The Hawk, by W.B. Yeats

“CALL down the hawk from the air;
Let him be hooded or caged
Till the yellow eye has grown mild,
For larder and spit are bare,
The old cook enraged,
The scullion gone wild.”

“I will not be clapped in a hood,
Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,
Now I have learnt to be proud
Hovering over the wood
In the broken mist
Or tumbling cloud.”

“What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit.”

You have to notice that the quotation marks indicate a change of speakers in every stanza. In the first, there is an unspecified speaker expressing a wish: call down. Order, trap, domesticate the hawk. Why? Because game that would otherwise be available is being depleted.

What part of the description ‘old cook’ is more important? Usually the substantive is more important than the modifier. In this case, however, the substantive is bound by the circumstances of the poem, and the modifier seems to me to be more free. Because of that, it seems more indicative of the poet’s choice, what he wants to say. Why is the old cook enraged? He is accustomed to having game. Why old? Tradition? Custom? Or is it feebleness as opposed to the strength of the hawk? The hawk is messing with the kitchen, and it is becoming intolerable.

But then we get the hawk’s story. He will not go back, he says. He has learned to be proud. This is not talking about a wild hawk that has to be domesticated, but a domesticated hawk that has reverted. I think that helps us with the adjective ‘old’ above.

Notice how the hawk describes the circumstances of his freedom, again, the adjectives in the concluding lines of the stanza. What kind of mist? What sort of cloud? He rises in circumstances of ruin.

It seems to me that the speaker in the last stanza is the same as the first, but now he is more specified. It is someone who has made a mistake. What kind of a mistake is it? What kind of regret? Why a hawk? Why game?

A Poem


I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped handwriting
And young girls doing their hair and all the castles of sand
Flushed, by the children’s bedtime, level with the shore.
The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want
To be always stressing either its flux or its permanence,
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.
Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle,
Join hands and make believe that joined
Hands will keep away the wolves of water
Who howl along our coast. And be it assumed
That no one hears them among the talk and laughter.
-Louis MacNeice

My Table

Two heavy trestles, and a board
Where Sato’s gift, a changeless sword,
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato’s house,
Curved like new moon, moon-luminous,
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where ’twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul’s beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
Me soul’s unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven’s door
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country’s talk
For silken clothes and stately walk,
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno’s peacock screamed.
-Yeats, The Tower, 1928


When summer heat has drowsed the day
With blaze of noontide overhead,
And hidden greenfinch can but say
What but a moment since it said;
When harvest fields stand thick with wheat,
And wasp and bee slave — dawn till dark —
Nor home, till evening moonbeams beat,
Silvering the nightjar’s oaken bark:
How strangely then the mind may build
A magic world of wintry cold,
Its meadows with frail frost flowers filled —
Bright-ribbed with ice, a frozen wold! …

When dusk shuts in the shortest day,
And huge Orion spans the night;
Where antlered fireflames leap and play
Chequering the walls with fitful light —
Even sweeter in mind the summer’s rose
May bloom again; her drifting swan
Resume her beauty; while rapture flows
Of birds long since to silence gone:
Beyond the Nowel, sharp and shrill,
Of Waits from out the snowbound street,
Drums to their fiddle beneath the hill
June’s mill wheel where the waters meet …

O angel Memory that can
Double the joys of faithless Man!

by Walter de la Mare

A Sun without a Sphere

1 How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

2 Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing, because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.

3 Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
inflame it with love’s fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

4 How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

-John Mason


Now they had been waiting a long time,   waiting, looking
to see if the girl’s retinue was coming    to craftsman Ilmarinen’s home.
The old people’s eyes are running    as they sit by the windows,
the young people’s knees are shaking    as they wait at the gates,
the children’s feet were getting cold    as they stood by the walls,
the middle-aged people’s shoes were wearing out    as they walked on the pier.
So on a certain morning,    on a certain day
a rumbling is heard in the wilderness,    the clatter of a sled on the heath.

