Friday, October 14, 2016

After My Death

Chaim Nachmann Bialik

Say this when you mourn for me:

There was a man – and look he is no more
He died before his time
The music of his life suddenly stopped
A pity! There was another song in him
Now it is lost

A great pity! He had a violin
a living speaking soul
to which he uttered
the secrets of his heart
making all its strings vibrate
save one he kept inviolate
Back and forth his supple fingers danced
one string alone remained entranced
still unheard

A pity!
All its life that string quivered
silently shook
yearned for its song – its mate
- as a heart saddens before its fate
Despite delay it waited daily
mutely beseeching its saviour lover
who lingered loitered tarried ever
and did not come

Great is the pain!
There was a man – and look he is no more
The music of his life suddenly stopped
There was another song in him
Now it is lost

What I love about this poem is - even despite the poor quality of its translation into English - the ability of Bialik to transcend morbidity; whatever it may seem, this is not really a poem about death at all, but about the joyous and vigorous fulfilling of our transitory lives. It is the song of a man in his full bloom, a man who knows, so to speak, that death will one day punctuate the stanza of his life, but for whom that knowledge is a spur, a stimulus, and not a block; and in the meanwhile there is always an opportunity for parole.

There are regrets, but they are hypothetical regrets; they are a man serving upon himself the warning of what he might one day regret if he does not live now; and serving this warning precisely in order to prevent regret. Even the pity is speculative; after all, there is still plenty more time in which to bow the string, whether of the heart or of the violin, and go on playing.

Bialik's poem is the antithesis of Proust's, in length, in tone, in content. And somehow the one serves as a warning of the other. Where Proust abandoned present and future life in order to review it in the solitary monastic cell of his cork-lined room (I have often thought it might be amusing to create a shirt in goat's wool as a souvenir for visitors to Proust's apartment on the Boulevard Haussman: My guru went to worship at the Maestro's feet, and all he brought me back was this extremely lousy hair-shirt), pouring out the waste in page upon turgid, interminable page of convoluted, ultimately misanthropic angst, entombed alive in sarcophagal regret, Bialik cries out exultantly, sweetly, simply but intensely "Act now". Once again, the d'vei Falstaff versus the d'vei Hamlet. I know which side I am on.

And yet. How very – how completely – different this poem would be, if it were not given that one-line preface: a mere obituary, where this becomes a song of birth! I wonder if the original came with, or without, that preface.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

Climbing Wyndcliff

William Wordsworth

Alain de Botton, in "The Art of Travel", reminds me that Wordsworth's famous "Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey" originally bore the sub-title "On revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13 1798". No one knows precisely where Wordsworth sat, or stood, or leaned against a tree, to look down at the Wye valley and the splendours of Monmouthshire and be inspired to write this poem on that particular day, though the general location is reckoned to be Wyndcliff, which actually overlooks Chepstow, rather than Tintern; but that is what poets get their licenses for.

Back in my husband-and-family days in north Somerset, we visited the area regularly, making the journey across the Severn to visit the ruins of the great Cistercian Abbey and compare it with the ruins of the great Benedictine monastery of Gleistonbury, and it is highly likely that the first time was on some July 13 of the 1990s, because my somewhat anal personality tends to like those sorts of symmetries; and equally likely that one or other of my daughters was harnessed in a baby-sling across my chest, and students from my school, who needed something to do on a boarding school Sunday, in tow.

Climbing Wyndcliff is tiring, but it needs neither rope nor sherpa, the path having been made-to-measure by the National Trust. There is strenuous exercise too, and quite stupendous views, which neither technology nor civilisation have succeeded in diminishing, by intruding upon them, since Wordsworth's pre-Luddite day. 

And finally there is poetry: a carefully carved niche complete with wooden bench purports to host the very sycamore which shaded W's penmanship that day. This I would regard as pure romanticism, and not in W's understanding of that term at all, but in our modern denigration and misuse of the term: a synonym for sentimentality, which is the trivialisation of emotions at their glossy surface. What W was seeking was not chocolate box lids painted by Constable, nor Easter cards with pretty bunny rabbits, nor indeed a rural idyll far from the smelly city; rather an alternative to Robespierre's reign of terror, a breach in the darkness of human civilisation such as might let some intellectual light through, and an opening to inwardness that might lead on towards catharsis; something not yet D.H. Lawrence, though without Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence could not have been, and those moderns who regale both of them could never have attained that eagle's nest of intellectual superiority from which to do so.

