Cherished like the thought of heaven

You’d be surprised how difficult it was to find a poem celebrating the passing of the fiscal year. I guess it’s not something that captures the poetic imagination. I don’t usually run competitions on this blog, but there’s tuppence ha’penny for anyone who can write a convincing ode to the beginning of a new financial year. “O! Tis time for taxes their return to make…” it might begin.

I think it was Robert Graves who said “There’s no money in poetry; but neither is there poetry in money.” Or something like that. Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, said money is a kind of poetry. I looked in the works of both for today’s poem, and Stevens won the day with ‘What is Divinity’. It’s not about money – just a gorgeous little elegy for this heaven-haunted earth. Happy new year.

What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch,
These are the measures destined for her soul.

He's made the things that bring him near

Some while back I mentioned poet Christian Wiman. I like his work, and his story even more. In the space of a few years in his early thirties, he found God, fell in love and married, and was diagnosed with incurable blood cancer. He writes, as you’d imagine, with attention and poignancy, and, as you might not expect from a contemporary poet, with a good deal of investment in things like rhythm and structure. As a way into this poem, here’s a line or two from a biographical essay he wrote called “Love bade me welcome” (a quote from George Herbert): “I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it. And by some miracle I do not find that this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought.” This poem, with its echo of Hopkins and its Herbertesque conceit, is called “Every riven thing”, a title which on its own tells multitudes about a view of the world.  

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made 
sing his being simply by being 
the thing it is: 
stone and tree and sky, 
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.

All leaflife and starshower

A couple of weeks ago I came across this extraordinary little poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, whose translater is the American poet Christian Wiman - of whom, more soon.

In 1934, Mandelstam was arrested for writing an epigram critical of Stalin. He and his wife were exiled, then later given a reprieve. He wrote that only in Russia was poetry taken seriously: "Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" During the Great Purge, he was again arrested for anti-Soviet views, and sent to a Siberian concentration camp where, in December 1938, he died.

This poem was written on 4 May, 1937. It's one of the best expressions I've ever seen of the fleeting fitful beauty of being alive, the futility and absolute urgency of trying to say what it is. It has added plangency given Mandelstam only lived another nineteen months. This poem, ‘And I was Alive,’ is going straight to the top shelf of poems that help me live. 

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird–cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self–shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.


Whatever a moon has always meant

Today a poet with a sublime creative disregard for rules: e e cummings. His poetry often looks whimsical or childish for its breaking of rules, but it's often, as here, terribly beautiful and full of wonder. Enjoy this bit of unpunctuated ecstasy. 

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) 

And so the light runs laughing

I’m not a big TS Eliot fan, so I was glad to find this Ash Wednesday poem by Louis Untermeyer, 1961's poet laureate, but better known to Americans as an anthologist. As Lent begins, I love the joy in this pair of sonnets, light escaping through holes in Larkin’s “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade.”

I (Vienna)

Shut out the light or let it filter through
These frowning aisles as penitentially
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair,
Performs a parody of the divine.

The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm;
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth
To find a lonelier and darker height.
The church grows dingy while the human swarm
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth.
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light.

II (Hinterbrühl)

And so the light runs laughing from the town,
Pulling the sun with him along the roads
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down.
At every empty bush he stops to fling
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats;
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes,
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing.

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds
And throws an olive blush on naked hills
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white.
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.