Poets on poetry

George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633)

By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.

I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.

Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.

But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.

When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.

Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.

But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.

The Quiddity
by George Herbert

My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.

Advertisements

“The full moon sees a railway sleeper car rock through the night”

Train and full moon
“The full moon sees a railway sleeper car rock through the night:

When love is good and it lasts, it can be tempting to idealize its beginnings.

One piece of insider information: the very first time I saw my wife, she was glowing. I kid you not. Sitting in the second row of a darkened auditorium listening to the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate she was surrounded by a golden aura.

I had a camera, but was so befuddled I failed to get the shot. You might argue I was imagining things, but I don’t think so. I’m not given to visions nor hallucinations. I’ve never witnessed anything like it before or since.

I think it was a special gift for a fellow a bit slow on the uptake, who needed a sign to notice a good thing right under my nose.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Epiphanies

We come now to the winter of our years
(Where did the autumn with its pleasures go?)
Our roof will all too soon be cloaked with snow,
So, come, let’s stoke our fire against the fears.

It seems another life ago, my dear,
That full of grace you pilgrim sat aglow
Enkindled so this prodigal would know
That grace was free and grace was very near.

Midsummer’s eve brought more epiphanies
Of spotless bride adorned, redeemed, in white,
Too ill for customary liberties,
So wan, yet still for these sore eyes a sight.
Then! Over Lake Champlain the full moon sees
A railway sleeper car rock through the night.

“Oh love! for love I could not speak”

Pontefract licorice cakes tin
“In the licorice fields at Pontefract”

John Betjeman had what you could call a checkered career.

He struggled at Oxford, and ultimately left without a degree. He published poems and made great friends, yet held a lifelong grudge against C.S. Lewis from his time at Oxford when Lewis was his teacher. (Lewis reportedly assessed Betjeman as “an idle prig.”

During World War II, he worked for the Ministry of Information and may have been involved in intelligence gathering.  One story that has grown up about Betjeman is that he was once targeted for assassination by the Irish Republican Army.  But the order was supposedly rescinded when an old IRA man spoke on his behalf because he had been impressed by his poems.

You might say Betjeman was eventually vindicated. He was named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.

I don’t fancy all of his poetry, but sometimes he really hits me between the eyes. Like his poem about love, “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract.”

His poem is rich with specific detail and is so descriptive, it almost overloads the senses. Betjeman is a reserved Englishman, but he tells you enough to let you know what’s going on.

The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
by John Betjeman

In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.

The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.

She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.

Lost love

"How he who's loved and left still walks the nights"
“How he who’s loved and left still walks the nights”

The theme of lost love fuels a love of poetry. As a motivator, I’m guessing it ranks right ahead of found-love, nature and war.

I was not immune. Many years ago — what seems like a lifetime now — I wrote a little sonnet about lost love. But it’s a sonnet with a twist.

I call it an “unnatural sonnet.” Not sure if the form is original or not. It has one extra line.  The poem has had its DNA altered just a bit.

I thought a poem about an unnatural subject deserved and unnatural form.

One Undead

The places we once went I often haunt,
As one cut off from sensibility.
The willing women are no threat to me,
While others dance seducing I sit gaunt.

Oh some, their new-found liberty might flaunt,
And advertise their eligibility.
I vex the lookers’ curiosity —
It’s you, it’s you, not others that I want.

Yes, mine’s an old, old story that’s well known:
How he who’s loved and left still walks the nights
And stalks the long-gone pleasures all alone,
Appears from nowhere at familiar sites,
Hears leaping laughter as a monotone.
Unable to partake in their delights,
He dents their merry with a glance of stone.