Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Cat" by Miroslav Holub

Outside it was night
like a book without letters.
And the eternal dark
dripped to the stars through the sieve of the city.

I said to her
do not go
you'll only be trapped
and bewitched
and will suffer in vain.

I said to her
do not go
why want

But a window was opened
and she went,

a black cat into the black night,
she dissolved,
a black cat in the black night,
she just dissolved 
and no one ever saw her again.
Not even she herself.

But you can hear her
when it's quiet
and there's a northerly wind
and you listen intently
to your own self.

I was first struck with the unusual figurative language in the poem. The techniques themselves are ordinary enough, but their use is not. In the first line, the night is compared to "a book without letters." Normally, figurative language is used to clarify an idea or image, but here it just confuses it. How is the night a book without letters? Is it mysterious or empty? Coded or forgotten? Interesting or useless? Or what about "the eternal dark/ dripped to the stars?" Normally when we think of "drip" we think of things going down, but the stars are up. And what is the "sieve of the city?" These strange connection set up the poem; it doesn't quite take place in reality. It isn't completely fantasy, either, more like an alternate universe. The first stanza sets the tone and style for the poem, both are import in order for the reader to believe the last line when a cat suddenly becomes "your own self." Holub also puts some alliteration in the third and fourth lines: "dark dripped" and "sieve of the city." It makes the last lines of the first stanza flow. In fact, the whole poem flows, though written in free verse. The words make rhythms. "The Cat" is not written in strict iambic meter, but stressed and unstressed syllables of the words push and pull the reader through the poem. They dictate pauses, accelerations, or stress that makes the poem move like a song. This conventional side of poetry helps the reader move through the less conventional comparisons and phrasing. It makes the reader comfortable enough to read through the poem several times until he catches the meaning -- if there is a meaning.

There could be a very specific meaning to this poem. Holub could be describing a specific memory or experience. He may be portraying an specific idea. Or he may simply be presenting an small scene. The first stanza gives a very strange description of night, and yet, if one looks closely at the descriptions, he can actually see a darkened city, filtering the darkness that reached up to the stars. The poem then narrows its scope, looking into just one house where a man pleads with his cat. What he says seems to represent the human fears of darkness. On the one hand, we fear what could be hidden by it, what it could do to us, and on the other hand, we fear that is nothing and that it will turn us, too, into nothing. "But a window was opened/ and she went." The black cat, which, naturally, is part darkness itself, doesn't fear the darkness. It leaves. In the darkness, it was invisible. It almost turned into nothingness, as the man had feared. But sometimes he could hear her, indicating that the cat had not turned into nothing as he had feared but had just become another one of the mysterious of darkness.

I found it important that Holub chose a cat as opposed to, say, a human, to leave into the darkness. I happen to like cats, black cats especially. I thinks they're pretty and intelligent. They don't automatically assume you're their friend, like dogs do, or really even believe that any human is their master. I greatly admire the way they are so autocratic and how little they let the opinions of others affect what they do. Black cats are the best. They are often called unlucky, but they seem to take that all in stride, enjoying disturbing silly humans -- or just wanting your food. The black cat in Holub's poem, then, is not some stupid animal, but a thinking, calculating being that has decided that the man's arguments are inadequate. Cats are rather know for wandering away from home, and so the cat in the poem does. It establishes its independence by disappearing in the dark. But, somewhere inside it, it still feels something for the man it left, and occasionally, it will call out, letting the man know its still out there, part of the dark.

