POEMS THAT HAVE SPOKEN TO US IN THE PAST


The Christos Acheiropoietos or ‘Christ-not-made-by-hand’, a much revered 12th century Russian Orthodox icon, celebrates the miracle in which Jesus healed King Abgar of Edessa by sending him an image of his face imprinted on a piece of linen cloth. Such an icon is said to have been “written” by the word of God, not painted by a person.

Poems that have spoken to us in the past have, like friends, the absolute right to our special attention in the present.

Our doors are always open to them, so to speak, and because such poems have already proved their trustworthiness, the critical small-talk can be skipped over. They’re let straight into our most intimate spaces, they’re sat down to supper and even have the right to stay all night if they wish.

However much of an historical accident the elevation of  “In A Station of the Metro” or “The Red Wheelbarrow” might have been, they  have now become close friends to most contemporary poets and readers. A poem that reaches this level doesn’t have to prove anything any more. It simply is.

Which is true of many older works of sacred art too, like the Willendorf Venus, the Lady of Warka, and the Mexican Madonna. Closer to home, nursery rhymes, Saturday Evening Post covers, and relics from our childhood altars, or those of our grandparents, Irish, Tamil, Armenian or Hmong, such artifacts are permanently numinous. However kitschy they might have been at the start they have achieved the status of  “antiques” — even if they were just five-and-dime store knick-knacks to begin with. They’ve been rubbed all over with the wax of human love, familiarity and coherence, and as a result have a sheen deeper than intention, or skill, or even what they might, or might not, have meant, or mean. Indeed, like all great religious ‘icons,’ they mean without meaning, and can speak and weep through the humblest paste and cardboard.

~

Scrabbling around in the trunk at the foot of my bed, I discovered the following poem. It illustrates beautifully what I mean because it got placed there during a period in my life when I was down on my knees most of the time. At this point I’ve lost all connection to the religious content of the poem, I’m afraid,  yet still it speaks to me with utter conviction, sincerity and passion — indeed, as I feel it must have spoken to Simone Weil, “Love” having been among her favorite poems as well.

Look at “Love” through Simone Weil’s eyes and I think you’ll see what I mean when I say that certain poems like friends are hors de contest.

Christopher Woodman

.

.……………………………………………….LOVE

………………………Love bade me welome; yet my soul drew back,
……………………. …. .Guilty of dust and sin.
………………………But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
……………… … ..     …From my first entrance in,
………………………Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
……………….      . ……If I lack’d anything.

………………………“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here:”
………….      …. ………Love said, “you shall be he.”
………………………“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
…………..      … ………I cannot look on Thee.”
………………………Love took me by my hand and smiling did reply,
……………………………“Who made the eyes but I?”

………………………“Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
…………………………….Go where it doth deserve.”
………………………“And know you not,” says Love, “Who bore the blame?”
……………………………“My dear, then I will serve.”
………………………“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
……………….. ………….So I did sit and eat.

…………………………………………………………………………George Herbert

.

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17 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    March 11, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    A Dream Within A Dream

    Take this kiss upon the brow!
    And, in parting from you now,
    Thus much let me avow-
    You are not wrong, who deem
    That my days have been a dream;
    Yet if hope has flown away
    In a night, or in a day,
    In a vision, or in none,
    Is it therefore the less gone?
    All that we see or seem
    Is but a dream within a dream.

    I stand amid the roar
    Of a surf-tormented shore,
    And I hold within my hand
    Grains of the golden sand-
    How few! yet how they creep
    Through my fingers to the deep,
    While I weep- while I weep!
    O God! can I not grasp
    Them with a tighter clasp?
    O God! can I not save
    One from the pitiless wave?
    Is all that we see or seem
    But a dream within a dream?

    Christopher,

    Do you speak of love beyond all analysis, affection that sneaks past the critic, directly into the heart? Are we talking of the wordless and familiar embrace? The wordless can be a joy or a tyranny. I’m all for silent love, but I also know there’s always a story behind ‘what simply is’ and I’m always hungry for that story. Those pretentious, modernist haikus of Mr. Pound and Mr. Williams have stories and I refuse to submit to their familiarity. Oh, the horror of modernism and its pretentious dullness! I shall have my revenge against it, in the name of Shelley and Keats!