The bench, the sycamore, the actual eagle's nest, even the trail, are really just conjecture - but W was of that era, breaking free of the structures of Christian catechism, that favoured, indeed encouraged conjecture, so he probably would not have cared. And truthfully it doesn't matter; the point isn't the exterior landscape anyway, but the metaphor that it provides for the interior landscape. Nevertheless, while there are poems that one reads exclusively as poetry, these lines of Wordsworth's definitely merit the journey further, into the actual hills of Wales:-

                                           …for she can so inform

                              The mind that is within us, so impress
                              With quietness and beauty, and so feed
                              With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues
                              Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
                              Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
                              The dreary intercourse of daily life,
                              Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
                              Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
                              Is full of blessings. 

Nature as an intellectual paradigm, a dialectic of sophistry; and communing with Nature equivalent to communion with whatever God might be. The religion of Man (of Humankind, I would prefer, but in W's day Man still predominated), Standing Alone, in his elements and essences, devoid of superstition, as stately as a tree, seeing inside himself the entire vista and panorama of the human possibility. Yes! Yes! Yes!

The full poem is below:-

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

                                   These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

                                                If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
        How often has my spirit turned to thee!

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

                                   Nor perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

A Song for Alfred Nobel

The posting date of this entry, as you may have noticed, is October 14th 2016, the day after it was announced that a new name had been posted on the honour board in the Hall of Literary Fame, a place where club-members generally do not have first-names, but only initials: T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster (J.K Rowling); and now, to the total perplexity and consternation of those human beings who have a desperate need to put things in boxes, with labels on the boxes, but then don't know what to do with that which fits neither box nor label... one R.A Zimmerman, Poet Laureate, though in most of his several former lifetimes he was known by his pseudonymous Welsh name (Welsh, from the Anglo-Saxon, Wal-es, meaning "outcast", "foreigner", "unwelcome") as Bob Dylan.

Back in the days of Apollo and Orpheus and King David, they played the lyre rather than the guitar, though, let's be honest, a lyre is simply a guitar with four extra strings and its fretboard cut short. Ode, verse, poem, psalm, epic, saga - all of them, back then, written to be recited, performed, yes, sung, to the accompaniment of a sitar or an ud, a lute or a harp, quite likely with a tambourine providing percussion, a ram's horn standing in for the saxophone, a full choir of female backing vocalists - and what we call "lyrics" are simply the words written to be accompanied by the lyre. So what, pray, is the difference between King David's royal orchestra doing Psalms to the Great Moon-Goddess (Hallelu-Yah - the link here is to K.D. Lang at Leonard Cohen's induction to the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame), or Bob Dylan and the Band performing the marriage rites of "Isis on the fifth day of May", or between King David (Psalm 34:19) telling us that "YHVH Adonai is close to the brokenhearted, and helps those crushed in spirit" or Dylan, "Trying To Get To Heaven Before They Close The Door" while insisting that it's "Not Dark Yet"?

To he or she who writes, there is no difference between a song and a poem; the same range of techniques are available to both, and neither form is prose. One may use rhyme, or free verse; one may choose to include metaphors and similes and alliterations etc, or one may decide not to; one may use metre, or blank verse; one may write exalted language, or one may write banality; cadences, assonances and dissonances, the methodologies of rhythm, are inevitable, where written prose tends to be flat. One may leave the finished work to be read on the page, or recite it, or perform it with musical accompaniment of any kind from madrigal to bluegrass, from jazz to folk-rock, from Surah to Cante Jondo, from Hymn to Hip-Hop; there is still no difference between poem and song, between verse and lyric, not in the act of writing anyway. And in Hebrew the word Shir can mean a poem or a song; many other languages likewise use the same word for both. 

And as to its being of Nobel standard - that surely is a matter of quality, and impact, and not of form. 

The 20th century produced only two artists of truly universal stature, whose work transformed the way we think of art and culture, who have influenced, because they are unavoidable, every artist in their field who has followed, and will continue to do so in the future. One of those was Pablo Picasso. The other was Bob Dylan.

Which "poem" should I choose for this blog? Too many great pieces to make selecting easy, but if you want to get inside the mind of a truly deep-thinking artist (one of the criteria, surely, for his Laureateship), and at the same time witness his formidable skills with rhyme and lexicon and rhythm and metre and all the other techniques that poets have available, and I would recommend you follow the words in print while listening to them in performance, "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding", with or without the ironic "ho ho ho" of the 1965 Free Trade Hall concert, in Manchester, which is the version I have linked here. You can find the printed lyric here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

On Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The title of a poem is a form of semiotics, like the label underneath a painting in an art gallery. Read the title, and you can deduce the theme. If "On Dover Beach" were a painting, you would expect white cliffs, a shingle beach, a Canute sea, some Vera Lynn bluebirds; elements of nature with most likely a nostalgic edge - something like the illustration I have chosen at the top of the page.

