The Passing of the Year

Thanks, Poem-A-Day.

As the sign from flickr: 1stimestar

As the sign says…photo from flickr: 1stimestar

The Passing of the Year

My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
     My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
     And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
     Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
     With much of blame, with little praise.

Old Year! upon the Stage of Time
     You stand to bow your last adieu;
A moment, and the prompter’s chime
     Will ring the curtain down on you.
Your mien is sad, your step is slow;
     You falter as a Sage in pain;
Yet turn, Old Year, before you go,
     And face your audience again.

That sphinx-like face, remote, austere,
     Let us all read, whate’er the cost:
O Maiden! why that bitter tear?
     Is it for dear one you have lost?
Is it for fond illusion gone?
     For trusted lover proved untrue?
O sweet girl-face, so sad, so wan
     What hath the Old Year meant to you?

And you, O neighbour on my right
     So sleek, so prosperously clad!
What see you in that aged wight
     That makes your smile so gay and glad?
What opportunity unmissed?
     What golden gain, what pride of place?
What splendid hope? O Optimist!
     What read you in that withered face?

And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
     What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
     What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
     What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
     What see you in the dying year?

And so from face to face I flit,
     The countless eyes that stare and stare;
Some are with approbation lit,
     And some are shadowed with despair.
Some show a smile and some a frown;
     Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
     Old weary year! it’s time to go.

My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
     My fire is almost ashes too;
But once again, before you go,
     And I prepare to meet the New:
Old Year! a parting word that’s true,
     For we’ve been comrades, you and I —
I thank God for each day of you;
     There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!

                                     ~ Robert W. Service

Jack Gilbert died 3 days ago.

I’ve been bad at reading my Poem-A-Day emails recently. I tend to catch up on them in batches, generally when I’m procrastinating furiously. Today’s poem of the day is “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert, who (the email also says) passed away on November 11, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. From everything I’ve ever read of his, he was a lovely poet and lovely man. I’ll miss him.

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

~ Jack Gilbert

Z is for Zucker

Poet Rachel Zucker, responding to the Huffington Post’s question Is there such a thing as “truth” in a poem? (A good question to consider at the end of this month…er…6 months of poetry) I’m sure there are those who would vehemently disagree with her answer. They might think she’s wrong to answer in the affirmative at all, or perhaps they would argue that her response is not, in fact, an affirmative in any important sense.  But I like what she says–I think it does affirm something important about poetry’s relationship to truth–and I like her poetry (see one of her poems on my friend’s poetry blog, here).  

Your question…inspired me to (finally) look up the word “truth” and I’m glad I did. I see that truth is defined as “the body of real things, events, and facts” or “fidelity to an original” or (a more archaic definition) “sincerity in action, character, and utterance” so yes, I’d say there is such a thing as “truth in a poem.” A poem isn’t an egg (it doesn’t have a body or thing-ness the way other “real things” do), but a poem can strive to be faithful to the original (experience) and certainly a poem can be sincere. A poem is never going to be a copy of the real world or a mirror–it’s always a translation of experience and another experience in and of itself. Even seemingly unaltered photographs are composed and exposed, developed and printed in ways that mediate “the body of real things” but, yes, I think there is truth in poetry. Truth in the sense of an attempt, not an absolute.”

            ~ Rachel Zucker

Y is for Yeats

Turns out it’s hard to make a poetry alphabet where Y doesn’t stand for Yeats. William Butler Yeats was born in 1865 and died in 1939, a pretty eventful 75 years in which to be alive. Yeats was born in Dublin and though he spent more than a decade of his early life in London, he was an Irishman and an Irish poet. He even served for six years in the Irish senate. Yeats’ work is steeped in Irish folklore and mythology, and he has become an almost fantastically large figure in Irish national and literary history. I read Edmund Wilson’s book Axel’s Castle, a survey of imaginative literature, early this summer. Writing about Yeats, Wilson asks:

What is the consequence of living for beauty, as beauty
was then understood, of cultivating the imagination, the
enjoyment of aesthetic sensation, as a supreme end in it-
self? We shall be thrown fatally out of key with reality,
we shall incur penalties which are not to be taken lightly.
There is a conflict here which cannot be evaded; and
Yeats, even in his earliest period, is unceasingly aware of
this conflict.

Sounds like a difficult place in which to live. Sounds like maybe the place where Keats lived, too. 

My most vivid Yeats memory is of attending a job talk for a new Modern British Literature professor my sophomore year of college. After delivering her presentation, the candidate was answering questions, and she somehow or other got into a word for word recitation of  Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming,” with my advisor, a professor of English more than 30 years her senior. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” they chanted, staring directly at each other in a room full of silent listeners. It gave me chills: two women just dashing out this poem, line after line, a slight feeling of pressure wondering whether one of them would stumble, though neither did. It was so clear how much they loved the words they were saying, how much that poem meant to them. It was thrilling. 


    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

~ W.B. Yeats (first published 1919)