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Poem: Villon
Poet: Basil Bunting
Link: Villon


“Vision is lies,” Basil Bunting says near the start of “Villon,” and indeed it is, for one in conditions such as these:

To the right was darkness and to the left hardness
below hardness darkness above
at the feet darkness at the head partial hardness
with equal intervals without
to the left moaning and beyond a scurry.

Bunting (or is it Villon?) is in a dark cell, imprisoned for refusing compulsory military service. The poem is his prison-ballad, on the model of, and with frequent reference to, the 15th century French poet-criminal François Villon’s own famous prison-ballad, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” Bunting captures extremely well the disorientation of his experience, in several ways.

To begin at the beginning, then, here is the first stanza:

He whom we anatomized
‘whose words we gathered as pleasant flowers
and thought on his wit and how neatly he described things’
speaks
to us, hatching marrow,
broody all night over the bones of a deadman.

The use of pronouns here immediately creates ambiguity. Who is “He”? Well, Villon, obviously. (The quote that takes up the second and third lines is from the preface to a 16th century edition of Villon’s poems.) But what is Villon doing? Well, he “speaks,” despite having been “anatomized”—despite being dead. And further still, he is “broody all night over the bones of a deadman.” In a sense, however, it is precisely Bunting who, in his cell, is brooding over Villon. Bunting is alive and speaking. Villon is dead. And yet the stanza makes perfect sense. There is a sense in which Bunting, in his cell, is dead (though alive), and in recalling Villon is nurtured back to some kind of life (think here on the double meaning of “broody”).

The result of this is a partial indistinguishability of the two poets. Bunting tells he us that he is dead and Villon alive, and that Villon nurtures him. Yet we know that Bunting is literally alive, and Villon literally dead, and that it is Bunting who is “hatching marrow” from Villon’s bones. Perhaps this explains the other curious pronoun in this stanza: “us,” not “me.”

The disorientation also stretches to the poem’s style. The first section shifts, abruptly, from wholly non-metrical (≠ non-rhythmical) free verse to an almost jaunty song in iambic quatrains, a song that goes on for nine stanzas:

Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that DEATH is written over all.

And so on. But even here, Bunting never lets it get too jaunty. The rhyme scheme constantly varies: the above is ABAB (with B as an off-rhyme), the next is ABAB (with A as an off-rhyme), and after that is ABAC. And then there is the fourth stanza of the song, with perfect ABAB lines, which Bunting counteracts by making the lines rhythmically lumpy (though they scan just fine):

Three score and ten years after sight
of this pay me your pulse and breath
value received. And who dare cite,
as we forgive our debtors, Death?

Bunting also varies line lengths. Most are in iambic tetrameter, but there are a few wild cards: “is Death’s collateral” and “die, die in pain,” for instance. And, lastly, the penultimate stanza of the song is not a quatrain at all, but only three lines (rhymed ABA) that bleed directly into the final stanza.

It is, all told, a strange song. Is it full of life, or just demented? Perhaps both. That is appropriate for the song that a prisoner sings himself in the dark.

The poem’s second section makes the opposite shift, in a manner even more disorienting. After ten non-metrical lines, it again slips back into rhymed iambic tetrameter (couplets now), again with just enough off-rhymes and non-rhymes and other deviations to keep from pure jaunt. And then it goes off somewhere wholly other, an almost ecstatic ode to the collectors of individual data (“O anthropometrics!” and later, “O Bertillon!”), culminating in these haunting lines:

Homer? Adest. Dante? Adest.
Adsunt omnes, omnes et
Villon.
Villon?
Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain,
hither and thither scurrying as the wind varies.

The poets are all present, all accounted for, in Bunting’s cell.

All the while, Bunting has kept up the ambiguity between himself and Villon. The aforementioned quatrains that end part one of the poem mix characters from Villon’s ballad (e.g. Helen, as well as Abelard and Eloise), as if Bunting were rewriting that poem, with characters from Bunting’s own experience (e.g. the dancers Genée and Lopokova). And this merging of Bunting with Villon is made more or less explicit in the quasi-refrain of part two: “Whereinall we differ not.”

