Poetry

‘The story of our wretched kind / To be — and be no more’

From a collection of poems written by Dabney Carr Terrell, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, a poem called “On An Indian Mound”:

Can’st say what tenant fills yon grave?
Oppressor stern, or crouching slave?
Or gallant chieftain, vainly brave,
Who for the land he could not save
Was well content to die?
Or beauteous maiden in her bloom,
Who rashly sought an early doom,
Because unable to resume
Her lover’s heart? or, in the tomb
Do both united lie?

Or it may be some bard divine,
Whose lofty lay and polished line,
By age unthreaten’d with decline,
A thousand years had seen to shine,
With still increasing ray;
When from the north the savage horde
Of hostile tribes, like torrents poured;
Sweeping the peasant, throne and lord,
The shiver’d shield and broken sword,
Like wither’d leaves away.

Or it may be some victor proud
Came o’er the world like tempest cloud,
With blaze as bright and noise as loud,
Trampling on earth the servile crowd,
Their wonder and their fear.
Or it may be some patriot chief,
Camillus-like, that brought relief,
Whose clos’d career, Alas! too brief,
Awoke a nation’s bursting grief
To millions justly dear;

Or it may be — but whither springs
Bold Fancy on her airy wings?
Unmeasured Time deep darkness flings
O’er what our fond imaginings
Try vainly to explore.
Yet this past race has left behind
A lesson dear to Wisdom’s mind;
In that lone mound, summ’d up, wee find
The story of our wretched kind,
To be — and be no more.

My copy of this poem comes from Armistead C. Gordon‘s Virginian Writers of Fugitive Verse, published in 1923. A reminder of an interesting book excerpt published here about two years ago which is a more modern imagining of the disappearance of native Americans.

A House United

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A castle which stands upon nothing at all
Seen by those walking quickly by
In a shadow of its great monstrance
They dare speak not ill, but fully serve
A meal given of our last substance
To the hungry birds, poor and ravenous
Men in lines and cues, black and white
Given without measure, Given without measure,
Men in lines and cues, black and white
To the hungry birds, poor and ravenous
A meal given of our last substance
They dare not speak ill, but fully serve
In a shadow of its great monstrance
Seen by those walking quickly by
A castle which stands upon nothing at all.

Image credit: Justin Brown (flickr).
Cross-posted at A Spy In The House of God.

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Yeats: ‘A Prayer On Going Into My House’

From The Wild Swans At Coole:

God grant a blessing on this tower and cottage
And on my heirs, if all remain unspoiled,
No table, or chair or stool not simple enough
For shepherd lads in Galilee; and grant
That I myself for portions of the year
May handle nothing and set eyes on nothing
But what the great and passionate have used
Throughout so many varying centuries.
We take it for the norm; yet should I dream
Sinbad the sailor’s brought a painted chest,
Or image, from beyond the Loadstone Mountain
That dream is a norm; and should some limb of the devil
Destroy the view by cutting down an ash
That shades the road, or setting up a cottage
Planned in a government office, shorten his life,
Manacle his soul upon the Red Sea bottom.

(Image source)

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Fiction and the Real

“… It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us…” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We take a moment’s hiatus from our long discussion of poetry to talk about Reality. The purpose for this discussion is mostly clarity; but clarity in this sense is not so much trying to expand our knowledge of something but to show its limitations more clearly. The subject of this essay is realism and what will enable our digression is the set of genres known as ‘fiction’.

The term realistic can refer to at least two different concepts that are related. The first is the concept of things being most like what actually happened, such as a realistic re-enactment of a battle. The second, and seemingly identical idea, is the concept of things being most like what would have happened given a set of circumstances. The relationship between the two concepts is clear, pertaining to a conceptual real, but only one actually pertains to facts. From this second concept we have the literary genre called ‘Realistic Fiction’ – which I think we will find is actually a misnomer, or at the very least conceals an important qualifier.