    I will not say a word when I step from the darkness and approach, like the silent shadow, the little red wheel barrow…

    Thomas

    • Christopher Woodman said,

      March 12, 2010 at 4:21 am

      Both “In A Station of the Metro” (1913) and “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923) were written before there was any audience or movement in place to welcome them in the terms you use in the present — which can be said of many accidental successes in the history of art. I’m sure you will dispute this, but I don’t think there was one drop of pretension in the actual writing of either of these poems, and for sure both the poets must have been astonished at the poems’ subsequent trajectories.

      And of course the poems weren’t “modernist” in their inceptions either, any more than they were attempts at writing “icons.”

      Your tar brush is very broad, Tom. Indeed, your dismissal of my post as vague mysticism shows you have no eyes to see. For it’s about the eyes in the graphics — which seem to have entirely escaped the critic as well as the literary-historian in you.

      Let the critic look at the poems, let the literary-historian trace the subsequent influence of each one of them. Just as the two eyes see something different, so should this distinction influence your own understanding of what I actually wrote about them.

      You saw only what you had already seen, but I wasn’t writing about that.

      C.

  2. wfkammann said,

    March 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    A perfect Lenten poem, Christopher. “The sacrifices of God are a broken Spirit. A broken and contrite heart He will not despise.” Tom, you are on top of the world and in control, as usual. Life has more than surface, however vast. There is also height and depth.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    March 11, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Bill,

    “in control?” No.

    Surface? There is only surface.

    Tom

  4. wfkammann said,

    March 12, 2010 at 4:18 am

    As the man said when he jumped out of the Empire State Building as he passed the 50th floor: “So far, so good,” and by the way, “There is only surface.”

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 12, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      Bill,

      Let me know when you hit the ground.

      Tom

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 12, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Tom,
    Both “In A Station of the Metro” (1913) and “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923) were written before there was any audience or movement in place to welcome them in the terms you use in the present — which can be said of many accidental successes in the history of art. I’m sure you will dispute this, but I don’t think there was one drop of pretension in the actual writing of either of these poems, and for sure both poets must have been astonished by the extraordinary trajectories these two little doodles would enjoy over the decades.

    And of course the poems weren’t “modernist” in their inceptions either, any more than they were attempts at writing “icons.”

    Your tar brush is very broad. Indeed, your dismissal of my post as vague mysticism shows you have no eyes to see. For it’s about the eyes in the two illustrations — which seem to have entirely escaped the critic as well as the literary-historian in you.

    Let the critic look at the poems, let the literary-historian trace the subsequent influence of each one of them. Just as the two eyes see something different, so should this distinction influence your own understanding of what I actually wrote about them.

    You saw only what you had already seen, but I wasn’t writing about that.

    C.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    March 12, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Pound’s crappy haiku has had no “success.” It is the worst poem ever written. It received mention by his friends in the press following its appearance and is occasionally trotted out for school children by sadistic school masters, I suppose, and to anyone who reads it and is impressed by it, it kills poetic appreciation brain cells. It is a worm feeding on and killing the rose. How is this “success?”

  7. Wfkammann said,

    March 12, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Really? The worst poem ever written? You are a great critic! #^*SPLAT¥€!

  8. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 13, 2010 at 4:39 am

    Ezra Pound’s main problem was always his egotism. He was monstrously gifted but because he always saw his own way ahead long before he went there, and then forgot he had to go on and prove it, he never achieved any art of real, lasting value. He created an industry of lasting value, himself primarily, but no great lasting art. And I’m saying this very personally — because there’s not one single poem of Ezra Pound that I want to take with me when I die to help me remember what it was like to live.

    On the other hand, Pound did create some wonderful poems, and it’s absurd to deny that this isn’t one of them. Because even if “In A Station of the Metro” was just a hit or miss, show-off doodle, like so much of Pablo Picasso, it still does hit the mark.

    And that’s a daring analogy.

