Edwin Muir: Two Poems

Find out more about Muir and his work: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edwin-muir

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C.K. Williams

I’ve only recently become acquainted with the American poet C.K.Williams, whose work negotiates a delicate balance between sharply focused observations of common ‘reality’ and a sense of half-glimpsed alternatives by which it is haunted. ‘Light’ is a classic example, poising vivid recollection of a visit to a bat-filled cave with the underworld visions of Dante’s Inferno. The bats focus the meditation, both as common images of life’s dark, uncanny side (think popular Halloween imagery, and then remember Halloween is the Eve of All Hallows, the traditional day for commemorating the dead) and as reminders of how our literary culture has also invested those uncanny realms with unsettling presences (think Dante, of course, but notice too how the bats’ ‘squeaking and squealing’ recall Homer’s ‘twittering shades’ of the dead).

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A Little W.H. Auden Never Goes Astray . . .

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Fay Zwicky

A mediation on writing poetry, by way of apologising for not writing poetry. Poets play all sorts of games, especially with themselves.

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Eavan Boland

One of Ireland’s great poets has just passed. Read more about Boland at

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/eavan-boland

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Another Edward Thomas Piece

Another Edward Thomas poem, about a mill-wheel that isn’t there. But does the water remember?
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Louis MacNiece

In response to a request, here are a couple of pieces by the Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNiece. All comments or questions welcome!

Snow

BY LOUIS MACNEICE

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes— 
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Plurality

BY LOUIS MACNEICE

It is patent to the eye that cannot face the sun
The smug philosophers lie who say the world is one;
World is other and other, world is here and there,
Parmenides would smother life for lack of air
Precluding birth and death; his crystal never breaks—
No movement and no breath, no progress nor mistakes,
Nothing begins or ends, no one loves or fights,
All your foes are friends and all your days are nights
And all the roads lead round and are not roads at all
And the soul is muscle-bound, the world a wooden ball.
The modern monist too castrates, negates our lives
And nothing that we do, make or become survives,
His terror of confusion freezes the flowing stream
Into mere illusion, his craving for supreme
Completeness means be chokes each orifice with tight
Plaster as he evokes a dead ideal of white
All-white Universal, refusing to allow
Division or dispersal—Eternity is now
And Now is therefore numb, a fact he does not see
Postulating a dumb static identity
Of Essence and Existence which could not fuse without
Banishing to a distance belief along with doubt,
Action along with error, growth along with gaps;
If man is a mere mirror of God, the gods collapse.
No, the formula fails that fails to make it clear
That only change prevails, that the seasons make the year,
That a thing, a beast, a man is what it is because
It is something that began and is not what it was,
Yet is itself throughout, fluttering and unfurled,
Not to be cancelled out, not to be merged in world,
Its entity a denial of all that is not it,
Its every move a trial through chaos and the Pit,
An absolute and so defiant of the One
Absolute, the row of noughts where time is done,
Where nothing goes or comes and Is is one with Ought
And all the possible sums alike resolve to nought.
World is not like that, world is full of blind
Gulfs across the flat, jags against the mind,
Swollen or diminished according to the dice,
Foaming, never finished, never the same twice.
You talk of Ultimate Value, Universal Form—
Visions, let me tell you, that ride upon the storm
And must be made and sought but cannot be maintained,
Lost as soon as caught, always to be regained,
Mainspring of our striving towards perfection, yet
Would not be worth achieving if the world were set
Fair, if error and choice did not exist, if dumb
World should find its voice for good and God become
Incarnate once for all. No, perfection means
Something but must fall unless there intervenes
Between that meaning and the matter it should fill
Time’s revolving hand that never can be still.
Which being so and life a ferment, you and I
Can only live by strife in that the living die,
And, if we use the word Eternal, stake a claim
Only to what a bird can find within the frame
Of momentary flight (the value will persist
But as event the night sweeps it away in mist).
Man is man because he might have been a beast
And is not what he was and feels himself increased,
Man is man in as much as he is not god and yet
Hankers to see and touch the pantheon and forget
The means within the end and man is truly man
In that he would transcend and flout the human span:
A species become rich by seeing things as wrong
And patching them, to which I am proud that I belong.
Man is surely mad with discontent, he is hurled
By lovely hopes or bad dreams against the world,
Raising a frail scaffold in never-ending flux,
Stubbornly when baffled fumbling the stubborn crux
And so he must continue, raiding the abyss
With aching bone and sinew, conscious of things amiss,
Conscious of guilt and vast inadequacy and the sick
Ego and the broken past and the clock that goes too quick,
Conscious of waste of labour, conscious of spite and hate,
Of dissension with his neighbour, of beggars at the gate,
But conscious also of love and the joy of things and the power
Of going beyond and above the limits of the lagging hour,
Conscious of sunlight, conscious of death’s inveigling touch,
Not completely conscious but partly—and that is much.

