Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Not Waving but Drowning" by Stevie Smith

No one heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They say.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

This poem makes me think of my experiences in the ocean around Hawaii. The waves there can be huge and lots of fun, but they have also broken a lot of necks. I have been there as a little kid, with my parents telling me to stick by them, near the shore, and as a teenager, in water so deep I could barely touch with sister, both of us watching out for each other. As much fun as the ocean is, I have had enough experience being pummeled to be wary of its dangers. Spinning in the darkness, with not idea where up is and no air is one of the scariest experiences I have had. I have also noticed how easy it is to get very far out without noticing. Thankfully, I have always been with my sister, parents, or aunts and uncles, who let me know when they thought we'd gone too far, or who came after me when I started to drift away. I always stuck with one of them so that someone would know if I went under a wave and never came up. The difference between me and the dead man in the poem seems to be that the man didn't have any family with him. And even though other people saw him, no one moved to help, no one even realized he was in danger.

There is something very sad about this poem, so much sadder than anything that ever happened to me in Hawaii. It switches through about three voices: the narrator's, the dead man's, and 'theirs'. The narrator starts the poem and, in his omniscience, explains the situation. The dead man is "moaning," a strange thing for a corpse to do, but here is seems less like the dead man's body and more like his spirit, pleading to be heard, just once, since he was never heard in life. And 'they' are nameless people, standing around a dead body, analyzing its death. The three voices take turns, each telling to situation from a different angle. 'They' are pitying, but without deep emotion. The narrator sounds a bit like God looking sadly down at His children who just don't understand. And the dead man is trying, desperately, to communicate with the people who never heard him before.

What I really love about this poem is the way the imagery and symbolism evolve. At first, we see a man waving far out in the waves. The motif "not waving but drowning" appears for the first time, and we get the sense of neglect that is prevalent throughout the poem. We then move to the body on the beach, being examined, perhaps by EMTs. Or perhaps the morgue. We hear the typical regrets of people when a life that has been cut short and the diagnosis -- his heart gave way, probably because of the cold. But then the ordinary, though not typical situation changes, as the dead man responds, "Oh, no, no no, it was too could always...I was much too far away all my life/ And not waving but drowning." In a few simple lines, the poem opens up to universal application. The ocean become a symbol for life, and the man's death has so much more meaning. I almost got chills as I read the last stanza. Perhaps it's because I can relate to being in a sea of trouble, or just a crowd of people, without anyone to notice me or help me. I don't think I'm anywhere near death, but sometimes I do feel the cold spoken of in the poem. The motif "not waving but drowning" also makes me think of how many people I may pass by without noticing that they need my help. As much as I might sympathize with the dead man, I probably act much more like the well-meaning, but insensitive 'they.'

This poem is sad, but that's what makes it powerful. It's meaning might be called obvious, but it reaches its point in such a way that it touches the heart. It makes us want to shed out natural protective shell and become less callous. It makes us want to see the faked smile and the hidden pain that we could somehow fix. It makes us believe that if we did see, we would be able to save those who are dying.

The next time we see someone waving, we'll check that they're not drowning.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"this is just to say" by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I could see this poem taped to the fridge after coming home from school or work. It's the perfect apology: honest and sweet enough to erase any anger. And despite written with simple words, for a simple purpose, it still managed to to draw up imagery. The simple words just flow.

Williams uses mostly one syllable words, which lends a homey feel to the poem. The longer words -- icebox, breakfast, delicious -- get extra emphasis. Williams also does something interesting with his rhythm: he writes two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. The pattern in not contained in single lines, but flows through the whole poem, through lines and stanzas, creating a waltz-like pattern to words: step, step, slide, step, step, slide. The actual words of the poem float over the rhythm like a melody over the beat. As a result, a message that otherwise might have sounded insensitive or even rude is actually quite elegant.

The incredible thing about this poem is that, despite an almost complete lack of descriptive words, it bring up very clear images. I see an old-fashioned kitchen, glowing the morning sun, and a scrap sheet of paper, stuck to the refrigeration with one of those silly, almost tacky magnets, with this poem written on it. I can also see the plums, nestled in the icebox, bright purple and ripe, before being taken out and eaten. I can almost taste to juiciness on my tongue, sweet and cool. And I can glimpse someone, possibly his wife, holding the poem, shaking her head, and saying, good-naturedly, "Oh, William."

Perhaps what I like best about this poem it the attention that it gives to something as ordinary and as domestic as eating plums. Certainly the are bigger, more profound things to write about, but Williams chose simple and incredibly commonplace. How many of us have eaten something that we have know, or could have guessed, someone else was saving for later? Even if it wasn't exactly theirs and they hadn't expressly forbid you to eat it? But Williams finds such an experience worthy of poetry. In a few, short words, he expresses the attitudes vital to a family: honesty and humility. He highlights the importance of even the littlest things and puts a sweet, simple spin on life. Without great literary devices or even punctuation, he writes a poem that touches the heart. It it the sweetest poem I've read.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Looking up in perfect silence at the stars.