Lokka, gracious mistress,    a Kaleva descendant, beautiful wife,
uttered a word, spoke thus:    “That is my boy’s sled;
now he is coming from North Farm    with his young maiden!
Now he is near these parts,    near this farmstead,
the house provided by his father,    fixed up by his parent.”
Craftsman Ilmarinen    is coming home right now
to the farmyard provided by his father,    fixed up by his parent.
Hazelgrouse bells are whistling    on the sapling shaft-bows,
cuckoo bells are calling    on the prow of the decorated basket sleigh,
carved squirrels lie stretched out    on the maplewood shafts.

The Kalevala, Poem 25:1-36, translated by Francis Peabody Magoun Jr.

As September Dwindles

Since I have not at the moment the words with which to express the happiness of autumn at last being upon me, let me borrow from Edward Thomas. I’d like to go to England for a few reasons, one of them is to see and experience the countryside that informs, through long years of patient observation, the poems Robert Frost’s friend wrote. He is evoking things the fullness of which eludes me. But his point, I’m happy to say, does not.


The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, —
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds’ the squirrels scold.

The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, — who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

The Night

John 3.2

Through that pure virgin shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glowworms shine,
And face the moon,
Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,
Did at midnight speak with the Sun!

O who will tell me where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
So rare a flower,
Within whose sacred leaves did lie
The fulness of the Deity?

No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty cherub, nor carved stone,
But His own living works did my Lord hold
And lodge alone;
Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
Which none disturb!
Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
The hours to which high heaven doth chime;

God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
His still, soft call;
His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
When spirits their fair kindred catch.

Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice
Is seldom rent,
Then I in heaven all the long year
Would keep, and never wander here.

But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
To every mire,
And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
Err more than I can do by night.

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

-Henry Vaughan

Attitude of Magi

A future missionary to China juxtaposed these two poems at a recent gathering which also featured some very excellent tomato soup. The gathering was, you might say, a success. The two poems present such a perfect inversion that one has to wonder whether one was not responding to the other. “Journey of the Magi” was written in 1927, and “The Magi” in 1914. Was Eliot indeed responding to Yeats? Did he get the idea there? It is something for which to keep the eye peeled.

The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.


The Journey of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


Lord, if I love Thee and Thou lovest me,
Why need I any more these toilsome days;
Why should I not run singing up Thy ways
Straight into heaven, to rest myself with Thee?
What need remains of death-pang yet to be,
If all my soul is quickened in Thy praise;
If all my heart loves Thee, what need the amaze,
Struggle and dimness of an agony?—
Bride whom I love, if thou lovest Me,
Thou needs must chose My Likeness for thy dower:
So wilt thou toil in patience, and abide
Hungering and thirsting for that blessed hour
When I My Likeness shall behold in thee,
And thou therein shalt waken satisfied.

-Christina Rossetti

Some Metrical Observations on a Hymn

The hymn I have in mind goes thus:

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

Observe the meter:

Iamb, anapest, iamb, anapest (10)
Iamb, anapest, iamb, anapest (10) (an ingenious way to make anapests work)
Iamb, anapest, anapest, anapest (11)
Iamb anapest, anapest, anapest (11)

A striking meter.

I pause here to make some observations most probably already have but without which the rest might not be intelligible. The music of English poetry is produced by two things coming together: the meter, which is as the strings of a violin, and the rhythm of the phrases, which is as the bow. Anybody who has struggled to appreciate poetry knows that until you can hear this out loud in your head, you have to read it out loud to hear its music. In this case, rhythm that will counter the disastrous effects of anapestic meter is crucial. It also seems to me the rhythm of lyric poetry has to be regular, and when it is, it is then matched to the melodic phrases of the music.

In the case of O Worship, song and poetic music are very well matched, and this is one of the things that makes it great. It is pretty good just because of what the author did to avoid writing doggerel (when the rhythm and the meter collapse and are indistinguishable), never mind a regular meter with the words in the right place. But this is how you know it is a great hymn, when you are looking at considerations of poetry. I have to wonder if he didn’t have J. Michael Haydn’s tune in mind when he wrote the poem.

