Archives for category: Dead Poets

Randall Jarrell was hit by a car. Possibly what I remember most from my MFA classes is keeping track of how poets died: head in oven, car exhaust in the garage, getting drunk and walking off a pier, getting drunk and falling down the  stairs, being run over by a beach vehicle on Fire Island, typhoid, Aids, TB at age 25.  Randall Jarrell was hit by a car.

During my MFA, a professor suggested in a workshop something to the effect that not enough poets commit suicide these days and maybe we are all too medicated to write well. That professor loved Randall Jarrell, who was hit by a car in 1965.  Also Randall Jarrell may have walked into the car on purpose.  It’s a mystery!

Randall Jarrell also served in the air force during WWII, which led to some stirring poems about the war experience, including the Randall Jarrell poem you are most likely to encounter in an English textbook: “Death of the Bell Turret Gunner”:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

As a former English TA, this is a poem I love to see in an English textbook.  First, it is related to World War 2, so a discussion can start just by asking what a Bell Turret Gunner is, and then a teacher can burn off 10 minutes by drawing a bomber on the chalk board and explaining where a bell turret gunner would be in the plane and what that person would.  FACTS impress students.  Also, if the students are 18-19 years old, it’s helpful to point that 70 years ago they could have been stuffed into a glass womb to shoot  at things while 30,000 feet in the air.

This poem is also dense and short so it can be read out loud in class and the whole class can work together on scanning it line-by-line for meaning first and then later for interesting details and devices.  The ending is a rhyme and a surprising rhyme so students can talk about why they were surprised by the rhyme.  Does it seem appropriate to the content of the final line, I’d ask. Then we can talk about rhyme being used for irony and other purposes.  It’s great.  Also, Jarrell’s use of animal and other non-human language is a theme students can track and use to think about what such language says about the gunner.  And then broaden it out to what the language says about the war.

Finally, it’s not an easy poem.  One can read it over and over again and not really know exactly what Jarrell is getting at, but one could come up with a few different plausible interpretations.

Although “The Death of the Bell Turret Gunner” (DOTBTG) is a great war poem, it really isn’t representative of Jarrell’s work. For that, I give you a favorite of my professor who loved Jarrell:

90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Jarrell poems tend to be longer first-person narrative structures and not nearly as tight as DOTBTG.   Although “90 North”  has more space than DOTBTG, the lines still feels so controlled and perfectly broken. The language more colloquial, but words finely chosen for sound and clarity.  The ending still surprises by ending on a short sentence after several longer sentences.  I don’t want to analyze this one to death because much of the joy (and misery) of it comes from Jarrell’s incredibly personal voice,  but if anything else, this is just a beautiful human expression to commiserate with the next time you find yourself roaming the Arctic passages of your mind.

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Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)  was a poet.  Most people know him as a playwright, but he was a true poet and it slithered its tentacles into his other (more famous) writing.   And yes, poetry is an octopus and its coming for your brain.

If some professor or other clammy-handed intellectual somewhere didn’t sit you down and teach you about Bertolt Brecht, here are some important things to know for your next cocktail party where pale, clammy-handed intellectuals might be in attendance:

1.  Brecht was one of the rare geniuses whose work is so different and creative and influential that it changes an entire art form–he did this for theater.  He experimented with a form of theater called “Epic Theater,” which (and some clammy-handed intellectual somewhere will claim I’m simplifying matters) essentially incorporated unconventional elements to keep the audience intellectually engaged.  Brecht did not want his theater to be a form of escapism.   Actors in his plays, for instance, might have held up signs or had strange songs at inappropriate times. Therefore, the next time you do something in a social setting that is inappropriate and distracting, you can tell people you were having a Brechtian moment and it was for their own good.

2.  Brecht was a Marxist and was questioned by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee.  Afterwards he was offered and accepted his own theater in Berlin and lived there after his death.

3.  Some really famous songs come from his works:

From the Three Penny Opera (as performed by Lotte Lenya–there’s no actual video because they didn’t know about YouTube yet.):

The Doors did this one, probably because it’s about going to get whiskey. This is from the Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny:

It’s easy to recognize only the strangeness of the Brecht operas and miss the actually poetry in his lyrics.  But it’s there, which I would show you if I could get my hands on a libretto. But alas, the tubes have failed me.  Below is a sonnet that floored me in one of my German classes.  It’s in German!