The poem ends in open air, but not exactly in freedom. The opening lines of this part are deliberately enjambed at grammatically awkward points, as if Bunting is stumbling as he walks:

Under the olive trees
walking alone
on the green terraces
very seldom
over the sea seldom
where it ravelled and spun
blue tapestries white and green
gravecloths of men…

He is free of the prison’s bars, but not of its hold. And this is captured in the poem’s miserable, perfect final lines:

How can I sing with my love in my bosom?
Unclean, immature and unseasonable salmon.

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At the start of this year, I wrote up some delusions about what I might read in 2017. Now that the halfway point is past, I am in the mood to find out how I have done.

Here is what I have read from that list, with associated posts:

Homer – Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.) – post
Virgil – Aeneid (Lombardo, trans.) – posts (collected)
Robert Frost – A Boy’s Willpost
Fernando Pessoa ­– The Book of Disquietpost1, post2, post3, post4, post5
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi – [no posts]
Henri Cole – Nothing to Declare – [contemporary poetry] [no posts]

Not altogether terrible, though certainly less than half of what I predicted. As I knew would happen, my reading took me down other rabbit holes. I give the highlights below; the full list would be a bore.

Pessoa’s succulent nihilism brought me to read A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Zenith, trans.), the Penguin Classics collection of his poetry. Whereas The Book of Disquiet is all in one voice (that of Bernardo Soares), the poetry here is in four voices: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Of these, I felt the closest kinship with Reis, the melancholy Epicurean, whose compact odes find joy even in their resignation. Reis works in bulk: no single poem stands out, but together they form a powerful collection. In contrast, de Campos is a poet of the single poem, most especially the dazzling “Maritime Ode,” which defies description. At 31 pages, it is too long to leave here, so I leave instead the much more compact “Ah, a Sonnet…”—also by de Campos:

Ah, a Sonnet…

My heart is a mad admiral
Who quit his life at sea
And remembers it little by little
At home, pacing, pacing…

With this motion (the mere thought
Of which makes me shift in my seat)
The seas he once sailed still toss
In his muscles bored of inactivity.

Nostalgia’s in his legs and arms.
Nostalgia pours out of his brain.
His boredom turns into raving.

But if, for God’s sake, the heart
Was my theme, why is this poem dealing
With an admiral instead of with feeling?

I can never read enough translations of Virgil’s Aeneid, so, a couple months after finishing up Lombardo’s fine rendition, I began Sarah Ruden’s, which I think may be my favorite of the five I have read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles). It is a line-by-line, mostly blank verse translation—the sort of thing that will either succeed or fail on a large scale. It is hard to imagine such an attempt being middling. Ruden’s, happily, succeeds. Her lines are terse and forceful, and lack the somewhat stiff grandiosity that occasionally characterizes the blank verse translations of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum. The compact lines serve Virgil better than the loose lines of Fagles, and she avoids Fagles’ tendency toward being too colloquial. Lombardo’s translation is the freest (though highly musical), and makes a nice pairing with Ruden.

The introduction to the Lombardo translation was written by W. R. Johnson. It was sufficiently insightful that it induced me to buy Johnson’s book Darkness Visible, a classic work of Virgil scholarship. Johnson’s book does exactly what I ask for from a book of criticism: it makes me a better reader. Johnson’s central concern in the work is to elucidate the way in which the world of the Aeneid constants hovers around darkness and chaos, always threatening to fall fully under their sway. He shows this by comparing passages in Virgil to passages in earlier authors, especially Homer. He convincingly demonstrates that where Homer’s passages are characterized by brilliant clarity, Virgil’s re-envisionings of these same passages make them deliberately, carefully murky. Thus Virgil captures a world beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. I had sensed this in my reading of Virgil—it is a major part of why I prefer Virgil to Homer—but I could not have articulated it without having read Johnson. I cannot recommend Darkness Visible highly enough.

