Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Sort of a Song" by William Carlos Williams

Let the snake wait under
his weed 
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait

-- through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

First of all, this guy has a cool name. It's almost a palindrome. It makes me wonder if his parents were poets, too -- or hippies. Maybe a little of both. It is clear that Williams doesn't like to conform to little things like complete sentences, capitalization, or complete ideas, and he seems to like nature. But hey, that's all helped him write!

The first thing that stands out about his poem -- besides the unconventional structure -- is the way the words simply flow off the tongue. It is written in iambic meter and very elegantly, too. The majority of the words are only one syllable, which keeps the poem moving at a steady pace: the syllables are evenly spaced in the words. When a word does have more than one syllable, it is clear that it is supposed to be pronounced at the same pace. The reader does not rush through "Invent!" or "Saxifrage." Williams has also carefully chosen his words so that they are easy to say. There is no tongue-tying "Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore." He keeps the tongue loose by using hard, open vowels sound like in "snake," "weed," "people," and "stones." Even "saxifrage," though possibly unfamiliar, turns out to be easy to pronounce. As a result, it flows, very much like a song, just as the title suggests. Even without the faintest clue of what the poem is about, it is beautiful because the arrangement of the words make it so.

But there is a meaning. Williams appears to be talking about two separate things: writing or the creative process and nature. He seems to switch randomly between the two, with no hint at their connection besides the first two lines of the second stanza: "through metaphor to reconcile/ the people and the stones." Although I believe Williams wrote this poem more to open the mind than focus it on any one idea, his is also making a very profound statement about the purpose of poetry. The idea of people and stones needs reconciliation seems laughable, but there are many ways that men and nature "don't get along." When have we ever discovered a new environment without somehow wrecking havoc in it? And stones can refer to more than just nature. There are plenty to spiritual or personal springs that we fail to connect with. The saxifrage that Williams speaks of is a real type of flower. It grows in rocky, alpine areas and looks quite delicate. But nothing grows in the hard mountains without being strong. It represents Williams' creativity and whatever helps him connect with the universe. Suddenly, the two unconnected clauses in the first stanza start to make a little sense: they are connecting people and nature.

Of course Williams doesn't just standard structure in his poem. The incomplete phrases and strange punctuation carry the reader through the poem like notes in a song, suppressing the reader's instinct to stop and instead enticing him to just listen. He is also trying to speak the language of the universe. That language isn't bound down by punctuation, clauses, or other pesky rules. Williams isn't speaking to the mind, cluttered as it is with rules and criticism; he's speaking to the heart. The poem conveys an emotion of curiosity, wonder, and mild excitement. The rest -- the song-like words, the meaning -- lead only to that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Much madness is divinest sense" by Emily Dickinson

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye,
Much sense, the starkest madness.
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevail:
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you're straightway dangerous
And handled with a chain.

I was struck first with just how accurate this poem is. History has many instances of when this idea of "majority rules" has defined madness whether ruling that the earth is flat or more serious issues involving race or religion. I particularly like the last two lines, "Demur, you're straightway dangerous/ And handled with a chain." The imagery is particularly vivid and clearly articulates just how little we, the human race, hate to be disagreed with.

Dickson has managed to more than simply frame a universal truth; the very way she uses her words is beautiful. Just the first line, "Much madness is the divinest sense," slides off the tongue beautifully, helped especially by repetition of the "s" sound at the end of most the words. She continues the pattern in the third line, "Much sense, the starkest madness." The similar sounds connect the first and third line along with the similar sentence structure. They are different most the poem in other ways, too. The whole poem is written in iambic meter. Most of it has three feet per line, but the first, third (and also seventh) lines have four. This, the "thesis" of the poem, is set then set apart. The seventh line, written with four feet and repeating the "s" sound with "straightaway dangerous," connects back to the beginning. It also functions a little like the second line, which, having only three feet and no "s" ending, surprises the reader, breaking the stereotypical flow of poems. The seventh line, set between two tetrameter, rhyming lines, also provide that jerking contrast. The entire poem functions in a similar way: the first three lines work like a stand-alone poem, and the last do the same, in the same structure and patter, but the middle to trip up the tongue, repeating not the "s" sound the "a" of majority, all, as, and prevail. The result is a poem that feels like is should flow, but that purposely does not.