Fiction is in a particularly odd position in regards to reality. In the original sense, fiction cannot be realistic because it cannot pertain to facts; it being a fiction is it being made up, for if it were not made up it would be ‘nonfiction’. This distinction does not clarify, however; fictions employ various factual elements, and some nonfiction employs fictional elements (sometimes called ‘dramatizations’). We must say, to be as clear as possible, that something is a fiction to the degree that it is made up, and a fact to the degree that it is not. Some forms of fiction push this boundary by, for instance, taking historical personages or events and fictionalizing them; but we sense that if the overall work is a contrivance it is still fiction.

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Poesis: Fundamental techniques and categories

This was deemed wisdom of yore, to distinguish the public from private weal; things sacred from things profane; to prohibit a promiscuous commerce between the sexes; to give laws to married people; to plan out cities; to engrave laws on [tables of] wood. Thus honor accrued to divine poets, and their songs.

-Horace

To continue on our romp through the maddening alien landscape that is poetry, we will address what one might do if one wanted to restore poetry, rather than destroy it. Now let us be clear: this is by no means an endorsement of poetry, if anything, this ought to let you know what to watch out for.

A confusion arises for us, because in all of the fine arts it would seem that the strength of the art is in the combination of the genius of certain artists combined with willingness to finance their work and a fair enough slice of the public able to appreciate them. To this end, most people trying to ‘restore the arts’ do any of three things: 1. try to search out and promote young notables, 2. try to secure funds for artists, 3. try to raise awareness about art (works or mediums) that they like.

This is completely backwards. To see why this is, simply apply these tactics to something like Baseball. If baseball, the great and venerable, is somehow waning, do we increase talent searches for possible talents for the minor and major leagues, try to find more big-name sponsors, and get money for campaigns to make baseball cool or sexy? No. Obviously what you do is try to get more local ball clubs and support children taking up baseball recreationally, since you know that all three desired outcomes: (1. geniuses, 2. funds, 3. appreciation) are rooted in a common practice of kids screwing around with baseball equipment and people playing games for fun. This immediately creates the two major possibilities: the geniuses (they will show themselves only by playing) and the appreciation – knowing the game and enjoying playing it helps enjoying watching it. And those who appreciate it are more likely to fund it as well. Let funding campaigns limit themselves to particular ballclubs.

In fact, probably most of what is done to promote the arts these days is a surefire way to destroy them; so take note, anti-poets, the following program!
1. lots of searches for a new poet genius,
2. demands of general funds for poetry classes, public readings and museum exhibitions,
3. devote time to ‘awareness’ campaigns of all kinds. The more ‘relevant & sexy’ the better!

People are already at work at this — you need only pick up their slack!

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The poetic question

Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. That’s what it is! You must suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love.

Holy Elder Porphyrios

What a subject to write upon; it is difficult to even know where to begin. There is no doubt that most people believe – rightly or wrongly – that poetry is pretty much dead. Now, I don’t think I can definitively agree or disagree with this opinion, and not because I have no opinion on the matter, but rather, far too many for a simple assent or denial.

The problem is simple: no great poet has arisen in our generation, or at least, none that we know of. We cannot tell the difference between the Great One laboring in obscurity and the Great One having been aborted as a fetus when his erstwhile mother was a co-ed at Berkeley. Our lack of knowledge is an impenetrable wall, but not for lack of information. Certainly there are thousands writing poetry, if not millions… and how many would love to vie for the title reserved for Dante or Virgil? It may just be that there is a lull, since every generation is not equally blessed in any department.

But furthermore, most people feel alienated from poetry itself; not that we cannot find a poem we like or a poet we like — but rather, what seems to be thought worthy of being poetry – say, not that rhyming stuff – is to most of us academic, almost purely intellectual, ‘revolutionarily conservative‘, or even obscene or objectionable in content, and us with no real good argument that ‘this isn’t what poetry should be’, other than our own lying philistine eyes.

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