    My sense is that Pound was claiming back in 1913 that his very first shot in the noble art of archery had hit the very center of the target in the dark –which, in a sense, it had. On the other hand, he left out the minor detail that he himself hadn’t changed one iota. It’s obvious that he couldn’t care less that the Art of Archery is not about hitting the bullseye in the dark but about pulling the bow, feeling the arrow between the knuckles of your fingers, and then, after awhile, letting it let itself go, none of which activities Pound ever studied, respected, or even bothered with.

    He hung up the first shot in POETRY — and yes, it had hit the target, but initial success is not what entitles a human being to be called a Master.

    What irritates me about my close and faithful friend, “In A Station of the Metro,” is that it has encouraged generations of American poets and even worse, poetry teachers, to pretend they’re Masters too — a bit like Alan Watts gave permission to all those gormlish college kids in the 60s to proclaim THIS IS IT!

    Well it isn’t, any more than Dharma Bums is. But it’s still there, and that’s what we’ve got to live with. Like today in America we have to live almost exclusively with adolescents. Like I have to live with myself.

    ~

    If you want to trash Pound, Tom, go ahead, but without considering his genius too you just look foolish.

    Ditto this contest. Why mock Sharon Olds’ poem? Do you think that’s funny? Do you think she didn’t mean it? Do you think I don’t like it? Do you think you don’t like it too?

    Any cynic can do shit — like you could laugh your head off at my combining the Christos Archeiropoietos with “The Red Wheelbarrow” and the Willendorf Venus, not to speak of with that awful mugshot of Simone Weil.

    Christopher

  9. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 14, 2010 at 4:24 am

    There’s been so much turmoil on Scarriet in the last few days, such a jarring dissonance between the cynicism of the March Madness series and the uncertainties, vulnerabilities, absurdities even of articles like Pop Goes the Weasel, Nit-Picking Apples, Legs in the Air, and now Poems That Have Spoken to Us in the Past, that it’s hard to take the next step. Franz Wright was responsible for the appearance of this particular thread, of course — I’d planned to post it only after the Contest was finished, sigh, but he came in like God’s grace and forced my hand like Bob Tonucci.

    Now everything has changed, for better, for worse. We’re all scrambled up here on Scarriet, hard at each other’s throats in every word we write, yet you, our friends, seem even more interested than before. Our numbers are way, way up – thank you or curse you I’m not sure. Whatever, I know I have to dig in now to get out of here in one piece — to let some light in, to be true to what I started, to give you the space to judge, to place my neck on the block, to find out if I’m right — that most of all, of course, for how should I know unless I read it here?

    ~

    Tom Brady has me in his “Sacred” pigeon hole, as if God could ever have been thought up in a hell hole as blighted as this one, as fragile or frightened. So I better begin there.

    The word “sacred” has been abused just about as much as the words “self” and “development” in our times, and when I hear any of them I want to run as far from California or Oregon as I can – one reason why I live in Chiang Mai where none of those words are of the slightest concern to anyone. Tom Brady’s problem is not quite the same as the Californians because, on the contrary, he doesn’t take any of those words seriously at all. For him the word “sacred” is just a technical category that helps him to organize the vast stamp collection in his head – for mind you, he organizes all this stuff in his head, a truly astonishing dust bin, Bluebeard’s closet, Red Book Bible or Encyclopaedia of Modernist Errors, depending on how you look at it.

    What I had hoped to do in POEMS THAT HAVE SPOKEN TO US is move away from the words toward a.) a visual image, the icon, then b.) to an on-looker (or in-looker, depending upon how you see that poor woman looking back at you), and only then c.) to a visualization in words in the poem, hers, mine or yours. I emphasized the eyes, and hoped that a reader might notice that the eyes were all different, wonky in other words. The Christos Archeiopoietos is famous for those handicapped eyes that see both the soul and heaven at once, and the poem is all about seeing, as is friendship in the deepest sense, and why all our friends are so wonky, and particularly the best ones.

