29 December 2014

That old New Oxford Book of English Verse

. . .  has got its spell on me.

In January I set out to read through this 945-page, 884-item anthology of English verse (1250–1950). A manageable 3-pages per day would give me ample time, accounting for vacations that I would not travel with a large hardcover volume, busy days when I couldn’t sit down to read at leisure, and days when I just plain forgot to pick it up. There was the occasional panic—that the days had passed and I wouldn’t hit my marks. But when I came back to it and read a little, and did the math on completing it this year, I always magically still needed only 3 pages per day to finish.

I think my math skills are not all they might be.

In any case, just before Christmas I finished the anthology. Much of the last hundred years’ poetry was tough slogging. But a lot of it was timely: the poets of World War I, coming up in my reading on this centenary year of The Great War, for example. I was reminded of earlier flings with poetry and poets, and now especially wish to revisit T. S. Eliot.

There must be a comparable anthology of American verse—though not, of course, dating back to 1250—so I’ll look that up and keep it on hand. I don’t think I’ll undertake another year of reading through a collection. But I’d like to think poetry will occupy a more significant role in my reading and reflection than it has for many a year.

Wendell Barry beckons, as does Dante in that John Ciardi translation that came out around the same time I picked up the NOBEV. The poetry and drama of Antiquity forced its way into my year of reading poetry (fascinating to me that classical references continue well into the 20th century); and well look, there on my shelf is an anthology of the same, so I don’t have to go to my grave ignorant. Or ignorantly . . . as the ars moriendi poetry has taught me.

In a year of writing, editing, and teaching, words have provided a great adventure. Poetry keeps the wonder in the adventure. Excelsior!

02 November 2014

Now, that was a year!

In the year since my last birthday, I . . .

Finished writing my MA thesis

Took on a second adjunct teaching job

Edited, my thesis

Took on an interim church choir job

Defended my thesis
. . . and edited it some more

Took my first selfie

Accepted a one-year teaching appointment

Prepared to teach a full course load

Prepared to direct a college band

Received a bound copy of my thesis

Pulled off my first photo bomb

Visited adult kids in Kentucky, San Francisco, and Boston

Officiated my son's wedding
At rehearsal, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Chicago
Began to teach music full time

Took on a guest chorus master post with a symphony chorus

Somewhere along the way squeaked by last year's cycling miles

Ran my personal best 5K and won the 35+ division in the same event

Stayed married to the most patient woman in the world.

I can't wait to see what the coming year brings!

16 October 2014

Fall break

I've written elsewhere about why I'm not writing much anywhere . . .

But I am reading. A lot. And (so far, so good) I am more or less on track reading through The New Oxford Book of English Verse. This morning again my reading took me to another art. This cross-over from poetry is no real surprise, but it is a pleasure to come across it unlooked for.

There is of course the famous "colossal wreck, "Ozymandius" (Shelley), and Keats' "Grecian Urn," each dealing with artifacts from antiquity. And my favorite memory of a poem read aloud in a high school lit class, "My Last Duchess" (Browning). The inspiring work of art in this poem is a painting by the fictional Fra Pandolf. My friend Randy declined several times to read this aloud, and when finally he gave in to the teacher's persistence, he read it in a sing-song voice that completely undercut the underlying menace of the poem. Randy had (has!) a rich baritone voice, and clearly our lit teacher wanted him especially to read this poem. Randy finished, the teacher glared, there was a tense silence, and then she said, "You have just destroyed the most beautiful poem in the English language." Or maybe she said, ". . . my favorite poem . . ." Randy later remarked, "I told her I didn't want to read it!" Coming across the poem again this year (No. 616 in the anthology at hand) I found myself reading it aloud in a pirate accent. Oh, the brain, what won't it do to us?

