Experts Series: Fist-Pounding Poetry

james mcnamaraWelcome to the Accidental Okie Expert’s Series. Throughout this summer series, you will meet some of my friends who are vastly more interesting and knowledgeable than me. They’ll be sharing their areas of expertise, be it serious or lighthearted or just plain useful.

First up is my friend James McNamara. James, or Jamie as we call him, married my friend Rebecca. They met while both getting their doctorates at Oxford. They talked about smart people things amid the spires and gardens of Oxford and fell in love, as you do. Excuse me. As one does.

Jamie’s area of study is in vivisection imagery (dissecting something still alive) in the writings of John Donne, Jonathan Swift and George Eliot. As you will read below, Jamie does study the sissy side of poetry.

As someone who understands approximately three poems, I’ve asked Jamie to help us learn to appreciate poetry in all its glory.

Fist-Pounding Poetry

I blame the Romantics—those big-shirted, river-floating bastards with their sobbing over daffodils and getting drunk on skies. As a young man in Australia—beer-swilling, boat-rowing—a love of poetry wasn’t something to advertise. Except to girls. But even the girls thought you a bit soft. And it was all because of the Romantics. I have to confess to sometimes hefting the book across the room when I read Wordsworth on daffodils or Shelley on anything. It’s all so saccharine and twee. And it gives poetry its reputation as something for wispy dilettantes who look searchingly at the horizon, look back to make sure their companion is watching them, then keep brooding, hoping for the tear to squeeze out. Ultimately, they dab the eye with a tab of hot-sauce or Vicks, and then everyone has to go to the emergency room. See what I mean?

I appreciate poetry of a different sort, the poetry of fist pounders and shouters of songs, grabbers of life. It’s a poetry with a similar focus on the natural world to the Romantics—reveling in pollen-dusted rivers, eyes underneath the hedgerows, furry backs that fix you with a black-eyed stare before loping off—but it’s gutsier. I’m going to write today about three poets—Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and Robin Robertson, respectively Irish, English, and Scottish—who exemplify what I most enjoy: first, a sense of immediacy, of being there, now, in the poem, smelling the soil and blood and blossom; second, a celebration of nature in all its beauty and cruelty; third, the use of Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques—such as compound words and a rhythm born of alliteration and assonance, not pretty-ended rhymes.

I start with Seamus Heaney because he takes us directly to the Anglo-Saxons in his stunning translation of Beowulf. Beowulf is a narrative epic in Old English about the haunting of King Hrothgar and his Danes by Grendel, a ‘prowler through the dark’. In the extract below, Hrothgar discusses the monsters’ lair with the Geat hero Beowulf, who’s going to try and slaughter the ‘hell-dam’, Grendel’s mother. ‘A few miles from here,’ King Hrothgar says,

 a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch

above a mere; the overhanging bank

is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.

At night there, something uncanny happens:

the water burns. And the mere-bottom

has never been sounded by the sons of men.

On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:

the hart in flight from pursuing hounds

will turn to face them with firm-set horns

and die in the wood rather than dive

beneath its surface.

For me, I’m there. The mere (lake), still and freezing, the deer (heather-stepper / hart) stopping, terrified, when it realizes where it’s strayed, then plunging into the dogs instead of the water. You’ll have to read the poem to see whether Beowulf jumps in… But while we’re at this point, note that none of the line-ends rhyme. It flows, though, doesn’t it? That’s because of the alliteration (use of the same starting letters of words) and assonance (use of similar internal sounds of words): the ‘wood waits and keeps watch’; it hasn’t been ‘sounded by the sons of men’. And the compound words let us gulp the world in shot-glasses: the light-footed deer, ‘heather-stepper’ pausing, smoky-breathed; the ‘frost-stiffened woods’, waiting and watching the silence, the mist rising from the freezing lake.

Heaney’s good at waterways. In his later poem ‘Moyulla’, he writes of the Moyola river:

In those days she flowed

black-lick and quick

under the sallies,

the coldness of her

 

like the coldness off you –

your cheek and your clothes

and your moves – when you come in

from gardening.

 

She was in the swim

of herself, the gravel shallows

swarmed, pollen sowings

tarnished her pools.