    ~

    What creates the quality in a poem which we call “sacred” today is usually tied up in that terrible knot of revulsion, denial and embarrassment we call “religion.” People like Tom still feel they have to shout that they have nothing to do with it, and black-ball it altogether unless it rhymes and is laid out in nice stanzas. Other critics just assume the word means religious as in “belonging to a religion,” so that when they discuss “sacred poetry” they discuss poems with the word “God” in them, and 90% of the time in America that means in the Christian tradition. In other words, they would never consider Sharon Olds’ beautiful poem, “Wellspring,” just quoted above, as “sacred,” and like Tom would assume that if I didn’t want Bob Tonucci to say it was just about sperm I wasn’t prepared for religion to enter my life as a wet dream — of course it’s about sperm, but so is Bernini’s St. Teresa or even a celestial slip like Dorothea Lasky’s terrible “Tornado” — what a force for those who have the privilege to read it! Which is what also lies behind all the sexual abuse behind the altar, which is devastating for the boys who don’t yet know anything, and tragic for the priests who know everything but the sacred language that could have helped them yet are forbidden to hear.

    When it comes to those abusive priests, they’ve never once heard of love, and as far as the sacred is concerned, they’re preliterate!

    Oh, God is there in the preliterate as well, don’t worry, but boy does he breathe heavily down the back of your neck, or leer down at you like a tornado!

    In “Love” he breathes on your eyes.

    ~

    But hey, enough already. Guys, quo vadis?

    Christopher

  10. omino23 said,

    March 14, 2010 at 6:59 am

    “Growing up on Crawley,
    shit was real raw raw b,
    half the niggas who saw me,
    tried to put me in the labra-labra-tory,
    sit back, I will tell you the story,
    it began, when I was a young boy of kindergarten age,
    jumped out the stroller and turned the page,
    of the future-tronic, brain scan,
    I got a game plan to put it in your brain pan”
    -the amazing q

    “Police state,
    indoctrinate with hate,
    at a crazy rate,
    contemplate fate,
    over inner-states,
    penetrate my magnetic mate,
    through the star gate,
    on prophetic dates,
    perhaps cross genetic traits”
    -K$

    “I conjure up cybernetic penguins in chemical dreams,
    you never knew heat until you looked inside my laser beams,
    life is never as it seems,
    I’m busting into middle America through the TV screens”
    -Illis

    Nothing is ever as it seems. Nothing ever stays the same. Nothing is ever redeemed. Nothing is ever ok.

    Everything is always as it seems. Everything always stays the same. Everything is always redeemed. Everything is always ok.

    My fortune cookie tonight reads: “In order to see the light, you must first deal with the darkness”

  11. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 14, 2010 at 8:47 am

    I think you’re trying all this out, aren’t you, Omino23? I’m certainly trying my best to hear you, but there’s a lot here, and I’m slow.

    What I’d really like to know is if any of this works particularly well for you, or are you putting all your eggs in one basket? I’d be very interested to hear what it is in the preceding discussion that inspired you to post these particular poems and aphorisms, or are you just putting it there, so to speak. Fair enough if you are, and I do take your hand with pleasure.

    Hope to hear more from you.

    C.

  12. thomasbrady said,

    March 14, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Christopher,

    Why do you think March Madness is cynical?

    My intention is to celebrate contemporary poetry and give it some press.

    It’s not ‘the Onion.’ I respect the poems.

    I don’t think we need to interrogate people’s faiths. I don’t think I have to qualify myself and say Pound was this and Pound was that; it’s not finally about Pound; if I don’t like his little poem, I don’t like his little poem, and I don’t think that means I have to be exiled into the land of Bad Faith, where people who don’t really like poetry dwell.

    I love art and poetry and things are sacred to me, and I assume that of everyone else.

    “The Wellspring” by Sharon Olds is a powerful poem; that’s why I made it a no.1 seed. I also think Bob Tonucci likes the poem, too. Was it that Bob wasn’t allowed to point out the sex in the poem? Did you think he was insulting the poem? I don’t think one should worry so much about insulting a poem; I think one just look at it first, and figure out what it’s saying, and not walk on egg shells. I think Bob might have been loving on the poem in his own way. Or maybe Bob loves some of the poem and doesn’t like all of the poem; that’s OK, too.