Is there a deeper meaning that this? Could Holub be talking about death? It is like he described the night: mysterious, possibly hiding something or possibly nothing at all. The black cat is a symbol of death. He begs the cat not to go into the dark, and still it goes, just as we may ask someone not die, and yet, they do. But, sometimes, he hears it again. Not like he had heard it before. Now he has only a memory. It is his mind he hears, repeating what he had heard before. Or is the cat really still out there, speaking to him? Are the ones we loved still with out, even in death? The poem seems to suggest that hope. For a poem about death, this seems unusually calm and at peace. Most seem overcome with grief or anger or shock. But the speak seems only sad and accepting. Perhaps it is because he still believes the cat to still be out there, in the dark, and within him. It is a comforting thought.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

they begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

The imagery in this poem makes it vivid -- and funny. I see this poem not as words, but a series of pictures. Collins uses common images so that he doesn't have to spend a great amount to time describing: the image and feeling are already there. He makes his argument concrete by presenting it in pictures.

Looking at the structure of the poem, it is clearly divided into images. The stanzas are not defined by the number of lines or perhaps even a sentences. They are defined by images. The first stanza is a color slide; the second, a hive; the third a mouse, and so on until the end where the reader sees a poor "poem" tied to a chair a bunch of students beating it with a hose. The contrast between that and, say, stanza four is laughable. And, perhaps, that is the point. Collins uses wondrous, intriguing images in the first five stanzas to describe how poetry should be approached. His images are all a little childlike and enjoyable. Watching a mouse, waterskiing, studying light -- all those are interesting things to do and quite unpredictable. But Collins directly contrasts those happy images with those of a courtroom confession in his last two stanzas. And in his last stanza he throws in a hose to prove just how ridiculous such methods are.

Collins isn't just condemning his students' (or, at least, I'm assuming they are students) approach to poetry, he's condemning their entire outlook. They expect poetry to have one answer, one "confession," one things that "it really means." They expect the poem to behave like math or science where there is only one right answer and no grey. But poetry isn't like that. It speaks differently to every person and has various meanings. Collins is trying to teach them how to experience poetry, but all they want is to get an answer. He shows their reluctance to step into the childlike world of possibilities as they demand "the answer." He is trying to tell them just how easy poetry is, but they refuse to see easiness or fun. They want to concrete and the "right." Possibilities are weaknesses to them.

So Collins wrote a wonderful poem with vivid imagery and a simple message -- knowing full well that many students are going to beat it with a hose, looking for that "deeper meaning."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"It was a dream" by Lucille Clifton

in which my greater self
rose up before me
accusing me of my life
with her extra finger
whirling in a gyre of rage
at what my days had come to.
i pleaded with her, could i do,
oh what could i have done?
and she twisted her wild hair
and sparked her wild eyes
and screamed as long as
i could hear her
This. This. This.

The first thing that struck be about this poem was its structure. The title is actually part of the poem. "It was a dream/ in which my greater self/ rose up before me..." And nothing is capitalized except the last line "This. This. This." It's as if Clifton were going out of her way to give English teachers a conniption. And, after reading the poem, that seems almost likely.

The poem focuses on "my greater self." The apparition is described as wild, having an extra finger, and "whirling in a gyre of rage." I find it amazing that Clifton didn't end the poem after the sixth line with, "i screamed and ran." But Clifton pleads with the spirit. Perhaps because, as it is her greater self, she feels some connection -- possibly even loyalty -- to it. And how interesting that it should be described as her greater self, not just something ordinary like, say, her spirit or her heart. Which begs the question, what's so great about a wild, deformed thing that is screaming at you like a banshee?

The answer must be in what the apparition says. Clifton describes her as "accusing of my life... whirling in a gyre of rage/ at what my days had come to." (Clifton really does have something against English teacher: not only does she refuse to capitalize, but she also ends her sentence with a preposition) When Clifton asks what she should have done, all the apparition says is "This. This. This." What the heck is "this"? The only things in the poem the apparition could be referring to are her actions. But she's twisting her hair, sparking her eyes, and screaming. It that really a beneficial way to act? It's practically crazy! But then, maybe that's the point. This apparition, this "greater self," parallels Emily Dickinson's poem "Much madness is divinest sense." The apparition isn't normal, she is quite mad, but she speaks sense.