Why would Dickinson want her poem to feel uncomfortable? Because she talking about madness and dissent! Her very poem is a proof of concept. The message is "divinest sense," but the structure is strange enough to make some question her writing abilities. She is breaking away from conventional poetry which either focus on a specific structure or is complete free-verse. She has a structure; it just isn't one that her readers are used to or comfortable with. This "sense" is as discontenting as "madness" goes against regular poetry. And the reader feels it and wants to chain it up in a specific, usual structure. It feels uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to read.

And yet, Dickinson's poem is powerful. Once one has come to understand its structure, saying the first three lines is pleasing, even fun. And there is something powerful in the last, and only, rhyme between "sane" and "chain." It ends to poem with such solid sound that the prior discomfort is immediately forgotten. "Assent, and you are sane;/ Demur, you're straightway dangerous/ And handled with a chain." Dickinson could make anything sound profound with such talent.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Untitled by Stephen Crane

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it 
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

Although we read this poem in class, I wanted to write about it because I saw it differently than we spoke of in class. The naked creature we took for someone or something horrible, an evil-doer or something like. The eating of its heart was either proof of his bestiality or deep remorse. However, I saw the creature more as raw than wicked. That it was naked and bestial reminded me of when we are born, completely naked, and without any polishing from society. We are not naturally born with perfect mannerisms. They must be learned. Even the way that the creature is described as "squatting on the ground" reminds me of little kids, once again before they have conformed to society. But then the poem reveals that the creature is also eating it's heart. At this point, most of us believe it is proof that this creature is vile. The speaker, however, does not. He calls the creature "friend" and only asks "Is it good?" not "Why?" Apparently, the speaker does not find the creature as repulsive as we would expect. And perhaps it's because there's something magical about a creature that can eat it's heart and not die. The doesn't seem to be particularly graphic; there is no description of a whole in the creature's chest or blood dripping down his arms, just a heart in his hands. The creature replies that "It is bitter... But I like it/ Because it is bitter,/ and because it is my heart."

The creature shows the natural side of human kind. That is why the speaker is not repulsed by it: he recognizes it. The creature, who hasn't been taught by society how to dress or how to act or even how to stand or sit, it naked, bestial, and squatting, but he also has a knowledge that most humans have forgotten. His heart, which represents the emotions and soul of a person, is in his hands, and he is eating it, accepting it and taking it in. It is not exactly sweet, but he likes that, and he likes that it is his heart. It is not a heart stolen from anyone else, or the heart that society tells his he should have. It is his heart, with all the faults and flaws, but also the gifts and talents. It is not easy to look at yourself exactly the way you are and be honest, to admit, "I do not like all of my traits, but I will accept myself the way I am." It is even harder when you listen to society that tells you you must looks like this, talk like that, act like something else. So when we find those who have decided to accept themselves, not matter how raw or slightly repulsive they may be, we end up liking them, just a little, because they are what we want to be.

So that is way, when wondering through the desert, the speaker does not see the creature and run away, screaming. He calls the creature "friend" because he sees something of himself in it. Of course this creature would be rejected by society. He doesn't not belong. But he has his heart, and he eats it without shame. Society looks down are eating hearts, but then, it also looks down at being exactly yourself. Are you surprised the creature's in the desert?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"The Book" by Miller Williams

I held it in my hands while he told the story.

He had found it in a fallen bunker,
a book for notes with all the pages blank.
He took it to keep for a sketch book and diary.

He learned years later, when he showed the book 
to an old bookbinder, who paled, and stepped back
 a long step and told him what he held,
what he had laid the days of his life in,
It's bound, the binder said, in human skin.