    I suppose there’s this higher sensibility which says it’s OK to insult people but not OK to insult poems, because people are just people, whereas poems stand for all people and the best of all people. I understand this sensibility, and I don’t like it when people insult the poetry of Keats and Shelley, for instance, but I think one finally has to bite the bullet and respect people more than poems, even if you prefer poems. That’s easy for me to say! I’m guilty of insulting the person for the sake of the poem. But I suppose what I think I’m doing is insulting that part of the person who doesn’t like the poem I like, not the whole person. A verbal jab against a sensibility is not always an insult, per se. Anyway, tricky stuff. In my dream world, Christopher and Bob Tonucci and I are all friends. But dream worlds, unfortunately, are made of airy nothings…

    Thomas

  13. omino23 said,

    March 15, 2010 at 5:10 am

    I suppose some explanation is courteous, although to explain away a koan misses the point.

    Criticize without deconstructing, deconstruct without criticizing.

    What poetry inspires? What poetry “speaks to us”? What poetry is alive today? Poetry that is 100-800 years old is all very well and good, I have no arguments with poets before my time. Some might argue that poetry is dead, certainly the market for works of poetry suffers.

    What poet has grossed over a million dollars this year from sales? Only hip hop artists can claim this. Through the medium of hip hop, poetry is still very much alive and well.

    What I provided above was created by artists of this medium, friends of mine, and was performed from the top of the head. This is called “freestyle rap”. In this fire, truly, gods and gandharvas are created and destroyed.

    These things were said spontaneously and only remembered for their quality. I pass them on to enlighten and diversify the discussion. It is in this medium that I see a way forward as requested, and inspiration.

    Even recorded hip hop has a few pioneers who have elevated the art form:

    “Ah yeah” by KRS One-

    Ah yeah that’s whatcha say when you see a devil down
    Ah yeah that’s whatcha say when you take the devil’s crown
    Ah yeah stay alive all things will change around
    Ah yeah what? Ah yeah!

    So here I go kickin science in ninety five
    I be illin parental discretion is advised still
    dont call me nigga this MC doesn’t go for this
    Call me God cause that’s what the black man is
    Roamin through the forest as the hardest lyrical artist
    Black women you are not a bitch you’re a Goddess
    Let it be known, you can lean on KRS-One
    Like a wall cause I’m hard, I represent GOD
    Wack MC’s have only one style: gun buck
    But when you say, “Let’s buck for revolution”
    They shut the fuck up, kid, get with it
    Down to start a riot in a minute
    You’ll hear so many Pow-Pow-Pows, you think I’m Riddick
    While other MC’s are talkin bout up with hope down with dope
    I’ll have a devil in my infrared scope, BAM!
    That’s for calling my father a boy and, KLAK KLAK KLAK!
    That’s for putting scars on my mother’s back, BOOM!
    That’s for calling my sister a hoe, and for you
    BUCK BUCK BUCK, cause I don’t give a fuck
    Remember the whip, remember the chant, remember the rope and
    you black people still thinkin about vot-ing?
    Every president we ever had lied
    You know I’m kinda glad Nixon died!

    This is not the first time I came to the planet
    But everytime I come, only a few could understand it
    I came as Isis, my words they tried to ban it
    I came as Moses, they couldn’t follow my commandments
    I came as Solomon, to a people that was lost
    I came as Jesus, but they nailed me to a cross
    I came as Harriet Tubman, I put the truth to Sojourner
    Other times, I had to come as Nat Turner
    They tried to burn me, lynch me and starve me
    So I had to come back as Marcus Garvey, and Bob Marley
    They tried to harm me, I used to be Malcolm X
    Now I’m on the planet as the one called KRS
    Kickin the metaphysical, spiritual, tryin to like
    get wit you, showin you, you are invincible
    The Black Panther is the black answer for real
    In my spiritual form, I turn into Bobby Seale
    On the wheels of steel, my spirit flies away
    and enters into Kwame Ture

    In the streets there is no EQ, no di-do-di-do-di-do
    So I speak through the code
    the devil cannot see through as I unload
    into another cerebellum
    Then I can tell em, because my vibes go through denim
    and leather whatever, however, I’m still rockin
    We used to pick cotton, now we pick up cotton when we shoppin
    Have you forgotten why we buildin in a cypher
    Yo hear me kid, the government is building a pyramid
    The son of God is brighter than the son of man
    The spirit is, check your dollar bill G, here it is
    We got no time for fancy mathematics
    Your mental frequency frequently pickin up static
    Makin you a naked body, attic and it’s democratic
    They press auto, and you kill it with an automatic

  14. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 15, 2010 at 7:20 am

    Thanks, Omino, I’d love to hear it. Some great lines. Powerful.