In our blue Trinity Hymnal you can just look across the page at 15 and see something much different. It is another adaptation of a psalm, but the only consideration is to reduce it to some meter and some kind of rhyme. The result is mostly doggerel, there is anastrophe which serves no higher purpose than making sure the rhyme scheme is preserved, and the obvious lack of art requires no long perusal to discern.

The other thing our poet did with the meter of O Worship was to deploy a series of effects thereby. Art lives in its effects. So in order to understand it you ask what the effects accomplish. In the case of these verses, the ingenious extra syllable creates a rushing effect (a little more is being squeezed in), or a more robust effect (like having ten rather than three columns supporting your architrave), and so on. An example:

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

There is a studied ambiguity in the first two lines, I think. We are talking about God’s care: it is bountiful, in fact, inexhaustible. But why are we talking about how we can’t talk about it? Then, as if that were not enough, we say it breathes in the air and shines in the light. It is a comment on the extent of the bounty: wherever air goes, God’s bounty is breathing, wherever light shines, it is with lit with God’s generosity. It is nevertheless hard to picture anything specific. One wants an example; one expects that from this poet. Here, we are not getting a firm grasp on care, just on bounty—the modifier. What then happens is that in the 11 syllable lines of the stanza we get a very specific picture: it is like water, one of God’s most generous ideas. If the first two lines, besides what they explicitly say, develop an ambiguity about the subject, then that is like asking a question. The last two lines, then, come back with the answer, as if to say: here is what I’m talking about. The extra syllable lends the effect of greater detail, there is more to this part, and that effect corroborates, echoes, or, if you’d rather, it brings home that resolved ambiguity.

And that is not the only verse or way in which an effect of the meter is deployed.

The Ring, by Edwin Muir

Nature in wrath . . . is baffling at first. Here Eden is the rich Scottish cultural past, perhaps specially the pre-Reformation literary wealth. The Reformation came to eradicate the folk traditions of the British Isles. In England they threw the Puritans out in the Restoration. In Scotland, however, Knox, whom Muir seems to have hated with bitter intensity, succeeded to some extent in substituting ancient Israel for Scotland’s past, and promoting an industry of rooting out the idolatrous pagan influences from the lowlands.

Why Nature? Look at the animals. They’re not functioning as they have, but quite otherwise. And once you see that you will see why Nature makes sense, for Nature knows no age, not even that of ancient Israel.

The Ring

Long since we were a family, a people,
The legends say; an old kind-hearted king
Was our foster father, and our life a fable.

Nature in wrath broke through the grassy ring
Where all our gathered treasures lay in sleep –
Many a rich and many a childish thing.

She filled with hoofs and horns the quiet keep.
Her herds beat down the turf and nosed the shrine
In bestial wonder, bull and adder and ape,

Lion and fox, all dressed by fancy fine
In human flesh and armed with arrows and spears;
But on the brow of each a secret sign

That haughtily put aside the sorrowful years
Or struck them down in stationary rage;
Yet they had tears that were not like our tears,

And new, all new, for Nature knows no age.
Fatherless, sonless, homeless haunters, they
Had never known the vow and the pilgrimage,

Poured from one fount into the faithless day.
We are their sons, but long ago we heard
Our fathers or our fathers’ fathers say

Out of their dream the long-forgotten word
That rounded again the ring where sleeping lay
Our treasures, still unrusted and unmarred.

The Horses, by Edwin Muir

Not one for sweating the title (are the slight poets the ones who sweat the details because they have to sweat the details?), Muir simply adds an article to distinguish the former from the latter. Or is he linking them? What the other poem about horses opens, this poem resolves. The return of the horses is the return of Eden. There is a cataclysm but it is distant from his remote setting, the loss does not devastate rural ways, but benefits them, leading to a recovery of that which the first horse poem lost.