Leaving behind poetry, I have been reading a number of the classics of Chinese Philosophy: Confucius’ Analects (Chin, trans.), the book of Mengzi (Lau, trans.), and the book of Zhuangzi (Palmer, trans.). Confucius and Mengzi make a nice contrast. Where Confucius is flexible, emphasizing situationally appropriate conduct (guided but not rigidly determined by the rites), Mengzi is rigid, the sort who might never talk to you again if you bow to him the wrong way. Even if I disagree with Confucius about the general shape of his program, I can feel the deeply humane impulse behind it. In Mengzi that impulse is more difficult to find. But I should be fair to Mengzi. Especially near the start of his work, Mengzi develops certain interesting philosophical themes. Concerning, for instance, the motivation to be ethical, he attempts to start from our natural sympathy for friends and families and to extend this as far as possible. This, I think, is a more plausible solution to the problem of moral motivation than that of the Mohists, who begin with universal love as an imperative. And, as Republicans in the Senate work to savage our healthcare system, Mengzi’s stern moral stance seems especially apt: “Is there any difference between killing a man with a knife and killing him with misrule? There is no difference.”

The real treasure, however, is Zhuangzi, whose laughter still resonates today. He is a relentless puncturer of pretensions, and as pretense is an eternal temptation of the human soul, Zhuangzi will never cease to be relevant. The book that accrued around his name is a hodge-podge, a collection of vignettes and perspectives that do not resolve into any single clearly articulable theme. One imagines Zhuangzi would not have it any differently. I leave, from this work, the following beautiful passage. I might have chosen any number of others.

Words are like the ebb and flow of the wind-blown seas: the purpose of them can become overwhelmed. The wind and seas are easily stirred, and what was attempted can be swamped and lost. (ch. 4)

Enough said about where I have been. Where am I going? I have no interest in predicting the remainder of this year in detail. I will only sketch a few paths that lay within my sight.

I have been reading, with great pleasure, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of commentaries on the aim and nature of poetry by American poets associated with the volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which I have not read). The volume captures the ferment that surrounded the birth and development of vers libre, both their negative program of throwing off the shackles of forms that were imposed a priori and their positive programs, which were many and resist easy summation. I imagine that I will, upon concluding this volume, be drawn to further explore the poetry of this period, of which I have little firsthand experience. Already, H.D.’s Trilogy, The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems lie before me, and Bunting I have even begun. His “Villon” is a marvelous poem. Perhaps I will write about it here.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I returned home with a number of used books (I visited at least eight bookstores in my six-day trip). Among these was Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I find the Buddhist notion of emptiness intriguing and appealing, and what I have read of this volume already suggests that it may tally with conclusions I have independently reached in my professional work in the philosophy of science. Such concordance may prove to be nothing in the end, but I am sure I will enjoy finding out, one way or the other.

On this same trip I also acquired a copy of Susan Howe’s new book, Debths. It is a short book (though >100 pages, much of each page is white space), and I have already made a first pass through it. But it will require more time. I expect I will be writing about it, one way or another, so I will not say more here. Happily, this will get me closer to meeting my goal of reading four works of contemporary poetry.

And beyond that? My shelves overflow with unread books—perhaps I will make some dents in this. I will not speculate as to the precise locations of these dents.

Poem: Acon
Poet: H.D.

I

Bear me to Dictaeus,
and to the steep slopes;
to the river Erymanthus.

I choose spray of dittany,
cyperum, frail of flower,
buds of myrrh,
all-healing herbs,
close pressed in calathes.

For she lies panting,
drawing sharp breath,
broken with harsh sobs,
she, Hyella,
whom no god pities.

II

Dryads
haunting the groves,
nereids
who dwell in wet caves,
for all the white leaves of olive-branch,
and early roses,
and ivy wreaths, woven gold berries,
which she once brought to your altars,
bear now ripe fruits from Arcadia,
and Assyrian wine
to shatter her fever.

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

Pales,
bring gifts,
bring your Phoenician stuffs,
and do you, fleet-footed nymphs,
bring offerings,
Illyrian iris,
and a branch of shrub,
and frail-headed poppies.


This poem is powerful because the grief it captures is at once starkly apparent and deeply veiled. That it is apparent hardly needs explication, it comes through so clearly. The third stanza of part I sees to that. So I will talk about the way it is veiled.

