Poetry is everywhere, applicable to everything
I recently wrote about summer languor as a way to soothe itchy inflamed Trumpitis simplex, and dragged Keats into it. You know, John Keats, poet, tubercular, drowsy with love for Fanny Brawne, dead.
I referred to “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” from Ode to a Nightingale and a poetryloving reader, Louis Gagliardi, took issue with my casual quoting. I misunderstood, then we found common ground, and soon we were pelting each other with quotes.
True, I don’t actually drink red wine, but I’m pretty sure Keats did — I mean, “purplestained mouth” — because it suits an ode so leafy and opiatesodden. I oafishly drink fresh young vinho verde or “green wine” which is served in flagons or “mugs.”
Gagliardi is devoted to the Romantic poets though I find William Wordsworth, that old sheep of the Lake District, massively irritating. I have a glum Philip Larkin/Margaret Atwood tendency.
Gagliardi used to read Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer to his children so they would get the rhythm of it. Thanks to that poem, I have always looked at people, and raccoons, “with a wild surmise.”
A humanist, he quotes Larkin’s Church Going about the pointlessness of church buildings. Larkin thinks they’ll crumble, in his time not having heard of condos. The Larkin I quote is dreary but accurate. “Home is so sad.” “High windows,” is short form for the things you yearn for but will never reach. “Why should I let the toad Work squat upon my life?” When I write in anger, my mind lies “open like a drawer of knives.”
Although my job is to bring in new readers, I have always been a bit shy about poetry. But there is a common literacy in most countries, certain things about the arts that everyone knows, though they may not be aware that they know them.
Poetry has soaked into the language. At home, we communicate in short form, using bits of poems and comedy catchphrases. I won’t explain them, comedy-describing being the devil spawn of the oncegreat art form known as the binge-watch recap.
“As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one,” is a good one for life-planning (C.P. Cavafy).
Young Omar Khadr’s torture in Guantanamo and its aftermath are purely Musée des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden, about a boy falling into the sea to drown. “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/But for him it was not an important failure.”
Of my children, I think, “Leaves like the things of man, you/With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?” from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall, which is possibly my favourite poem. “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie” means that all children vanish by growing up. Parents can’t read it without a blow to the heart.
Brave new world (The Tempest), cold comfort (King John), knock knock who’s there (Macbeth) are all from Shakespeare. “Fear no more the heat of the sun nor the furious winter’s rages,” I happily recite from Cymbeline, only now realizing that it refers to death. In winter I say, “While greasy Joan doth keel the pot,” in spring “For the rain it raineth every day.”
“Petals on a wet, black bough,” thought young Margaret Trudeau as she told Pierre what tree to look for when they got lost on a wet fall day at Harrington Lake in 1970. She had noticed some very red maple leaves on the way out and thought of Ezra Pound’s line from In a Station of the Metro. And then I think of the late Michel Trudeau and Atwood’s line about Susanna Moodie’s drowned son. “I planted him in this country like a flag.”
“Guilt. A sick, green tint,” I recite from Carol Ann Duffy’s Adultery, which is why I advise people not to commit it. “Wear dark glasses in the rain. Regard what was unhurt as though through a bruise,” I tell them. Great stuff.
“Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,” wrote Robert Browning in My Last Duchess, a poem that seems to describe Prince Charles crushing and destroying Princess Diana. “This grew: I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.”
Poetry is scattered all over the place, like stickers waiting to be applied.
Political poetry? Trump is Yeats’ “rough beast” slouching towards Washington to be born, mere anarchy loosed upon the world, etc. Of Trump’s terrified grovelling aides, think of Oliver Goldsmith’s “Well had the boding tremblers learn’d to trace/The day’s disasters in his morning face.”
After the bridge attack in London in March, I was sure journalists would refer to Wordsworth’s Upon Westminister Bridge, on Sept. 3, 1802. “Earth hath not anything to show more fair.”
Poetry is everywhere, applicable to everything. It’s something to recite on a restless night in hospital, to mock politicians with, to note the smallest of moments. It’s a secret joke slipped in.
I like it when readers recognize or Google in-jokes, like, “In the room the women come and go, talking of radicchio.” I like it when someone reads, “Say what you want about the tenets of Thatcherism, Dude, at least it had an ethos,” and writes, “Heather, that quote really pulled the column together.”
It’s a Big Lebowski joke, a good one, and I love my readers.