 

Again, there are no traditional rhymes, but the compound word ‘black-lick’ and its assonantal pair, ‘quick’, contrast nicely with ‘flow’: she ‘flowed / black-lick and quick’ gives us a sense of the river’s physical movement—eddies at the banks, splashes over rocks, but deep and slow in the middle. When we add in ‘sallies’, there’s a nice restoration back to the longer, juicier sound of ‘flow’—‘flowed / black-lick and quick / under the sallies’. Heaney’s river is feminine—its temperature contrasted with the cold cheek of (perhaps) his lover coming in from the garden. She also revels in her beauty—‘She was in the swim / of herself’—a sensuousness that carries the luxurious fertility of water, the life-giving of a river to its human bank-dwellers.

Ted Hughes—to whose memory Heaney dedicated his Beowulf—is renowned for the way he portrays nature as both beautiful and wild, neither good nor evil. It’s difficult to take excerpts from Hughes because his poetry is so good that you get consumed and distracted and taken away into this poem and that. But I’ve been stern with myself and chosen some pieces largely from his 1976 collection Season Songs. Hughes, I think, is the master of immediacy, and that’s the aspect of his writing I focus on. His style is similar to Heaney’s in its use of Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques and in the way he draws beauty from the simplest things. Take, for example, the last stanza of ‘Sunday Evening’, where the speaker stands in a world on the cusp of spring:

I stand among puddles

Beneath these trees filling and brimming the air,

These staggering bouquets nobody knows how to accept.

There’s a sense here of man overwhelmed by the world around him, by a beauty at once simple and irreducibly complex, too wonderful to process; there’s a message, too, about the need for us to share in his humility.

In ‘March Morning Unlike Others’, spring is in full-swing and Hughes’s poetics owe something to the Impressionists: he dabs with words, and those suggestions, those brushstrokes, give more detail than a chapter in a book:

Blue haze. Bees hanging in air at the hive-mouth.

Crawling in prone stupor of sun

On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards,

Still-wings, each

Magnetised to the other,

Float orbits.

 I don’t know about you, but I’m there, on that March morning, looking out at the blue and those birds in the air.

‘March Morning’ gives a lyrical picture of spring, gentle and glowing. ‘Spring Nature Notes’ begins that way, with ‘the whole air struggling in soft excitements / Like a woman hurrying into her silks. Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping’, but later we see Hughes bring out the raw fecundity of nature:

Spring bulges the hills.

The bare trees creak and shift.

Some buds have burst in tatters –

Like firework stubs.

 The use of bursting, tatters, fireworks, gives us the bright, glorious, blooming of the season. The violence of a firework—explosive, hot and soaring—carries the power of the buds, busting through the soil and into bloom. And the firework simile encapsulates the fate of these bright flowers—soaring into the sky, a flash of brilliant colour, and then nothing but a trail of smoke against the night, or a stalk left blowing in the wind.

Hughes’s talent for metaphor is particularly well-demonstrated in ‘Deceptions’, another spring poem. Here, like ‘March Morning’, Hughes anthropomorphizes—or makes human—the season:

 With the cherry bloom for her fancy dress

Spring is giving a party –

And we have been invited.

We’ve just arrived, all excited,

When she rushes out past us weeping, tattered and dirty –

Wind and rain are wrecking the place

            And we can only go home.

Whereas in ‘Spring Nature Notes’ the season is like a lady, ‘hurrying into her silks’ before some distinguished gala, in ‘March Morning’ spring is a teenage girl in a new dress, excited for her party but then disappearing in a flood of tears. The woman of ‘Spring Nature Notes’ gives us the dusk before a wondrous night-time celebration; the teenager and her changing moods brings the capriciousness of English spring—blue-skies glowing and chilling with clouds on the sun. The metaphor carries, too, the sense of a season on the edge of summer via the teenager on the brink of adulthood.

Hughes handles summer with the same skill as spring, and has a facility for describing waterways that reminds me of Heaney’s:

The swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson,

Touches the honey-slow river and turning

Returns to the hand stretched from under the eaves –

A boomerang of rejoicing shadow.

You can nearly taste the Anglo-Saxon poetics in ‘Work and Play’—they fill the mouth: ‘swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson’, ‘Touches the honey-slow river and turning / Returns’.

