Thursday, September 24, 2009

`Fitting Language to His Thought'

In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks describes his 13-year-old self entering an English private school:

“Poetry became important in a new, personal way. We had `done’ Milton and Pope at school, but now I started to discover them for myself. There were lines in Pope of an overwhelming tenderness -- `Die of a rose in aromatic pain’ – which I would whisper to myself again and again, until they transported me to another world.”

My experience at the same age was similar but more furtive, conducted outside the classroom, without my parents’ knowledge. Secrecy was part of the romance. I found my way to Whitman and Eliot, around the time of the latter’s death, and set about memorizing favorite lines and poems. I discovered the pleasingly plump anthologies edited by Oscar Williams, including A Little Treasury of British Poetry: The Chief Poets from 1500 to 1950. These I read smorgasbord fashion, sampling everything, rejecting some (Robert Burns, Vernon Watkins), savoring others -- in particular, Coleridge:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree…”

It was music not message that hypnotized me – a susceptibility that endures. The vowels and consonants are still pleasing on the tongue and lips, and, like Sacks, I have often whispered these words to myself like a soothing mantra. Williams includes a passage from Pope’s Essay on Man (“Know then thyself…”), though not the line in which Sacks heard “overwhelming tenderness.” I remained immune to Pope’s charms for several more years, but I loved Tennyson’s orchestra:

“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea…”

And this:

“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.”

In the high school where I’ve been working, we take kids almost every day to the library to dust shelves and clean book covers. Between tasks I’ve noticed several favorites -- The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling, edited by Randall Jarrell, and War Music, part of Christopher Logue’s idiosyncratic reworking of The Illiad. And Wednesday morning I found a depressingly mint-condition copy of A Little Treasury of British Poetry. Its compact heft in my hands stirred old, vivid memories. Leafing through it was like looking at an album of familiar photos from childhood – “Danny Deever,” “Thirty Bob a Week,” “A Letter from a Girl to Her Own Old Age,” “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” “As I Came Through the Desert.” All of them are poems I haven’t read in years but once found interesting and even memorable. I used to sing “Danny Deever” to myself. And here, too, is “Sonnet to My Mother,” in which George Barker describes his Mum as “Irresistible as Rabelais.” What a gal.

I see that what attracted me more than 40 years ago was strong music, form, emotion and some degree of intellectual wit – more than mere cleverness, though I liked that too. Lately I’ve been rereading Thom Gunn, who wrote a sort of elegy for J.V. Cunningham after that great poet’s death in 1985. In “JVC,” Gunn expresses some of what I go on loving about good poetry:

“He concentrated, as he ought,
On fitting language to his thought
And getting all the rhymes correct,
Thus exercising intellect
In such a space, in such as fashion,
He concentrated into passion.”


Ciara said...

Beautiful post. Thank you so much.

dearieme said...

Do you know William Dunbar's "Lament for the Makars"(sometimes spelled Makers)?

I hear a church bell chime in it.