Happy Birthday James Russell Lowell! (February 22, 1819 – August 12, 1891)
American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. He was the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He is associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets. (Wikipedia)
From our stacks: Spine, illustration “In his tower sat the poet”, poem ‘Stanzas on Freedom’, and frontispiece portrait of Lowell ‘J.A. Wilcox, Sc.’ from The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell. Household Edition. With Illustrations. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1885.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
“Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver From A New Path to the Waterfall, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.
Poem Analysis by Aislinn Hunter:
I carry this poem around with me, along with an old penny, a “luckystone” from the back of the eye of a Sheephead fish, a few sprigs of Scottish heather and a slip of paper that reads “Notice you were first.” Each object, in its own way, is a comfort; they are also, quite literally, fragments, or more accurately, fragmentary representations of larger relationships, experiences and travels. In poetic terms, a fragment is defined as “a piece or scrap from a larger whole that is either lost or unfinished.”
Late Fragment is the final poem in the poet and short story writer Raymond Carver’s (1938-1988) last published work, A New Path to the Waterfall, a collection that was written while he was dying of cancer. I value the Carver poem for a number of reasons. Mostly, I admire its simplicity and its poignancy. There is no measure of irony or artifice in it. There is also an underlying sense of celebration – this, in the affirmative “I did” and in the realization that when all is said and done, to call oneself beloved and to feel oneself beloved (a kind of proof) is enough.
Poetic dialogues can be read in a number of ways, and this poem is no exception. Is the poet asking himself these questions, reflecting on the life he’s lived? Or, is the first voice, the questioning voice, a loved one, a stranger, an omnipotent force? I have always, despite being wary of biographical inference in a work, read this poem as if Raymond Carver were asking these questions of himself. There is a strong element of recognition in the words “even so.” As if all that the “even so” implies – a life filled with a measure of sadness or failure – is understood implicitly by the person asking “Did you get what you wanted?” The initial “And” of the poem is so subtle, as if we are simply picking up the thread of a conversation in progress. Overall, the diction is plain and unselfconscious, except for “beloved,” which has a devotional feeling to it, a timelessness.
There are other poems in Carver’s collection which feel like moments of time preserved: His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed With Notes consists of a series of anecdotes, my favourite being: “Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”
Late Fragment is, in that light, also a statement of accomplishment. Lorca once said he wrote to be loved. Gertrude Stein admitted she wrote for praise. William Faulkner said writers write for glory. In Late Fragment the “I” is asked, “And what did you want?”, and the response is: “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on this earth.” Here “beloved” connotes everything from adoration to esteem to self-recognition. (And ultimately, the reiteration of “beloved” makes the poem feel so complete that it reads more like a coda than anything fragmentary or “broken.”)
The certitude of these last two lines, of the “call” that becomes something felt, is another reason I carry this poem around with me. Although that certainty is wonderfully undercut by the line break after “to feel myself,” a pause that reflects the “even so” because it is rife with the potential to be anything. How rarely we get exactly what we ask for, how exigent the wait, but how wonderful when we do, as in the next line when the word “beloved” is reiterated, when what the speaker in the poem has desired of his time on earth turns out to be what he felt.
The wind had died down and the world was still again – at least, for the time being…
Algy found himself a snug perch in the crook of an old oak tree, where a comfortably broad branch was covered with a soft cushion of lichen and moss. Although the day was dull and grey, Algy was feeling in excellent spirits in the calm that followed the storm, so he decided to recite a selection of light verse for the benefit of anyone who might happen to pass by on the old track below. He commenced with this edifying rhyme:
Be kind and tender to the Frog, And do not call him names, As ‘Slimy skin,’ or ‘Polly-wog,’ Or likewise ‘Ugly James,’ Or ‘Gape-a-grin,’ or ‘Toad-gone-wrong,’ Or ‘Billy Bandy-knees’: The Frog is justly sensitive To epithets like these. No animal will more repay A treatment kind and fair; At least so lonely people say Who keep a frog (and, by the way, They are extremely rare).
This post is a contribution to “No Edit Friday”, run each week by Algy’s hardworking friends at PWS photosworthseeing :-)
[Algy is quoting the poem The Frog by the 20th century Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc.]
She said curled against me,
Her voice tip-toeing the edge of a cliff,
“I feel so small.”
But you are not small,
You are the entire universe.
Your body is the new bloom wrung from
The soil that was lain from the ashes of bursting stars,
You are not small,
Even if you think you are.
Sometimes I wish you were small,
So that it would be easier for my hands,
To scour over every inch of you
But I don’t mind if my body goes limp
I will never get tired of touching you.