    I’m a bit sensitive about the guns and explosions, though, because where I live at the moment, Thailand, there’s a violent uprising just happening down the road. I don’t hear any bangs yet but my ears are wide-open. At night I almost always hear gun-fire, but that’s more about alcohol than it is about getting even, what is more informed dissent. So it’s very frightening — makes you feel, to say the least, unsettled!

    Everybody has a gun where I live, so I know how easy it is for a gun to go off just because you’re jealous, or you feel you’ve been badly done by. And I don’t mean by the system, either, or by race or poverty, all of which I hear loud and clear in KRS’ poem, but I mean by simple human miscalculations, exhaustion, slip-ups — in the family, at work, in bed.

    I know you’re right that thanks to hip-hop poetry is alive and well, and that indeed hip-hop is probably the most alive poetry in the whole world today. But what worries me is that it always seems to bristle, that it’s always in your face, and at 70 I want poetry that also goes for quiet, contemplation, love — and always, always for the inner riddle of who I am, and who you are as well. I’m tired of the struggle, which although I did it, and with a vengeance too, never got me any joy or rest, just fueled my hunger.

    Got any hip-hop that could speak to the likes of me?

    Christopher

  15. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 16, 2010 at 8:30 am

    Here’s the sort of poem I like, and it doesn’t matter that much to me how “great” it is, or not.

    I wrote it myself, of course, but nevertheless it has what’s most important to me in poetry. In fact I couldn’t care less about authors, schools, styles or performances as long as a poem speaks to me, and this one does.

    It also says what I want to say on this thread, and if you’re confused or have any doubts about it you might want to go back and reread the original article.
    .

    THE POET ORDERS AN ICON

    The painter’s yet a dancer—
    every move she makes
    is dangerous, braced
    as she is to rise above
    the body’s normal needs.

    Her tower is a bright sinew,
    the staircase braceleted
    with steel and black
    velvet longing.
    She descends
    painfully when her need
    to move toward a new figure
    means yet another lover
    knowing all her blame.

    “The Christ-not-made-by-hand this time?”
    she asks, her eyes shining;
    “—he can be written
    brave enough to
    nail yourself across—
    this time the gaze will show
    who shoulders too the weight
    of all this reckless world’s
    reclusive glory!”

    “But could he just be there
    in the backroom
    at Emmaus?”
    I hear myself still hoping;
    “—could he quietly eat lunch
    with the other travelers
    who have not yet seen
    him quite naked
    either?”

    She lays her palette down—
    a damaged dancer works
    the pains out of her limbs
    like doves flying messages
    huge distances to rest
    cooing,
    quite undone and
    rocking back and forth
    inside the still, familiar cote.

    “Yes, I will be fine this time,
    I will be gentle,” she replies.

    And she paints him
    with me wholly like
    a woman lying down
    and not a bridled saint
    or hurt trussed-up—

    no straining for height,
    no mermaid with two legs
    cut out just for beauty!

    .
    ———————————————————
    The painter was crippled, polio, and I fell in love with her of course — but all that took place many, many years ago. I had to pick her up to lift her on board as I was living on a small boat at the time, not easy at all as the quay was quite high and it was winter. Indeed, I’ve never been quite the same ever since.

    I still have the icon here in Chiang Mai — I can see it from my desk up there beside the Buddha. There’s also a conch shell, some jasmine, a small music box, just the mechanics, a bag of old coins, a small dried gourd, some incense and a glass of water.

    Can your hip hop poets speak to some of that for me, please?

    Christopher


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