ENTDECKUNG AN EINER JUNGEN FRAU

Des Morgens nüchterner Abschied, eine Frau
Kühl zwischen Tür und Angel, kühl besehn
Da sah ich: eine Strähn in ihrem Haar war grau
Ich konnt mich nicht entschließen mehr zu gehn
Stumm nahm ich ihre Brust, und als sie fragte
Warum ich, Nachtgast, nach Verlauf der Nacht
Nicht gehen wolle, denn so war’s gedacht
Sah ich sie unumwunden an und sagte
Ist’s nur noch eine Nacht, will ich noch bleiben
Doch nütze deine Zeit, das ist das Schlimme
Daß du so zwischen Tür und Angel stehst
Und laß uns die Gespräche rascher treiben
Denn wir vergaßen ganz, daß du vergehst
Und es verschlug Begierde mir die Stimme

Basically, the speaker just had a tryst with a woman.  She’s about to leave and is indifferent to him. He notices she has a strand of gray hair and decides he doesn’t want her to leave. There aren’t really great translations out there…or any that I could find, so I’ll try to translate it in parts in multiple posts.  Stay tuned.  It will be fun.

I have so much to say about Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I am so, so tired.  So I’ll just try to summarize it: he changed what people understood about poetry, meter, and the English language. Read his poetry out loud, or better yet, have someone read it to you.  He was a Catholic academic during a time in England when that pretty much destroyed academic careers.  He became a Jesuit priest and projected guilt issues onto his poems and burned them all at one point.  He referred to this as his very own “slaughter of the innocents.”  I could go on and on…he’s sort of like the English Emily Dickinson.  There’s great speculation that he was homosexual, but nothing conclusive, which biographers sweat and stammer over.

My favorite Hopkins story from Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life by Robert Bernard Martin is that Hopkins, as a child, bet a classmate on which of the two of them could go the longest without water. Hopkins managed to resist water until his tongue turned black.  This story is also on Wikipedia so all my extra reading is useless, apparently.

Here are some examples of his work.  Perhaps my favorite poem of all poems ever is “The Windhover”:

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Okay, so this is the Hopkins poem that everyone knows–but it’s that way for a reason.  I loved teaching this poem, because it’s hard for most students to understand “the message” of the poem, but it very easy to absorb the prosody behind the meaning.  This in turn seems to allow students to experiment with sound, form, meter, rhythm without killing the meat of a poem by fixating on expressing “an idea.”  Also this poem is lush and just  wonderful to have in your mouth.  Also the meaning as I see it: I’m a log for God.

The other great thing about Hopkins is that, although a priest, he took on doubt and mortality in a way that most skeptics could relate to:

(Carrion Comfort)

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

There’s another mini-masterpiece of sound.  For a lesson on phonics, this is a nice compliment to “The Windhover” as it’s easy to see the shift in fluidity and corresponding tone.  Here as Hopkins grapples with his faith, the sounds are all jagged and stuttered, mimicking his own tenuous exploration of doubt.

Ingeborg Bachmann (June 25, 1926 – October 17, 1973) was an Austrian poet who is also known for her novels and work with radio.  Bachmann was a member of the prominent post-war European  literary circle known as Gruppe 47 (if you can name a German post-war writer, chances are they were in this group).   Although not as well know to English-speaking audiences as some of that group’s other luminaries, Bachmann’s poetry is an important study of the roots of language and its value to contemporary society.  The question behind Bachmann’s poetry: how can something as “delicate” and as aesthetic as poetry ever address the inhumanity of war?

Here’s an example of her poetry, as translated by duchess (that’s me):

No Delicacies

Nothing pleases me anymore

Should I
outfit a metaphor
with an almond blossom?
crucify syntax
upon a stage effect?
Who will break one’s skull
over such superfluous things—

I have come to an understanding
with the words
that are there
(for the lowest class)

Hunger
Shame
Tears
and
Darkness.

With the un-purged sob,
with despair
(and I still despair before despair)
over such destitution,
the sick situation, the cost of living—
I will manage.

I don’t neglect writing,
but myself.
The others know
godknows
to help themselves with words.
I am not my assistant.

Should I
take a thought captive,
lead it away to an illuminated sentence-cell?
Eye and ear fed
with mouthfuls of high-quality words?
explore the libido of a vowel?
ascertain the collector’s value of our consonants?

Must I
with a weathered head,
with a writing-cramp in this hand,
under the pressure of three-hundred nights
tear apart the paper,
wipe the floor with these annotated word-operas,
exterminate as such:  I you and he she it

we you all?

(Should do.  The others should.)

My share, it should go missing.