I know your head is floating off your shoulders and that
Your heart is so heavy that you are sinking beneath the floorboards.
It is okay to feel blank,
It is okay to feel anything you need to feel,
And even though I am a poet, not a painter,
I will try so hard to turn
A blank you into something beautiful
(Just in case you didn’t know,
You are already something so beautiful.)
We didn’t get to choose who,
But you know what?
I don’t care about the technicals,
About the conventional,
And I know you don’t either.
I’m here for the sunshine, love
And oh god do you shine so bright.
But I am also here for the storms,
For the rain,
For every tear drop that streaks your cheek’s windowpane.
No matter how much
It hurts me to see you hurt,
I will take my hands,
My shaking hands,
Wipe every single one of them away.
“My heart’s not the strongest,
But it is all yours”
She says into the empty space of her room.
I want to make my way inside your chest,
Let your heart rest I will pump all your blood for you,
I will prop you up on my shoulders
I will be your human crutch,
I will walk you across the Atlantic until the saltwater fills my lungs
Or my own two legs give up
Loving you is not a matter of wading in the shallow end,
Headfirst I will dive right in.
This is not a question of how long I can float,
This is sink or swim.
Seventy-five years ago today—on January 28, 1939—William Butler Yeats died at a boarding house on the French Riviera. He was 73 years old, at the height of his fame and glory. “Mr. Yeats frequently let his mind roam far afield in the realm of fancy,” gushed the New York Times obituary, “and it is for the gentle beauty of such works that he was hailed by many as the greatest poet of his time in the English language.”
But there was no gentle beauty in the three poems by Yeats that appeared in The Atlantic in January 1939, the month the poet died. All of them are brutal pieces of deathbed reckoning.
W. G. Sebald was born in Germany just a year before the end of World War II, and grew up in the conflict’s long shadow. In his prose, he explored the landscapes of postwar Europe—the ruined cities, the lethal machinery of the Holocaust, the vast collections of records—and the themes of memory, loss, and decay that they embodied. Though he wrote them decades after moving to England to work as a university lecturer, his books deal largely with the Holocaust and the shame and reticence that pervaded post-war Germany, and he grappled often in his writing with his own German identity.
His poetry, though more abstract and concise, confronts much of that same subject matter with a similar tone of understated grief. At times—as in “The Secrets,” posthumously published in our January/February 2012 issue—his verse is opaque, constructed of references to and snapshots of Germany without much explication of theirthematic or emotional weight.
But in others, like “Memo,” which appeared in our pages later that same year, the significance of Sebald’s phrases is clearer, even in their abstraction. In six increasingly short couplets, the poem lays out a bare-bones guide for mourning, or moving forward, or a little of both.
Translated from the original German, here’s “Memo” in its entirety:
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice- though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. “Mend my life!" each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. but little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do- determined to save the only life you could save.
friend: today i ran for two hours, cooked a three course meal, wrote a short collection of poems, provided food to a homeless shelter, climbed mount everest, flew a cross atlantic flight single handed, sculpted the next venus de milo, cured cancer, achieved world peace and taught a child that anything can be possible if you try your hardest. you?
To me, the ideal poem is one a person can read and understand on the first level of meaning after one reading. An accessible quality, I think, is important. Give them something to begin with. Something that seems plain and simple but has something strange—something about it that’s not quite ordinary, that will cause them to do repeated readings or to think about it. The ambition is that, each time they read, they will get to another level of the poem.
Sometimes, when Algy gazes up at the sky, he feels as though he is an exceedingly tiny fluffy bird, and the sky (not to mention the universe beyond) is incomprehensibly immense. But the more he looks at the sky, the more he becomes absorbed in all the beautiful patterns and colours of Cloudland, and very soon his heart is at ease, just as the poet suggested – especially if he is sitting by “the voiceful sea”:
O! It is pleasant, with a heart at ease, Just after sunset, or by moonlight skies, To make the shifting clouds be what you please, Or let the easily persuaded eyes Own each quaint likeness issuing from the mould Of a friend’s fancy; or with head bent low, And cheek aslant, see rivers flow of gold ‘Twixt crimson banks; and then, a traveller, go From mount to mount, through Cloudland, gorgeous land! Or list'ning to the tide, with closéd sight, Be that blind bard, who on the Chian strand By those deep sounds possessed, with inward light Beheld the Iliad and the Odyssey Rise to the swelling of the voiceful sea.
[Algy is quoting the poem Fancy In Nubibus Or The Poet In The Clouds by the early 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.]