The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Horses, by Edwin Muir

Childhood gave this memory to Edwin Muir, and the result seems the opposite of what Bilbo Baggins’ experienced. Bilbo went to find these things outside his native country, while Muir harks back to what he used to have. Muir laments that he lost something. But perhaps he gained in imagination. Maybe his journey was not altogether unlike Bilbo’s after all.

And yet . . . what doesn’t figure in these poems is the failed agrarian life he was too young to take much of part in. He was happy, but his father apparently was not. His family moved several times, seeking better prospects, until they came to industrialized Glasgow. There, in a few short years all died, except for Edwin Muir. Not a happy children’s story.


Those lumbering horses in the steady plough,
On the bare field – I wonder, why, just now,
They seemed terrible, so wild and strange,
Like magic power on the stony grange.

Perhaps some childish hour has come again,
When I watched fearful, through the blackening rain,
Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill
Move up and down, yet seem as standing still.

Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble down
Were ritual that turned the field to brown,
And their great hulks were seraphims of gold,
Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould.

And oh the rapture, when, one furrow done,
They marched broad-breasted to the sinking sun!
The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes;
The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes.

But when at dusk with steaming nostrils home
They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,
And warm and glowing with mysterious fire
That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.

Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night
Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light,
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind.

Ah, now it fades! It fades! And I must pine
Again for the dread country crystalline,
Where the blank field and the still-standing tree
Were bright and fearful presences to me.

The Animals, by Edwin Muir

I have to think it was a mistake of Muir to put the animals on the fifth day. Fish and fowl are fine, but technically, not all the animals. And it is pretty clear he meant all the animals, though it is interesting to think that perhaps fish and fowl do not experience time and all the rest of them do.

But in Edwin Muir’s mind the animals are symbols which on the whole do not, as you can see by looking up what he has to say about horses. Animals mediated for him the eternal, he looked upon them, looked right into them and saw forms. And so he envied them that perpetual state, the pan-conscious state unconscious of time.

Is time a function of self-consciousness? If you could forget yourself, conscious only of another object, would you be conscious of change anymore? Is time required for one to be self-conscious?

Is space, for that matter? No word, no space, no time, but forms above discursive reason, scattering from themselves something with no lower consciousness or sense of the sequence of a building myth, and none of tragedy.

The Animals

They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.

For with names the world was called
Out of the empty air,
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.

But these have never trod
Twice the familiar track,
Never never turned back
Into the memoried day.
All is new and near
In the unchanging Here
On the fifth great day of God,
That shall remain the same,
Never shall pass away.

On the sixth day we came.

Muir’s Childhood


by Edwin Muir

Long time he lay upon the sunny hill,
To his father’s house below securely bound.
Far off the silent, changing sound was still,
With the black islands lying thick around.

He saw each separate height, each vaguer hue,
Where the massed islands rolled in mist away,
And though all ran together in his view
He knew that unseen straits between them lay.

Often he wondered what new shores were there.
In thought he saw the still light on the sand,
The shallow water clear in tranquil air;
And walked through it in joy from strand to strand.

Over the sound a ship so slow would pass
That in the black hill’s gloom it seemed to lie
The evening sound was smooth like sunken glass,
And time seemed finished ere the ship passed by.

Grey tiny rocks slept round him where he lay,
Moveless as they, more still as evening came,
The grasses threw straight shadows far away,
And from the house his mother called his name.


Childhood is a time of storing up perceptions. Impressions enter for the first time and come with corresponding emotions. Later life is not so full of these corresponding emotions as childhood is, is it? Things do not altogether glow with feeling; numbers, for example, lose their personalities. The matching up and sense and as a result the home of these is what Muir suggests here. He lived the distress of the chaotic moments of the early twentieth century, and longed for the atunement of his Edenic past: a father’s home, a mother’s voice, the unhurried sea, dreaming land, calm air, the shadows thrown away, his identity, assurance. Unostentatious and luminous.