The first way in which the narrator’s grief is veiled lies in the poem’s opening stanzas. It does not begin with “Hyella, / whom no god pities.” It begins with the command, “Bear me to Dictaeus,” as if the poet were invoking the muses. And though the next stanza does not involve a request for golden words or a honeyed tongue, as might be expected to follow such an invocation, yet nonetheless it does not clearly break the spell. The poem seems like it is still preparing itself, not yet wholly arrived.

Thus it is a shock to reach the third stanza and to find Hyella “drawing sharp breath, / broken with harsh sobs.” Suddenly the reader realizes that the narrator has been gathering medicine, and that whoever she has invoked (this is still in doubt), it was not the muses. The poem has not been gathering steam, no—it began at the beginning. But this eruption of grief was needed to see it.

And this points to the second and crucial way in which the grief of this poem is veiled. The narrator’s attention hardly turns to Hyella directly: her names appears but the once, and she is the central focus in only two of the poem’s six stanzas (stanzas three and five). The other four stanzas all concern the process of attempting to heal her, the gathering of (and the imploring of various mythological characters to gather) the medicine needed to heal her.

The overwhelming impression is that the narrator is attempting to distract herself from the reality of Hyella’s suffering with this labor. In losing herself in the labor, she can forget, if only for a moment, the harsh truth. And yet the poem reveals that this is only marginally effective. In part I, she can hold it off for two stanzas, but in the third she cannot hold it back, and her mind returns to Hyella gasping in her bed.

In part II, she manages to turn her mind back to her labor, but this only serves to set up the poem’s devastating (I don’t use the word lightly) fifth stanza. Whereas the third stanza offers a brutally direct picture of Hyella suffering, the fifth stanza works through metaphor. All of the plant imagery—to this point quite literal—gathers itself into this one stanza:

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

The attempt to distract herself with the work of healing has not succeeded. It has merely resulted in the physical material of that work, the plants from which the medicine derives, and turned them into a beautiful but terrible reminder of the cause of that work.

Of course, the poem does not end there, for the suffering continues, and so also the search for distraction continues, as the sixth stanza captures. And we are not wrong if we see a hint of Hyella once more in the “frail-headed poppies” with which the poem ends.

I used to post under another name, on a different blog, mostly about my love for Ralph Waldo Emerson, but occasionally on poetry. One of those posts seems worthy of residence here. I leave it below.


A single exclamation mark appears in the poem Whitman would later call “I sing the body electric”—it is precisely placed, and marks the emotional center of the poem. Whitman is looking away from something, dallying, procrastinating, but it will not let him off. When he finally casts his gaze upon it, there it is, punctually, the dot and line. But this may be stated less cryptically.

The poem begins:

The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them,
They will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them.

Whitman goes with and responds to and loves many over the course of the poem, but in different ways. Some are easy for him to go with, to respond to, to love. And from another he averts his eyes, but finds that even there he will not be let off. Whitman’s next act, after this beginning, is to raise two questions:

Was it dreamed whether those who corrupted their own live bodies could conceal themselves?
And whether those who defiled the living were as bad as they who defiled the dead?

What is crucial in the poem is Whitman’s search for answers to these questions. The search begins generally: Whitman reminds us of the perfection of both male and female bodies. Here, as it were, is Whitman’s first principle, and now the demonstration may begin. Whitman soon gives us a list, a list of bodies at work and in leisure. Whitman goes briefly with each, responds to each, loves each. All are perfect. After this list, followed by a longer tarrying with an old, vigorous farmer, Whitman is left with a perception:

I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough,

But this perception is not an answer to Whitman’s questions, and perhaps this should be no surprise. Whitman is looking in the familiar places, but if the answers lay there, we should not have needed this poem. The first four in Leaves of Grass should have sufficed. So Whitman sets out again, now examining the female form—

Be not ashamed women

—now the male form—

The male is not less the soul, nor more

—finding each as perfect as his first principle promised. But we still have not gotten past this principle. To be sure, we have applied it to particulars, and that is well, and valuable; likewise, we have gained a new perception—

All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and beautiful motion.

—and that too, is well, and valuable—but, to use a Whitmanian distinction, these things please the soul, they do not please the soul well. For the soul has raised for itself a question, and the answer does not lie here.