This poem reminded me of "Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins. I think it portrays a similar theme. As a Physics students, I have had some lessons on the theorems and mathematics behind the stars, though probably not even scratching the surface of what this "learn'd astronomer" taught. All the same, I can testify with this poem: it gets tedious. On the other hand, I have been in the desert or the mountains at night, far from civilization, and looked up at the pure expanse of endless pinpricks of light. While being about the do the math makes you look smart, there's no feeling quite looking at the clear night sky. That beauty is not something you can capture with numbers and equations.

I like the way Whitman has set up this poem. His first four lines all start with "When." The first sets the scene, the second adds detail, and so it goes, getting longer and longer, until the fifth line, where he finally picks up again with the sentence. It seems that Whitman is imitating the astronomer's lecture. Originally interesting, it drags on and bogs down in details. I particularly like how each line gets longer, expressing Whitman's frustration. It is especially powerful in conjunction with Whitman's ironically positive diction. He never directly insults the astronomer and even says that "he lectured with much applause." Whitman calls his tired and sick reaction "unaccountable." But it couldn't be clearer that he never actually meant the praise when compared to his words in the second half the poem. Sweet, graceful words like "gliding," "mystical,""silence," and "stars" express true emotion unlike the accurate but empty words of before. They express a sense of release -- and not just from the astronomer's lecture.

Whitman is not insulting the astronomer. If he were, his tone would be much more sarcastic. But he expresses a sort of detachment from the astronomer and his audience. It seems that Whitman has found himself in a crowd that he does not -- cannot -- relate to. He watches the astronomer demonstrate impressive things, watches other people erupt in applause, but he remains untouched. It seems he leaves, not just out of boredom, but out of loneliness. He seems to think through how he sees the stars so differently than everyone else. He does not attempt to describe the stars, even in their beauty. The obvious point of the poem is to criticize those who analyze to the point that they loose the true value of a subject, but there is also an underlying theme of a man who doesn't connect with the excitement of the people surrounding him. Because an appreciation for the night-time sky isn't something that can be shared in a lecture. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation to the poem because of this disconnect. The emotion heightens the reader's sympathy for Whitman, and in the end, re-enforces the idea of true experience being cluttered with data. It's an ingenious poem.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Sindhi Woman" by Jon Stallworthy

Barefoot through the bazaar,
and with the same undulant grace
as the cloth blown back from her face,
she glides with a stone jar
high on her head
and not a ripple in her tread.

Watching her cross erect
stones, garbage, excrement, and crumbs
of glass in the Karachi slums,
I, with my stoop, reflect
they stand most straight
who learn to walk beneath a weight.

I liked liked this poem for the wisdom of the two lines. The whole poem beautifully illustrates its point about adversary without sounding critical or callus like the common phrases "Trials make you stronger," or "Work builds character."

The whole poem is actually just two sentences, broken into two stanzas. The first stanza, or sentences, appears to be only describing a particular scene, like many other poems. The word "bazaar" immediately places the reader in a third-world, Middle Eastern market. "Barefoot" suggests poverty but also strength and tenacity. With this setting, both visual and emotional, immediately put in place, Stallworthy uses precise detail -- the cloth, the placement of the jar, her walk -- with words like "grace," "glides," "blown," "high,"and "ripple" to put a sense of beauty, even accomplishment, to the stereotyped image of an African women carrying a load on her head. The image itself may be unusual in its culture, but Stallworthy describes it in such a way that the usual pity that comes along with such description is completely erased. Stallworthy puts worth and dignity to this woman who in many other renditions would to portrayed as unfortunate at the best.

With this set up, the reader still carries the grace of the woman with him as he reads Stallworthy's description of her surroundings. The poem drops back to reality, where the woman really is poor, and by our, American terms, extremely unfortunate. But even as Stallworthy depicts "garbage, excrement, and crumbs/ of glass in the Karachi slums," the reader retains an admiration of the woman, who can walk with such grace, barefoot, though it all. Stallworthy nurtures this feeling by comparing his own stoop to the woman's straight back. His personal comparison seals the attitude he has been feeding and makes his point come across as humble and as compassionate as possible: "they stand most straight/ who learn to walk beneath a weight."

Throughout the poem, Stallworthy follows a simple, though not common, rhyme scheme: abbacc. The rhymes are not jarring. Only the last couplet in each stanza stands out as obviously rhyming. This is impart because Stallworthy has no set rhythm to his lines. The words flow, but they could easily sound like prose. However, because of the the rhymes, the words sound just a little more poetic, a little more composed than they would ordinarily. This parallels the image of woman Stallworthy is describing. It could be ordinary or taken for granted, but it is actually far more than first meets the eye. And, of course, the rhyming of the last two lines highlights the thesis of the poem.

"Sindhi Woman" is a beautifully written poem that breaks away from the stereotypes of both poverty and so-called "character-building" to portray the spirit of one who has overcome, without loosing the meaning in a series of devaluing cliches.