Before I leave Hughes for my final poet, Robin Robertson, I want to quickly show you the next two seasons, autumn and winter, in excerpts from ‘Autumn Nature Notes’ and ‘Wind’. In the former, a bonfire shows the end of summer, the rising cool and preparation for the snows of winter:

 Under ripe apples, a snapshot album is smouldering.

 With a bare twig,

Glow-dazed, I coax its stubborn feathers.

A gold furred flame. A blue tremor of the air.

The apples are still ripe, but you can almost smell the fall smoke and cold. Again, human life reflects and augments the progress of the natural world: the poem’s speaker has reached a point in his life similar to the season—the end, perhaps of a love—and burns the album like the gardener burns fallen branches.

And then it is winter, brought to us via the metaphor of the house as a ship at sea in ‘Wind’:

 This house has been far out at sea all night,

The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,

Winds stampeding the fields under the window

Floundering black astride and blinding wet.

 

We’ll leave Ted there, storm-wet and probably having to fix a few tiles, to discuss the Scottish poet, Robin Robertson. I’m running out of space for Robin, but I don’t suppose he’d mind my giving most of the article to Heaney and Hughes, his literary progenitors. Robertson’s work has a similar Anglo-Saxon influence and quality of immediacy, and it shares Heaney’s and Hughes’s concerns with the darkness underlying natural beauty. I’m going to take three short bits of his poems to demonstrate this. In ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’, Robertson begins:

 A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves,

sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest

a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees.

In the flittering green light the glade

listens in and breathes.

 

A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire;

a bundle of steel flensing knives.

This poem recounts the Greek myth (best known from book six of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and, later, Titian’s painting) about the punishment of the satyr Marsyas for challenging Apollo to a flute-playing contest. Not best pleased, Apollo has the upstart flayed alive. Robertson establishes this violence wonderfully via his portrayal of the wood. ‘A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves’ has the immediate ‘we’re here!’ effect of (very good) film-script big-print. So we’re standing in the ‘flittering green light’, but there’s a hint of something wrong in the air—‘the glade / listens in and breathes’. And then we see why—there’s a bucket of surgical tools ready to put ‘Blade along the bone, find the tendon, nick it and peel, nice and slow’. Having been placed directly in the scene, we watch ‘Marsyas écorché, / splayed, shucked of his skin / in a tug and rift of tissue.’ The immediacy used to set up the wood makes the torture more awful, both through the disjuncture between beauty and blood, but also in the way Robertson has beckoned us in to this ‘gilded’ glade and made us stumble on a murder, to watch as bystanders. The wood’s presence in that evil—the agency it has in ‘listen[ing] in and breath[ing]’—shows the darkness beneath that ‘bright clearing’.

This would be a grim place to end, so I’m going to give you two further pieces of Robertson’s poetry—sans mythological characters being butchered.

The first speaks to me of that moment when spring becomes summer—‘Affair of Kites’ is full of the heart’s gladness as the season turns:

I sit, astonished by the pink kite:

its scoop and plunge, the briefness of it;

an escaped blouse, a pocket of silk

thumping like a heart

tight above the shimmering hill.

The sheer snap and plummet

Sculpting the air’s curve, the sky’s chambers.

I don’t know about you, but I’m there, watching it swoop and dive.

The last poem, ‘Making the Green One Red’, is about autumn. It starts:

The Virginia creeper has built its church here

in the apple tree: vermilion

lacework, pennons, tendrils

of scarlet and amber,

hung through the host like veins.

Spangled and jaspered, shot with red,

the tree filled with sun is stained glass:

a cathedral of blood and gold.

At the end of the poem, we discover that ‘the apple tree is dead’, killed by the vine. Robertson’s religious imagery leaves us uncertain as to how we should feel about this triumph over the apple tree—the abnegation of temptation from the fruit? The corruption of the Church a distraction from Jesus’s teachings? The poem becomes more complex still when Robertson compares the roots of the creeper (and not the tree, as one might expect) with Christ. The poem’s ambiguity, together with the contrast of human (religious) themes to botanic ones, leads us to think about the nature of nature, the difficulty of assigning it goodness or evil, of untangling its glory from its cruelty. Is this the conquering of a boring apple tree by something more beautiful? Or the sullying of knotted wood and green fruit by the ‘blood and gold’ of a brightly-coloured parasite?

