is fun and attempts at parody by different critics on the apparently disjunctive syntax and the reader’s difficulty of making overall sense out of the poem. Like for example the two negatives in the last two lines -they send you in a spin. A sneaking suspicion comes as to if Wallace is actually pulling your legs. Surely it cannot be a jar of pickles with Wallace laughing about it behind your back.

Supposing if that were to happen, would it detract from its merit as a poem? I do not think so. The poem stands on its own merits in the beauty of the imagery. May be it is a poem about poem writing or any art. May be, it is a post-structuralist perspective in art or even a spoof on deliberate obfuscation resorted to in contemporary poetics. It may even be a regret of an American poet who feels cut off from the rich classical traditions of Europe like for example in the ode to a Grecian urn.

“Do not stand at my grave and weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Mary Elizabeth Frye

The short poem , recited at funeral services has surprising elements of imagery . Considering that Mary Frye had spontaneously composed it on a piece of brown paper and without prior poet credentials , the imagery takes you by surprise for the vividness of the pictures they draw and the crispness of the words chosen to paint them.

Consider the following:

Do not stand there and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.

The dear ones stand and weep only by the bedside when someone is seriously ill. Here the person is not sleeping but has become a part of nature- a wind, a glint in the snow, a sunlight, a rain.She is not sleeping in the grave and listening to the weeping relatives.

I am not there.I did not die.

To die is to cease to exist and just lie dead in a grave for the relatives to mourn the loss of the body that had once existed. Here the person is not dead in the sense of not existing. She exists very much in the thousand winds, the autumn rain, the glint on the snow and the quiet birds in circled flight.

The visual imagery employed is perfect:

diamond glints on snow
sunlight on ripened grain
circled flight

The auditory imagery is even more pretty:

the morning’s hush
soft uplifting rush of quiet birds
( A brilliant image)

The tactile imagery is equally beautiful:

I am the soft stars

(soft not the touch but to the eyes)
gentle autumn rain
(gentle to the skin)
the winds that blow
(touching the skin)

Beginning my studies:: Walt Whitman

 

 

Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact of consciousness, these forms, the power of
motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

[From Leaves of Grass]

To a poet ,beginning to explore nature is the beginning of studies- as you begin you have to understand the alphabet of the fascinating world of nature, the nature of things and the  very layers of consciousness in which your own self lies buried. You have to look at yourself as part of this world of forms, the power of motion, the light in things, the way light falls on things and makes them out against the things of the world. In the process of taking it all in , a song bursts forth, a song of joy, a song of celebration much before you start experiencing the world in its fullness.

The music prevents exploration and the poetry robs you of the experience of going further towards the fuller and richer joys that lay ahead in this fascinating world. A wondrous  adventure is lost in the setting of  the song to its tune, to a mad pursuit of a rhythm. A poetry recollected in tranquility is lost to a song that flows prematurely as we enter the world of “the least insect, the animal, the senses, eyesight, love” at the very first step.

 

(the post can also be  found  in the page “Short Poems”)

“Richard Cory”- by Edwin Arlington Robinson

 

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Edwin Arlington Robinson
The poem is about the American dream gone awry, in the post-Depression era , when many promising young men went Corey’s way. The poem is fairly simple at least to a post-modern reader who is used to much greater difficulty in comprehending a poet’s meandering thought and decoding his expression.Pretty neat and straightforward. But there is beauty in the way the poem unfolds from stanza one through the last stanza, the way the unexpected conclusion springs upon you in the last stanza. Let us confine ourselves to the speakers i.e. to the people who are narrating the story of Richard Corey.

First ,place the speakers at the ground level. They are people on the pavement.They are not only physically on the pavement but are there economically. The poem is about what they have seen of Richard Corey over a period of time.

Then think of the way they have looked at him. They are on ground level and their eyes go over his appearance from sole to crown. He is finely arrayed. Clean favored and imperially slim. He is rich not merely in terms of material wealth but in all graces ,richer than a king. He fluttered pulses when he talked and glittered when he walked.Making them wish they were in his place.

Now ,from wherever they are, they worked, waited for the light and went without the meat, cursed the bread. That is the level from which they viewed him. The economic situation never affected him.But while he went about his business as a lucky gentleman blessed with nature’s endowments and material riches, they suffered hard conditions, having to go through one of the worst depressions in the history of their country.

The surprise end “and Richard Corey, one calm summer night,went home and put a bullet through his head” gives you nasty shock.

Is that what was expected to happen? But the narrator does not seem to be fazed by the abruptness of Corey’s tragic end. The way they pulled off the last lines ,they did not appear to be caught by surprise. Why was that night such a calm summer night? Why do these things happen on a calm summer night?

The nasty end is not what is tragic.It is the unexpectedness of the last two lines , spoken in such a calm manner, that rattles you. The tragedy is not in the story of a depressing suicide but the manner in which the tragedy affects the narrators, the almost “unhuman” way in which they react to the death as against the “human” way in which he always talked to them.

Celestial Music By Louise Gluck

Excerpts from “Celestial Music” , a poem by Louise Gluck

 “In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;

From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.

It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact

That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.

My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.

She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image

Capable of life apart from her.

We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition

Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air

Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-

It’s this stillness we both love.

The love of form is a love of endings.”

(excerpts)

A very beautiful poem by Louise Gluck. The poet’s friend wants her to listen to the celestial music. The music is of a moment of dying of a caterpillar surrounded by the life of the ants crawling over it , a drawing of a circle in the dirt, a fixing of the composition. The circle is drawn around  a beautiful image capable of life apart from her. A moment is enacted for solitude and ease with death.It is a stillness both the poet and her friend love. The very fact you love form is a love of endings.

The stillness is experienced by a series of images that convey a calm, a solitude, a wholeness;

Sit,  watch,  in reality,

silence  pierced by a bird call  from time to time: 

inside the caterpillar does not move

an image capable of life apart from her

It is peaceful sitting here

There is no tragedy to the death, no drama about it. You draw a circle and look at the caterpillar’s death as something beautiful and whole , capable of life apart from you.