But more recently, and more to the point, I have come across poems previously unknown to me, and from them taken side trips into other arts. The first was whilst still in the Browning section, No. 624, "A Toccata of Galuppi's." I assumed that Baldassaro Galuppi, like Fra Pandolf, was a fiction created by Browning. With my musicology background, I am embarrassed to say that I had not heard the composer's name before. Well, here he is, and Browning has given me a gift beyond his words. Not that I'll spend much time with B. G., but the poet's description of early 18th-century Venice, complete with a stodgy old Baroque form to bore a poet . . . and probably everyone else in the room!

This morning it was James Thomson, "The City's Queen" from the larger work The City of Dreadful Night. Early in this section it is clear that the poet is looking at a work of art, and then in the third stanza he writes, "but all men know/That solemn sketch the pure sad artist wrought/Three centuries and threescore years ago/With phantasies of his peculiar thought." OK, so that sounds like something that exists (compared to Browning's Fra Pandolf painting on the wall). Sure enough, the "pure sad artist" was Albrecht Duerer, and the painting (identified by name in stanza six) is "Melancolia."

So, it's a good start to a short fall break from teaching. I got to stay indoors on a cold, gray, drizzly morning,read a little poetry, see a little Renaissance art, and be thankful for an undeserved life of leisure pursuits.

28 May 2014

Shakespeare ars moriendi

Elsewhere I mused earlier this year about an old Christian practice of preparing for the end of life. Ars moriendi is "the art of dying," and this idea has popped up across the first five centuries of the Oxford Book of English Verse. I suspect that, beginning in the early eighteenth century (where my read through this anthology now has me) this theme will diminish, and then disappear. Oh, no doubt death itself will be a theme; but a practiced anticipation of death, probably not.

Earlier in these sporadic posts about my poetry reading adventure this year, I mentioned the final Shakespeare sonnet in the Oxford Book. Here it is, another serious look at life through the Bard's sonnets:

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
   My sinful earth these rebel powers array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
   Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
   Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
   Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
   And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
   Within shall be fed, without be rich no more:
       So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
       And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

(That second line, "My sinful earth these rebel powers array," is apparently disputable. Alternate readings include - Fooled by these rebel powers that thee array and Why feed'st these rebel powers that the array. I don't see that the alternate readings much change the tone or direction of the sonnet.)

I don't think we would accuse Wm. S. of being morose or puritanical. As noted earlier, it seems he had a pretty impressive grasp of the Bible. Here, we find him in a reflective mood, and I imagine him contemplating weighty matters after another successful run of a new play.

I regret the bifurcation in our modern culture, which seems to separate cultural achievement and classic Christian spirituality. Why does it seem odd for a poet of Shakespeare's range to also sound like a man serious about his eternity?

13 March 2014

Poems for after work

I love my wife.

Now there's an adventure!

Every so often she apologizes that after work she changes out of her office attire (very nice, very professional, and very attractive) into relaxing or project clothes. Not, be it said, into what the old movies called, "slipping into something more comfortable."

She means well, but really, I always say, "why wouldn't you?"

My adventures in poetry recently provided other ways to respond to my Karen:

John Donne, from The Undertaking
But he who loveliness within
   Hath found, all outward loathes;
For he who colour loves, and skin,
   Loves but their oldest clothes.

Ben Jonson, Simplex Munditiis
Still to be neat, still to be drest,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powdered, still perfumed,
Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art's hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.

Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all the adulteries of art;
They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.

Jonson's title means something like "elegant simplicity" - you see it in the 2nd line of the 2nd stanza "makes simplicity a grace." Granted, Jonson's lines may well suggest that trope of "slipping into something more comfortable," but it need not, after all.

I'm enjoying the ways poetry illuminates life! And thankful for the clarifying ways of thinking and speaking about common, daily things.

20 February 2014


Today's readings came together in a surprising way.

My walk through The New Oxford Book of English Verse has me in William Shakespeare this week. At three pages a day (this will get me through the volume in a year), the Shakespeare section - the longest so far - will have taken a full week. Brilliant! Today I finished the last of Oxford's twenty selected Sonnets.