On the Road Home

It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You … You said,
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

It was when I said,
“Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye”;

It was when you said,
“The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth”;

It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.

-Wallace Stevens


Some believe the slumber
Of trees is in December
When timber’s naked under sky
And squirrel keeps his chamber.

But I believe their fibres
Awake to life and labour
When turbulence comes roaring up
The land in loud October,

And plunders, strips, and sunders
And sends the leaves to wander
And undisguises prickly shapes
Beneath the golden splendour.

The form returns. In warmer,
Seductive days, disarming
Its firmer will, the wood grew soft
and put forth dreams to murmur.

Into earnest winter
With spirit alert it enters;
The hunter wing and the hound frost
Have quelled the green enchanter.

-C.S. Lewis

Accepting the Disaster: Poems, by Joshua Mehigan

Accepting the Disaster: PoemsAccepting the Disaster: Poems by Joshua Mehigan
It seems to me the fundamental problem for any poet is the problem of poetic diction. Why do I think so?

1 – poetic diction has always been the problem. Not just for Wordsworth. It was for Eliot and it has been since Eliot. It was for Chaucer who broke away from the old poetic diction. It is what makes Elizabethans Elizabethans, what is the whole point of Milton. W.H. Auden can write formal verse and not sound like other ages because he has solved for himself the problem of poetic diction.

2 – because no poet speaks for himself, but for a people. Language is common property, and how we speak has to do not only with ourselves, but when we live. Because it is our common property we can fight to preserve things, and should, but we should also realize it is common property. These days writers call it voice, but it is what used to be called style. It is yours, but it is also common.

3 – and poets are the ones who understand how things are said, and renew the language, not by turning it back, but by speaking in the diction of our time, finding its possibilities, pouring into life the vital imagination of words and the language’s potential under present circumstances. Like any medium, you have to work with it. You can’t do with marble what you do with clay. The poet’s medium is the language of his time.

That is not easy. I think one of the reasons so many resort to free verse is that it seems more authentic. If you try to do formal verse you come face to face with the real problem. There is a discipline beneath the discipline. There is something you have to hear that is the music wrung out of living expression and is not added by artifice, but only enhanced. It is felt that simply using free verse solves the problem of poetic diction, but it does not. The problem is not too much discipline, but too little, because good free verse has its principles and I think depends for its vitality on the memory of formal verse. Formal verse brings you hard up against the problem because all the devices have to be mastered, and that’s how what you say is scrutinized. The devices will amplify your right choices about language or they will show up your shortcomings. Free verse is more muted about both, and that’s why I think you can get away with it longer. The devices of poetry can’t be brilliantly deployed unless you understand the medium you’re using them in.

When Joshua Mehigan uses formal verse, you understand that the point of a rhyme is a device by which you ring meaning from what you say. There are many things you can do with rhyme, but you have to do something with it other than just stick it onto your poem. And you notice it at this point because you know if he doesn’t use free verse everything will be questioned, and so each rhyme, each formal structure, everything must have a reason. But that is how good poetry has always been. In other ages perhaps looser use has been tolerated because nobody was suspicious (the way people are now about free verse), but good poetry though not flawless, always approximates a flawless ideal.

People now are going to read formal verse with suspicion. But that’s how formal verse has to be written, and that’s advantageous, and Joshua Mehigan surely knows it. Every device has to serve a purpose. And then after you understand the devices, the rhythms, the uses of rhyme, you still have to say it in ways that are genuine, how we speak, and not simply by cutting out thee’s and thou’s.

And that is what gives you the timeless, good product. You have to have at least that. Read Joshua Mehigan, watch how he speaks and what he does with his formal verse. He has been working nine years on this last book, and the effort is worth perusing.

I don’t agree with his beliefs, but you’d have to be a philistine not to enjoy his poetry. You don’t have to take my word for it either: Adam Kirsch reviews the second book… and Jeremy Telman reveiws the first….