Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Do not go gentle into that good night"

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

by Dylan Thomas

After last week’s light and lovely “Dragonflies”, I thought I just might turn to something dark this week. This well known poem by Dylan Thomas is both widely read and loved, and it also happens to be one of my favourite poems too. If this is your first time reading it, I hope you will enjoy this short, little introduction of mine.

Reading this poem, one can’t help but be swept by the angry, impassioned voice, crying out against life ebbing away at death’s knell. Even without observing the poem’s craft, one can really feel the poem’s power in the deep sorrow and anguish it evokes, as the speaker kneels beside the deathbed of his father. This effect is created not only through the words, but the form of the poem itself and the rhythm it creates.

Dylan Thomas wrote this poem as a villanelle, whose roots are in Italian pastorals. It consists of five tercets (stanzas with thee lines) rhyming aba, with the first line and last line of the first tercet alternating as the last lines of the subsequent tercets, until a final quatrain where they form the concluding couplet. The alternation and repetition of lines, together with the strict rhyme scheme, and largely iambic rhythm give it a strong incantory feel that becomes both mournful and soulful.

The poem begins with a plea against giving in to the night, a metaphor used here for death. The first line strikingly carries the double negative of “Do not” and the bitter irony of going ‘gently’ to one’s “good” end. The alliterative ‘g’ adds to that insistence and forlorn desperation of the speaker, that death will not easily claim the life before him. The speaker doesn’t want death to be the end and feels it should be battled against with all one’s might and will, even in old age. This first stanza then ends with these unforgettable wrenching lines:

Rage, rage / against / the dy- /-ing of / the light

(Bold for stressed syllable, conversely light or unstressed for unboldened)

The trochaic double stress at the beginning “Rage, rage…” drives with the all the passion and anger against the fading light of life.

The overlapping and contrasting metaphors of day/night, light/dark, life/death in this first part here is then extended beautifully throughout the rest of the poem, without a hint or sense of artificiality or forcedness: lightning/dark sky (2nd tercet), sunlight (3rd), sun/night (4th), meteor/night sky; blindness/sight (5th).

From wise men who recognise the inevitability of death, to good men whose good works are diminished by it, to wild men who rave madly against the sun's setting, to grave (double meaning here) men who through their fading vision ‘see’, death comes to all with all its cruelty and finality. At this end, the speaker then breaks out, begging in a tortured cry for any shred of comfort, any bit of consolation or solace from his father in those brief short breaths before the imminent and irrevocable passing of life to death.

Such a haunting poem…

Although the poem is ostensibly about physical death, it easily moves beyond its literal sense, to metaphorical ‘death’ or ‘loss of vision’that one goes through and experience. It becomes deeply moving or personal for the individual reader, and here lies the power of this poem, or any great poetry at all, for that matter.

What do you like about this poem?


Wednesday, September 20, 2006


By Frances Leviston

Watching these dragonflies
couple in the air, or watching them try,
the slender red wands
of their bodies tapped
end to end like fingertips, then faltering wide
on the currents of what feels to me
a fairly calm day,

I think of delicate clumsinesses
lovers who have not yet mentioned
love aloud enact,
the shy hands they extend
then retract, the luscious fumbled chase
among small matters seeming massive
as rushes are to dragonflies,

and in the accidental
buzz of a dragonfly against bare skin,
how one touch fires
one off again on furious wings
driven towards love and love, in its lightness,
driven the opposite way,

so in fact they hardly meet
but hang in the hum of their own desires.
still, who would ask
these dragonflies to land on a stone,
and like two stones, to consummate?
How can I demand love stop, and speak?

This piece appears in New Writing 14, published this year. You’d be hearing more of her if the quality of her writing is equal to what we see here in her poem Dragonflies. She has a very short collection of 12 pieces, called, appropriately, Lighter, by Mews Press, two years back, and last year she was one of the poets in another short collection, Tower Poets. So far she hasn’t yet been published by a major publishing house, until Picador, who would be publishing her first major collection soon. She’s Scottish originally, Oxford-educated, with a Writing MA from another university.

In the first stanza, we see, or rather, the writer sees, a pair of dragonflies attempting, rather futilely, to mate. They just manage to touch with their wand-like bodies, having to separate. The effect here is a little comic, when you see, next, the observer saying it’s a fairly calm day to her, at the same time when some desperate lovers are frantically trying to consummate their love.

The second stanza introduces to us the poet’s “delicate clumsinesses”, in the way she, very deftly but still outwardly a little clumsily, describes this. The two lines following are a qualification to “delicate clumsinesses”. They look a little awkward but are very complex in syntax. Still, they finally do work out. “who have not yet mentioned/love” qualifies “lovers”, inside “aloud enact”. In turn, “lovers who have not yet mentioned/love aloud enact” qualifies “clumsiness”.