The following sonnet (152 of the Oxford poems, Sonnet 129 in the Yale Shakespeare complete collection) jumped out at me especially because of my morning Bible reading. Let me introduce you to the Sonnet by way of the lurid, tragic story from 2 Samuel 13:

Now Absalom, David's son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar. And after a time Amnon, David's son, loved her. And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend, whose name was Jonadab, the son of Shimeah, David's brother. And Jonadab was a very crafty man. And he said to him, “O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?” Amnon said to him, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister.” Jonadab said to him, “Lie down on your bed and pretend to be ill. And when your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘Let my sister Tamar come and give me bread to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, that I may see it and eat it from her hand.’” So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. And when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, “Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, that I may eat from her hand.”

Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, “Go to your brother Amnon's house and prepare food for him.” So Tamar went to her brother Amnon's house, where he was lying down. And she took dough and kneaded it and made cakes in his sight and baked the cakes. And she took the pan and emptied it out before him, but he refused to eat. And Amnon said, “Send out everyone from me.” So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the chamber, that I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the cakes she had made and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” She answered him, “No, my brother, do not violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this outrageous thing. As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the outrageous fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you.” But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her.

Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up! Go!” But she said to him, “No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, “Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her.” Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves, for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed. So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.

(During my reading this morning, I wondered for the first time: who was David's biographer? Has anyone done a profile of the biographer? He would be nearly as interesting as his subject, I think!)

So, with that story in my head, an hour or so later I opened to this sonnet:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
   All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

(Sonnet 129, William Shakespeare)

I just love the serendipity. And though I've read through the Sonnets at least once - and know several by heart - I was struck as if for the first time by the utter seriousness of this (and others). Indeed, the last of the sonnets in the Oxford anthology warrants a separate post of its own, with a serious question about just who this Shakespeare guy was, anyway. For today, I have to say Shakespeare knew the human heart, and I have to assume he also knew his Bible. Did he perhaps write this sonnet with Amnon and Tamar's story in mind? Maybe not - but don't they work together?

04 February 2014

I am sick with love

The anonymous poet, roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, ends each stanza of today's poem with a quotation from the Latin Bible, from the Song of Songs: "I am sick with love" - Quia Amore Langueo. The Latin speaks so beautifully, and that last word, "langueo" (sick; you see our English "languish" in it), is so rich: say it slowly, and feel how it moves through your mouth, from the tip of the tongue on the teeth ("l") to the very back of the throat ("ng"); and how the vowels move from the open "a" to the rounded "u" and then back into the mouth on the "o." What a word. Read this poem aloud!

Well, when you can, read all poems aloud!

Back in the fourteenth century, it may be a fair guess, readers would have quickly understood what - rather, who - this poem is about. If you get there yourself, read it with humility. Me? Well, to be fair, I've had my head in this kind of metaphoric poetry for over a year - though from a different time and place. So it had me at the first line of the second stanza: "Upon this mount I found a tree." Your results may vary. Regardless, read, ponder, and enjoy this beautiful poem.

Quia Amore Langueo
IN a valley of this restles mind   
I sought in mountain and in mead,   
Trusting a true love for to find.   
Upon an hill then took I heed;   
A voice I heard (and near I yede)             5
In great dolour complaining tho:   
See, dear soul, how my sides bleed   
  Quia amore langueo.   

Upon this hill I found a tree,   
Under a tree a man sitting;      10
From head to foot wounded was he;   
His hearte blood I saw bleeding:   
A seemly man to be a king,   
A gracious face to look unto.   
I ask√®d why he had paining;      15
  He said, Quia amore langueo.   

I am true love that false was never;   
My sister, man's soul, I loved her thus.   
Because we would in no wise dissever   
I left my kingdom glorious.      20
I purveyed her a palace full precious;   
She fled, I followed, I loved her so   
That I suffered this pain piteous   
  Quia amore langueo.   

