The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Gerard Manley Hopkins

In high school one afternoon during my free period, I found myself in the library, which was new at the time and full of light, when, with nothing to do, I happened to pick up a volume of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It was a shock. His poems were amazing. The rhythms and sounds were unlike anything I’d ever heard. Oddly (to a high school boy), he used diacritical marks on syllables to indicate which should be drawn out (é ) and which uttered quickly (è), and something called “sprung rhythm,” in which the first syllable was stressed and could be followed by any number of unstressed syllables. Heady stuff.

This poem I have never forgotten. How could I? It is so beautiful.

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Why is poetry important? Because a poem like this can alter a high school boy’s perception of reality forever.

January 26, 2009   Comments Off on Gerard Manley Hopkins

Winter Solstice

In my senior year in college I grew fascinated with major English writers who wrote minor poetry—minor in the sense that you had to dig around to find it. Among my favorites were Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Robert Graves. Finally, I settled upon Graves and wrote a thesis of sorts on his poetry. Today when the winter solstice has arrived, I thought of one poem, in particular, which is entitled “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” which I wanted to share with you for the sheer pleasure of repeating the words aloud again. (By the way, Graves lived in Majorca and Juan was his son. Because he’s a minor poet [I say this with a smile], the rest of the poem is self-evident.)

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth the telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

My older son and I have never talked about Robert Graves or my love for this poem, but each year he and his friends (sometimes I am among them) have a bonfire in the snow, drink grog, and burn away the old while welcoming the new. I suggest you do the same.

December 21, 2008   Comments Off on Winter Solstice

Exit Laughing

At the point where you have no friends,
When no one shouts your name
(Or even whispers it)
When your children are gone
And your wife has her own clockwork existence
That goes on without you,
When the illusions of youth have fled
And you are no longer sexually attractive,
You discover what it feels like
To be a threadbare carpet of diminishing value,
And because there is no one left but you,
You decide to embrace life (such as it is)
With all its contradictions, pains, and trials,
Refusing to be distracted by your sins,
Accepting fate for what it is,
And walk erect,
Laughing when the mood takes you
Directly into the void.

December 8, 2008   2 Comments