"What sense?" you may ask. "She's wild." But that's the point. In every society, there has been a conflict between wildness and civilization. Chaos reigns with only wildness, but without it, there can be no creativity and society stagnates. The apparition seems to be telling Clifton that she's erred too far on the civilization side. It seems Clifton has lived her days without trouble but also without meaning. The apparition is wild, but is also Clifton's true self. She is true only to her nature and does not let what society says or anything else for that matter determine what she does or how she feels. Her comment, "This. This. This," expresses her desperation for Clifton to do anything as long as it is true to who she really is. Clifton could grow an extra finger, throw a fit, go crazy, do anything to prove she was an individual, not another order-follower in the crowd. Do something, in other words, that allows her greater self be seen."

But "It was a dream." Clifton has woken up and realized that she can't really do everything the apparition asked of her. Anything is possible in a dream, but reality has rules that must be followed. Clifton sees this as she writes the poem, she puts the truth in the title, but she still retains some desire to do as the apparition asked -- or demanded. She wants to do something...

So she refuses to capitalize. Then, she goes and starts one sentence with "and" just after ending another with the preposition "to." At the very last line, she finally capitalizes, but these aren't even sentences -- they're fragments. And, by the way, "this" happens to be a very vague pronoun. Above it all, she's writing poetry with no rhythm or rhyme scheme.

Clifton knows she can't go crazy, but she's found her own form of rebellion. Let's hope she doesn't write her essays like this, otherwise teachers everywhere are going to throw fits.

On the other hand, her greater self will be happy.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Of Mere Being" by Wallace Stevens

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. It's feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

I like this poem. It seems to tell the story of a moment with vivid images. It moves in a full circle, starting with the line "The palm at the end of the mind," and, in the last sentence, reasserting, "The palm stands on the edge of space." The similar structure and wording make the poem continuous, as if the story it describes is both ongoing and only a single moment.

The imagery in the poem is incredible. It starts with a single tree, a palm, sitting on "the edge of the mind," which brings the image of a lonely island, hardly bigger than its inhabitant, the tree, alone in a sea and sitting at the very horizon. The "bronze decor" suggests sunset. The "gold-feathered bird" most immediately invokes the idea of a phoenix, that mystical bird, reborn from ashes. That it is gold, brighter than the surrounding bronze, makes it seem like the sun. One can just see the golden bird, or the sun, singing against the black silhouette of a palm tree while the sky blazes bronze. The feather's shine. But then the sunset is over. The palm is now at the edge of space, as stars and blackness take over the sky, and the feathers go from gold to glowing red. The poem ends at the point, just before all the world goes dark, when the edge of the sun is still just visible.

But there's something else going on in the poem that isn't visible. It is set, "at the end of the mind,/ Beyond the last thought." There are a multitude of possible interpretations to this, but I see it as the spiritual part of man. Beyond where words have meaning, beyond, even, where emotions have deep sway. They are, perhaps, the wind that moves the branches, but nothing more. Here, this palm tree, this bird, is where the spirit resides, the part of a person that just is. The bird is singing, communicating, but not with "human meaning" or "human feeling." The song is foreign, or just spoken in a different language: the spiritual language. And then the words, "You know then that it is not the reason/ That makes us happy or unhappy." It is the spirit. As this bird sings its strange song, it is the spirit expressing itself. The bird's feathers shine; light reaches the mind. But then that palm is on the edge of space. To go too far is to risk loosing yourself. Emotion or thoughts touch the tree. And the bird's song dims and sets while we shrink closer to the know mind.

Perhaps this poem describes the strange moment just between waking and dreaming. Or the touch of inspiration that is then gone. Or maybe learning some deep truth, impossible to describe in words. It seems to be some wonderful, somewhat mystical moment of extreme beauty that lasts only a few seconds before it is gone... And yet, it could be as common as a sunset.

(I posted on Blake's and Conrad's blogs.)