We get the sense, after this, that Whitman is avoiding something, though we do not yet know what. In fact, however, the character Whitman has been avoiding does make a cursory appearance, though without a premonition of what is to come.

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred.  .  .  . it is no matter who,
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed on the wharf?

The slave appears here, alongside the dullfaced immigrants, as proof that Whitman’s first principle knows no exceptions. But the slave is subsumed under a general account, is but one of many Whitman could have placed here: the prostitute, the criminal, or any number of other objects of scorn. So, for now, we see no reason to suspect the slave as being of any special importance—except, of course, in having a sacred body. Yet, as we have seen, all that is yielded from this affirmation of the first principle is a perception that does not answer the soul’s question, the processional nature of the universe.

What follows Whitman’s presentation of this truth is instructive.

Do you know so much that you call the slave or the dullface ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight.  .  .  . and he or she has not right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffused float, and the soil is on the surface and water runs and vegetation sprouts for you .  . and not for him and her?

But no! no! this is all wrong! Whitman first tried to treat the slave as an instance of a general principle. That did not work, that yielded no answer, so now addresses the issue in another way. But who does he address? You: do you know, do you suppose, do you think? He goes with, responds to, loves… you. You and not the slave. Whitman! You are still averting your eyes! You are looking only obliquely!

But that cannot last.

A slave at auction!

Whitman, if for but a moment, looks into the eyes of the slave. All depends on his response:

I help the auctioneer .  .  .  . the sloven does not half know his business.

Whitman describes the slave, his beautiful body, his allbaffling brain, his limbs, his blood. He describes not only one man, for

This is not only one man .  .  .  . he is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

Whitman here is, indeed, helping the auctioneer: the auctioneer cannot see the true value of the slave; Whitman helps him to ascertain it. And in this process, Whitman receives his answers, with which the poem ends.

Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? Or the fool that corrupted her own live body?
For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves.

Who degrades or defiles the living human body is cursed,
Who degrades or defiles the body of the dead is not more cursed.

The soul has its answer—only the suspicion nags at me that the soul is still not well pleased. For the answer takes the form of a curse. Whitman, so affirmative in his poetry, indeed even throughout the body of this poem, ends not with affirmation but denunciation. Why is this?

Whitman has more than one first principle, only in this poem he has forgotten the others. He has forgotten that all returns. For he has still not gone with, responded to, and loved the slave. He has helped the auctioneer; he has addressed the gentleman bidding—but he has merely described the slave. The description suffices to yield an answer, but the answer comes as a curse, for Whitman is cursed. Whitman has, one last time, averted his eyes, and so the slave will not let him off.

Carl Sandburg follows Robert Frost in The Voice that is Great Within Us. I do not have much to say about the particular poems of his that are therein gathered: general notes will have to suffice.

Sandburg is a grittier Whitman: his formal trappings (e.g. the heavy use of anaphora) are borrowed from the American master, as is his general moral (the celebration of life in all its aspects) – only Sandburg’s poems have a bit more soot. It is not that the facts he includes differ from those Whitman includes: both rejoice over the same life. Nothing is “absolutely” uglier in a poem like “Chicago” than in Whitman’s work. It is rather the effect of these shared facts that varies, and this is a matter of their presentation.

To my taste, these differences in presentation mark not an advance but a retreat. I sense in Sandburg a clearly defensive posture. What for Whitman is unreservedly beautiful is for Sandburg beautiful only in spite of its ugliness. Yes, he grants, it is ugly – and he must grant this, for he has heard doubts, well-founded doubts. Yes, but… – that is the mode of the Sandburg poem. Whitman is exuberant from within himself, while Sandburg is forced to answer doubts that crowd the edges and even the heart of his poems. It almost seems as if he is trying to convince himself of what he says, as if his tastes are not quite beholden to his aesthetic theory.

Intrinsically, the above is not a criticism, though I do prefer Whitman for his lack of such self-gnawing diffidence. But there are criticisms to be made. Sandburg does not lack for talent: isolated moments show it. But while the stray line may cause a shiver, these thrills are not sustained. It is no accident that the poem I found most successful of the selection, “River Roads,” is among the shortest.