She illustrates this sort of “delicate clumsinesses” with the image of, probably, human lovers reaching out to each other, like the dragonflies with their wand-like bodies. And, like the insects separating wide, these human hands are drawing back from each other. All this is some kind of fumbling love-making, just like the “rushes” of the dragonflies. Notice the “m” sounds in “Among small matters seeming massive”: this is how Leviston deftly segues from the human element to the insect one, by making us hear and feel the humming of the dragonflies.

The 3rd stanza marries the dragonfly to the human, we don’t see exactly who, by making the insect connect physically to the human by its touch. And Leviston, once more, does some clever transition to the insect element, by implying that the human touch on the insect is making it flap its wings furiously.

The last two lines in the stanza are very interesting.

driven towards love and love, in its lightness,
driven the opposite way,

The repetition of “love” is so overtly a pairing. And it is also a separation, even if the conjunction “and” should, by rights, be joining “love”. And this is confirmed by the next line. Also, repeating “driven”, both as the first word of consecutive lines gives this an urgency.

The last stanza sums everything up, about lovers - insect and human - finding it hard to consummate their love. “How can I demand love stop, and speak?” harks back to “delicate clumsinesses/lovers who have not yet mentioned/love aloud enact,”.

In sum, there are a lot of motifs about coming together and separating. As a parting shot, I’m asking you to notice the clever way in which Leviston creates a huge word-gulf between “clumsinesses” and “enact”, to emulate such a separation. She also reverses or re-arranges the syntax here so that you have to traverse over so many words in order to see, finally, it is the lovers who are enacting this delicate clumsiness. Posted by Picasa

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006


The first time I drank gin
I thought it must be hair tonic.
My brother swiped the bottle
from a guy whose father owned
a drug store that sold booze
in those ancient, honorable days
when we acknowledged the stuff
was a drug. Three of us passed
the bottle around, each tasting
with disbelief. People paid
for this? People had to have
it, the way we had to have
the women we never got near.
(Actually they were girls, but
never mind, the important fact
was their impenetrability. )
Leo, the third foolish partner,
suggested my brother should have
swiped Canadian whiskey or brandy,
but Eddie defended his choice
on the grounds of the expressions
"gin house" and "gin lane," both
of which indicated the preeminence
of gin in the world of drinking,
a world we were entering without
understanding how difficult
exit might be. Maybe the bliss
that came with drinking came
only after a certain period
of apprenticeship. Eddie likened
it to the holy man's self-flagellation
to experience the fullness of faith.
(He was very well read for a kid
of fourteen in the public schools. )
So we dug in and passed the bottle
around a second time and then a third,
in the silence each of us expecting
some transformation. "You get used
to it," Leo said. "You don't
like it but you get used to it."
I know now that brain cells
were dying for no earthly purpose,
that three boys were becoming
increasingly despiritualized
even as they took into themselves
these spirits, but I thought then
I was at last sharing the world
with the movie stars, that before
long I would be shaving because
I needed to, that hair would
sprout across the flat prairie
of my chest and plunge even
to my groin, that first girls
and then women would be drawn
to my qualities. Amazingly, later
some of this took place, but
first the bottle had to be
emptied, and then the three boys
had to empty themselves of all
they had so painfully taken in
and by means even more painful
as they bowed by turns over
the eye of the toilet bowl
to discharge their shame. Ahead
lay cigarettes, the futility
of guaranteed programs of
exercise, the elaborate lies
of conquest no one believed,
forms of sexual torture and
rejection undreamed of. Ahead
lay our fifteenth birthdays,
acne, deodorants, crabs, salves,
butch haircuts, draft registration,
the military and political victories
of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us
Richard Nixon with wife and dog.
Any wonder we tried gin.

Philip Levine

(This post is written by today's guest blogger, Dina Zaman)

After years of Wordsworth being drummed into my head when I was in secondary school, being introduced to Philip Pevine was a breath of fresh air.

I was a student and I had taken up Creative Writing as a minor, to escape from a Business Studies minor. My first class was American Poetry 101, and it was mandatory to take it, in order to graduate.

I was introduced to Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, many more, but when I met Gin, yes, that was the first poem of Levine's I read, I fell in love with poetry. It became a love affair of sorts. I sought his work in the library, and once a Fulbright Scholar read Gin out to me. We were all young, and we all had dreams. We were hopeful.

Gin is a favourite; I read it on and off, and I reflect upon it, like how one sits and thinks about the past. It's an ode to growing up, and the harsh realities of life. The poem reflected my life then as an undergrad, falling in love, wanting to go out and save the world, and that line "Any wonder we tried gin" hit us all in the gut. It was cynical, it was witty, it was us.

Amazingly, my classmates and I were not informed on Levine's achievements. It was much much later that I found out that he had won the Pulitzer, by way of the Fulbright scholar whom I met when I had just started work in Malaysia! We read his poems out in my tiny dusty car, he one poem and I the other. One week later he left for the US and I never heard from him again. But he was one of the few friends I had that loved Levine's works.

I think with poetry, I tend to link a poem to an event in my life. It's like a song, you know?