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The Free and the Brave

Vesuvius

A new poem just published in Arena. A bit overtaken by events, but not without its relevance still.

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Coffee at Dusk

Another of mine, in the form of a naïve defence of coffee and poetry in challenging times.

Coffee at Dusk
 
 
What road might poetry disclose, away
and out from under curdled cloud’s suspense?
Not medicine or therapy, but play:
the skipping-rope and hop-scotch back and forth
of metre, patterned sound, display and rule,
a round of kick-the-can to summon back
the raucous aimlessness of youth that knew
no pleasure but the passing of one day
to no end more than honest self-delight.
The body’s pleasure in its own bourrée
that trips it lightly past all pestilence,
unheeding whether fate will wink or pounce.
A kind of clarity that knows itself
against all horror that might else befall.
Let be, let go and dance because this day
will end in night’s uncertainty and sleep,
its airs aswim with fireflies, new stars
and dusk like coffee stirred of black and white.
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Amy Clampitt

Here’s something new(-ish) we can try, while we wait for our sessions to resume (whenever that may happen). I’ll try to upload a poem or two weekly, some from my archive of items we’ve discussed over the years, and other items I reckon you might find interesting. The page has a link below that allows you to post comments and questions, which I welcome and will respond to as I’m able. Let’s see how it goes . . .

Here are two poems by Amy Clampitt, for a promising start. Feel free to have your say, whether or not you’ve been attending out sessions. Enjoy!

Athena

BY AMY CLAMPITT

Force of reason, who shut up the shrill
foul Furies in the dungeon of the Parthenon,
led whimpering to the cave they live in still,

beneath the rock your city foundered on:
who, equivocating, taught revenge to sing
(or seem to, or be about to) a kindlier tune:

mind that can make a scheme of anything—
a game, a grid, a system, a mere folder
in the universal file drawer: uncompromising

mediatrix, virgin married to the welfare
of the body politic: deific contradiction,
warbonnet-wearing olive-bearer, author

of the law’s delays, you who as talisman
and totem still wear the aegis, baleful
with Medusa’s scowl (though shrunken

and self-mummified, a Gorgon still): cool
guarantor of the averted look, the guide
of Perseus, who killed and could not kill

the thing he’d hounded to its source, the dread
thing-in-itself none can elude, whose counter-
feit we halfway hanker for: aware (gone mad

with clarity) we have invented all you stand for,
though we despise the artifice—a space to savor
horror, to pre-enact our own undoing in—
living, we stare into the mirror of the Gorgon.

The Kingfisher

BY AMY CLAMPITT

In a year the nightingales were said to be so loud
they drowned out slumber, and peafowl strolled screaming   
beside the ruined nunnery, through the long evening   
of a dazzled pub crawl, the halcyon color, portholed   
by those eye-spots’ stunning tapestry, unsettled
the pastoral nightfall with amazements opening.

Months later, intermission in a pub on Fifty-fifth Street   
found one of them still breathless, the other quizzical,   
acting the philistine, puncturing Stravinsky—“Tell   
me, what was that racket in the orchestra about?”—
hauling down the Firebird, harum-scarum, like a kite,   
a burnished, breathing wreck that didn’t hurt at all.

Among the Bronx Zoo’s exiled jungle fowl, they heard   
through headphones of a separating panic, the bellbird   
reiterate its single chong, a scream nobody answered.   
When he mourned, “The poetry is gone,” she quailed,   
seeing how his hands shook, sobered into feeling old.   
By midnight, yet another fifth would have been killed.

A Sunday morning, the November of their cataclysm   
(Dylan Thomas brought in in extremis to St. Vincent’s,   
that same week, a symptomatic datum) found them   
wandering a downtown churchyard. Among its headstones,   
while from unruined choirs the noise of Christendom   
poured over Wall Street, a benison in vestments,

a late thrush paused, in transit from some grizzled   
spruce bog to the humid equatorial fireside: berry-
eyed, bark-brown above, with dark hints of trauma   
in the stigmata of its underparts—or so, too bruised   
just then to have invented anything so fancy,
later, re-embroidering a retrospect, she had supposed.

In gray England, years of muted recrimination (then   
dead silence) later, she could not have said how many   
spoiled takeoffs, how many entanglements gone sodden,   
how many gaudy evenings made frantic by just one   
insomniac nightingale, how many liaisons gone down   
screaming in a stroll beside the ruined nunnery;

a kingfisher’s burnished plunge, the color   
of felicity afire, came glancing like an arrow   
through landscapes of untended memory: ardor   
illuminating with its terrifying currency
now no mere glimpse, no porthole vista
but, down on down, the uninhabitable sorrow.

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