My fair love and my spouse bright!      25
I saved her from beating, and she hath me bet;   
I clothed her in grace and heavenly light;   
This bloody shirt she hath on me set;   
For longing of love yet would I not let;   
Sweete strokes are these: lo!      30
I have loved her ever as I her het   
  Quia amore langueo.   

I crowned her with bliss and she me with thorn;   
I led her to chamber and she me to die;   
I brought her to worship and she me to scorn;      35
I did her reverence and she me villany.   
To love that loveth is no maistry;   
Her hate made never my love her foe:   
Ask me then no question why—   
  Quia amore langueo.      40

Look unto mine handes, man!   
These gloves were given me when I her sought;   
They be not white, but red and wan;   
Embroidered with blood my spouse them brought.   
They will not off; I loose hem nought;      45
I woo her with hem wherever she go.   
These hands for her so friendly fought   
  Quia amore langueo.   

Marvel not, man, though I sit still.   
See, love hath shod me wonder strait:      50
Buckled my feet, as was her will,   
With sharpe nails (well thou may'st wait!)   
In my love was never desait;   
All my membres I have opened her to;   
My body I made her herte's bait      55
  Quia amore langueo.   

In my side I have made her nest;   
Look in, how weet a wound is here!   
This is her chamber, here shall she rest,   
That she and I may sleep in fere.      60
Here may she wash, if any filth were;   
Here is seat for all her woe;   
Come when she will, she shall have cheer   
  Quia amore langueo.   

I will abide till she be ready,      65
I will her sue if she say nay;   
If she be retchless I will be greedy,   
If she be dangerous I will her pray;   
If she weep, then bide I ne may:   
Mine arms ben spread to clip her me to.      70
Cry once, I come: now, soul, assay   
  Quia amore langueo.   

Fair love, let us go play:   
Apples ben ripe in my gardayne.   
I shall thee clothe in a new array,      75
Thy meat shall be milk, honey and wine.   
Fair love, let us go dine:   
Thy sustenance is in my crippe, lo!   
Tarry thou not, my fair spouse mine,   
  Quia amore langueo.      80

If thou be foul, I shall thee make clean;   
If thou be sick, I shall thee heal;   
If thou mourn ought, I shall thee mene;   
Why wilt thou not, fair love, with me deal?   
Foundest thou ever love so leal?      85
What wilt thou, soul, that I shall do?   
I may not unkindly thee appeal   
  Quia amore langueo.   

What shall I do now with my spouse   
But abide her of my gentleness,      90
Till that she look out of her house   
Of fleshly affection? love mine she is;   
Her bed is made, her bolster is bliss,   
Her chamber is chosen; is there none mo.   
Look out on me at the window of kindeness      95
  Quia amore langueo.   

My love is in her chamber: hold your peace!   
Make ye no noise, but let her sleep.   
My babe I would not were in disease,   
I may not hear my dear child weep.     100
With my pap I shall her keep;   
Ne marvel ye not though I tend her to:   
This wound in my side had ne'er be so deep   
  But Quia amore langueo.   

Long thou for love never so high,     105
My love is more than thine may be.   
Thou weepest, thou gladdest, I sit thee by:   
Yet wouldst thou once, love, look unto me!   
Should I always feede thee   
With children meat? Nay, love, not so!     110
I will prove thy love with adversit√®   
  Quia amore langueo.   

Wax not weary, mine own wife!   
What mede is aye to live in comfort?   
In tribulation I reign more rife     115
Ofter times than in disport.   
In weal and in woe I am aye to support:   
Mine own wife, go not me fro!   
Thy mede is marked, when thou art mort:   
  Quia amore langueo.     120

GLOSS:  quia amore langueo (I am sick with love; Canticles 2:5)
yede] went.  het] promised.  bait] resting-place.  weet] wet.  in fere] together.  crippe] scrip.  mene] care for.