To finish properly, I’ll leave you with one of the Romantics who, in a sweeping generalization, I told you were rubbish at the start. Obviously, lots of foamy-mouthed critics would take umbrage with me, and I know you can’t really dismiss a literary period in a sentence or two. But this is an article about what I like, not what’s objectively good in the eyes of the literati. So, here’s Wordsworth wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’…

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way…

 

See what I mean?

 James McNamara received his doctorate in English Literature from Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar. He has been published in or is currently writing for The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The West Australian, and the Australian Book Review.

 

Fist-pounding poetry, © James McNamara 2013

 

Homonyms: Why I’m Thankful English is My First Language

graduation picture

I have a master’s degree in professional writing.

Proof – that’s me just after I got hooded.  I think it’s a very Elle Woods picture.  Also, when I look at it, all I can think is – so that’s what my teeth looked like when I wore my retainer.  (In my defense, I wore it for four years and stopped just before I got married.  Because nothing says sweet young wife like going to bed with two massive, smelly retainers.  Then my teeth shifted.  Just enough for me to notice.)

graduation picture

The Professor and I had been dating for about nine months when I walked.  (I actually graduated the semester before, but graduation ceremonies were cancelled because of an ice storm.)  In two months we would be engaged.  And now after three-and-a-half years of marriage, he still generally refuses to take posed pictures.

So I pose for both of us.  It’s sort of like on Modern Family when they tell Alex and her prom date to take a second photo…with flash!

Because I like words enough to get a master’s degree in writing, and let’s face it, because I’m a little weird, my head is almost always full of words.  I sit around and think about things like homonyms, or as I just learned from Wikipedia, homonyms, homographs and homophones.  Words that sound like and/or look like each other, but have different meanings.

Homonym TShirt

Thinking about homonyms leads me to one conclusion: I am thankful that English is my first language.  How do people learn such a strange, janky language where rules don’t matter and three words in the same sentence can sound and even look the same, but mean something different.  Really?  It boggles my mind.

Inspired by my nerdiness and so you too can have a boggled mind, I crafted these homonym-laden gems.  You’re welcome.

They’re over there with their friends by the stairs.  Don’t stare.

You cannot bear to see a bear or an ewe, especially if you’re bare – it’s too cold and you’ll get sick.  But if the bear does bear down on you, make sure to have an oar from the canoe.  Sic’em Bears!

The weather is bad, but whether we like it or not, we will weather the storm in this hour of our need.  Are you with me?

The serial dater prefers waffles to cereal on dates, but he has been known to waffle on the matter and just eat date and almond granola.

Rules for being in a delivery room: do not take attendance, do not knead dough, do not pass out a round of beer, stay out of the way of the attendants, and always give the woman giving birth a wide berth, in case she needs to walk around.

We ate at eight because we’re well-bred and don’t just sit around eating bread.  But the scent of the meat after a long hike to the peak with John in the lead and the dog on a lead piqued our curiosity and led us to meet in the dining room.  Too bad we had lead poisoning.

He was stalking me, so I beat him with a stocking I’d filled with beets.  Once he was covered in purple beet juice, I jumped in my car and beat him home.

Dear child, you just missed the deer.  He was hiding in the mist.

When coming in from the open sea, see that you steer the ship straight through the strait because if we wait, the storm may come and shift our weight, upsetting the steer and donkeys in steerage.

Mr. Wright, there is a right way to write that sentence about reading the prisoner his last rites.  Your comma splices make me want to put myself into a coma.

Toe the line.  Don’t put a toe out of line, or the tow truck will come and get you.

If I waste my calories on junk food, my waist will expand.  It chews me up when I choose unwisely.  I have to get this important gem of wisdom in my head and head off to the gym.

Okay, I’m ready to hear your best homonym sentence!  Here’s a list with hundreds of homonyms.  Below are few that I didn’t use, if you want some inspiration.

Claus clause claws
Cite Sight Site
Aye Eye I
To Too Two
For Fore Four
Buy By Bye
Ail Ale
Base Bass
Ode Owed
air are  e’er  ere  err  heir
cents scents sense
Chile chili chilly
praise prays preys

P.S., did you know that this is my 50th blog post?!?  I can’t believe the growth my blog has seen in the short time I’ve been blogging.  Thanks for reading and sharing and following.  You’re the best!