I stood turning it over in my hands,
turning it in my head. Human skin.

What child did this skin fit? What man, what woman?
Dragged still full of its flesh from what dream?

Who took it off the meat? Some other one
who stayed alive by knowing how to do this?

I stared at the changing book and a horror grew,
I stared and a horror grew, which was, which is,
how beautiful it was until I knew.

I couldn't help liking this poem. It's just so creepy! To think of holding a book, pouring your life into it, and then finding its made of human skin! It's disgusting...but enthralling. Perhaps the creepiest part is that the man in the poem "had laid the days of his life in" the book. He didn't just own it; he took it and made is the record of his life. Imagine what that means, to have your life recorded in human skin. Dead human skin. It seems that it must necessarily taint the record. And how strange that the book should be surrounded by destruction, made by the death of a person, found in a "fallen bunker," the broken relic of war.

A man picks up a book and records his life in it, not knowing it has been made of human skin. It takes a very specified, experienced, and not to mention rare expert to reveal the book's true nature. But by that time, the man's life was already bound in human skin. Think of the awfulness, the horror, the destruction -- "What child did this skin fit? What man, what woman?/ Dragged still full of its flesh form what dream?/ Who took it off the meat? Some other one who stayed alive by knowing how to do this?" -- and the man has chosen to record his life in it. The book represents murder, greed, perversion, the worst of human impulses. It is possibly the most disgusting thing anyone could hold. The speaker holds it with growing horror, but the man -- the man didn't just hold, he recorded his life in it. And the worst part is "how beautiful it was until I knew."

Creepy! Disgusting! But far too true. As Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter said, "Humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them." For some reason, we see truly ugly things as beautiful. True, they can be well hidden and well disguised, but that can never change what they are. Hate, lust, murder, selfishness, all can be carefully disguised.  Hitler did it perfectly. He was beyond corruption, his works were pure evil, yet he spoke in such a way as to have people believe in him. The Nazi's not only tolerated it, they bound their lives in in, believing they were completely right. Think of slavery, especially in America, in the South. People grew up with it, were raised by it, made their livelihoods by it. Good people, they believed. God fearing people. Christian people. They were like lords and ladies, with their elegant dress, their fancy parties, their beautiful lives. But it was all bound in slavery, as disgusting as a book bound by human skin. But they didn't know, they couldn't see how awful it was. They didn't see the horror. They only saw something beautiful to lay their lives in. They fought a war to protect it, their beautiful lives, their beautiful slavery, because they didn't see the destruction is came from or the destruction it continued to cause. Such terrible ignorance happens power frequently than we would like to admit, if not always on such horrible scales.

Take the movies stars. Popular, rich, powerful, sexy, hot, beautiful... Don't we all want their lives? We stare at them, wanting a nose like that, hair like this, and that body. We want their money, their power, their success. But we don't see the horror. The anorexia, the broken families, the stress, the wildness. How many of those people have a marriage that can last? Kids born into a proper home? A sense of self strong enough to even make a proper relationship? If such things were common, all the gossip magazines you see in line at the grocery store would go out of business. Of course there must be exception. But Britney Spears the good girl once, and look at her now.

"The Book" reveals the most dangerous side of human nature, which is not evilness but ignorance. It is not coincidence that the man put his life in the book or that only the old bookbinder that can recognize its true nature. Far too often, we forget to ask questions or look closely as we life our lives. It may just be arrogance or pettiness or a grudge that we bind our lives in, never seeing its there, never how is has shaped our lives. The old know what to look for, but we rarely ask their advice. Not anyone could tell the man his book was bound in human skin; it had to be a bookbinder. In our day, who is this bookbinder? Who has the experience and expertise to tell us the truth? Who could possibly be that omniscient?

For me, there is an answer. For you, the answer might be different. But we much each find an answer, or risk binding our lives in something as horrible as human skin.