Monday, September 04, 2006

Taking John Keat's Hand

It was a happy coincidence when Dreamer Idiot shared Wislawa Szymborska's Some Like Poetry last week, and the lines "Poetry – / but what sort of thing is poetry?" appeared, I was in the midst of exploring the answers to the same question!

Indeed, what is a poem? Recently, I read a collection of essays by Edward Hirsch at In Metaphor: A Poet is a Nightingale, Hirsch posits that a poem is made of metaphor, is metaphor. "It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things: A is B." He lists the ways the poets describe a poem: "The poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets (William Carlos Williams); A poem is a well-wrought urn (Cleanth Brooks); a verbal icon (W. K. Wimsatt). A poem is a walk (A. R. Ammons); a poem is a meteor (Wallace Stevens); A poem might be called a pseudoperson. Like a person it is unique and addresses the reader personally (W. H. Auden.)"

As Szymborska says, "Many a shaky answer / has been given to this question."

"A poem," Edward Hirsch offers, "is a hook, a hand, a prayer. It is a soul in action." I wasn't sure what he meant by that so, my curiousity piqued, I went to Borders to hunt for Hirsch's books. I found How to Read a Poem: And Fall In Love With Poetry, browsed through it, and finally saw, or rather, felt— after all, the surest way to know poetry—what he meant.

In the third chapter of the book, "A Hand, a Hook, a Prayer", first published as an article in The American Poetry Review (Sept/Oct 1997), Hirsch discusses a late, untitled poem from John Keats. Hirsch relates that in late 1819 Keats was working on a comic poem with the provisional title of The Caps and Bells. That poem remained unfinished, but evidently Keats had at some point broken off from the work at hand to write these eight beautiful lines — perhaps meant to be used as part of a future, larger work — in the margins of the manuscript:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed —see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
Here Keats seems to be desperately holding out his hand to us, reaching out across time and distance to touch us, clinging to a hope that we can somehow, on reading his words, give him life after death. What or who could have this fragment been intended for? As it is, it could very well be that the speaker of this poem is Keats himself, then already dying of tuberculosis, and that it is addressed to a loved one... or as I felt when I read it, for myself, a simple reader, far in the distant future, far across the seas.

It is as if Keats had cut off his own hand, and had buried it in my garden, just under my window where I perch on the sill every morning to enjoy a cigarette. Like an angry ghost in a Korean movie, the hand had haunted my days, chilled my nights, until I had recovered it from the ground. Now, the vampiric hand, having fed on my own vitality, red life now streaming in its veins, has returned to life, to reach out in greeting from beyond the grave.

It is one that has touched me in so many ways, as it were, has now become a personal favourite. These lines carry so much more than words, but also a part of the poet himself, who had perceived that he was dying, and that these lines flowing from his mind to his hand to pen and to paper would be all that is left... and it is not enough to be immortalized in his work, he must live on! So his spirit lived on in these haunting words, then was made flesh in my imagination.

As Hirsch writes:
I have never been able to read the line "So in my veins red love might stream again" with any equanimity. The haunting, he seems to suggest, would be more terrible even than death and so you should actually give up your own life to resurrect him. The fury behind the idea is immense — the fury of the desire to live, the fury of the consciousness of death, the fury of some love might have assuaged all this suffering. The utter lack of love infuses the poem's tone. What ferocity drives it!


To read Keats in good faith is to breathe in these devastated and devastating lines, to take up the offer of his flesh-and-blood hand. He holds that hand toward you in a fierce and plaintive gesture of poetry that tries to go beyond poetry. One imagines his hand moving furiously across the page and suddenly stopping. The truth was intolerable. The reality that his actual hand would be replaced by these living lines of poetry seems to have given him no comfort. Still, these lines must carry as much of him as possible now; they are all that is left. The poet perceived this in advance. He gave his word for it. Take it up, as if you were taking his hand.
Like he is saying, "Machinist, meet John Keats. John, Machinist."

So I took his hand and have been holding on ever since... here too, I fall into agreement with Dreamer Idiot, with Szymborska, I hold on to it, "like a saving banister", and conversely I feel Keats holding on tightly, to me the reader, his salvation; it was the day I fell utterly in love with poetry — if I was not yet already, if there was any lingering qualms left, then it was on that day avowed beyond doubt. Indeed, it felt like all these years of reading poetry, of 'kenning' poetry (as Hirsch would describe it), it was so that day could unfold as it did.

All thanks to Edward Hirsch, who has already achieved what his book's title promised to me in only 49 pages — because, of course, I would never have had received the poem the way I had without his introduction— and I had not even stepped away from the poetry rack yet. And, of course, need it be said? I bought the book!


Saturday, September 02, 2006

Sharanya Manivannan's poems published by Softblow!

We are delighted to share in the joy of our fellow contributor, Sharanya Manivannan who has since had some of her poems published by the online poetry journal Softblow. Read her deeply feminine and sensuous pieces here [link].