And indeed, the first two and a half lines confirm the prediction. The next two and a half provide the satellite position, the place where the easel is set up: the window of a house close enough to the beach to see its detail, far enough away to catch the distant glow of lights across the English Channel. Expected nostalgia – a scene wistfully remembered – turns out to be present sentiment, not terribly different, as the poet calls his lover to peruse the view, or more likely to stand in the conventional posture of lovers, with the view as a good pretext for a Cialis moment. We are in the realm of love poetry, nature poetry, the pathetic fallacy.

Only... we are not, not really; the entire opening has been a trick, one of those tacky TV adverts that appeal to our most superficial receptors. Draw the potential customer in with shots of Baywatch men and women, and then sell them what you really came to sell. Only. That's the key word – a remarkably ordinary, banal, trite word for a transition in poetry, but "only" is enough. And once the transition is made, the pathetic fallacy proves to be precisely that, a fallacy, and disappears, and with it sentiment also disappears, and if we "Listen!" fastidiously enough, we can hear a philosophical theme slithering like Leviathan out of the sea, the ebb and flow of thought replacing that of the waves.

Words in poetry may be semiotics too, whether standing for themselves in the literal, or functioning as metaphors. One of the great achievements of this human invention, language, is its ability to evoke. Simply to pronounce the name Sophocles is to conjure up a philosophical system, a moral code, a civilisation, a vanished world, and also its continuum into the present. Arnold names Sophocles, and we are no longer on Dover Beach, but on some Aegean sands, wondering perhaps how the Persian or the Trojan war is faring, if Theseus has killed the Minotaur, if hemlock is a useful plant, and whether or not the gods still live on Mount Olympus. 

"Evolution"(© David Prashker 2016)
The image of the sea, literal in the first verse, becomes metaphorical now; neither the Aegean nor the English Channel but the "Sea of Faith", the philosophical system, the moral code, the source of civilisation that replaced the Greek when Hellenic Greece eventually failed. Only... Christian civilisation appears to be failing too, the Christian God threatened by the new evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin (Mankind, emerging from his origins, right there, in the sea), and the beginnings of genetics that are being revealed, right there where the light gleams on the French coast, by Lamarck. The "eternal note of sadness" is no longer that of Sophocles, but of this poet; and hemlock is only a useful plant if you are contemplating suicide.

To me the great strength, but also the great weakness of this poem, is its final verse. Sophocles took the hemlock, and joined his dead gods in the oblivion of permanent remembrance; Arnold has already called his lover – his wife, in fact, Frances Wightman – to the window, to share his sadness, but also to nourish his sentimentality. "Ah, love, let us be true to one another" belongs to the soap opera, not the grand opera; even the phrasing is prosaic, breaking the metre and undermining the cadences that till now have sustained this seemingly blank verse. Yet simultaneously the verse breaks into a rhyme scheme that is almost a sonnet, more clearly structured than anything beforehand. The message of love in times of darkness is the poem's, and the poet's, strength; but it is also doomed love, because "the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new,/Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain". If I were Frances, I might be thinking that the Cialis was as useless as the hemlock, on this dark night, and my husband lost in melancholia.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

On His Blindness

John Milton 

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Why is so much poetry so convoluted, so awkward, so uncomfortable? Where grammatical and syntactical expectation require prose to flow fluidly and balk at misconstructions, the little box of rhyme into which so much verse is force leads to these curlicues and hyphenations. Paraphrased into prose this might have been written:

When I consider how my light is spent, before half my days in this dark, wide
world have passed; when I consider that my one talent, which it would be akin to death to hide, is lodged with me uselessly – though my soul could not be more bent to serve my Maker with it, and desirous to present my true account, lest he, returning, chide: "doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" When I consider this, I also fondly ask...

But even attempting the paraphrase makes it clear that Milton is trying to compress too many thoughts, too many ideas, into a single sentence. The opening conceit leads to a parenthesis; the reiteration of the opening conceit leads to a second parenthesis, and that in turn to a digression which generates a second conceit, itself leading to a further parenthesis, and that parenthesis to what is almost a footnote to a piece of marginalia. Until we realise that the poet has lost his way (as blind men do, of course, but that would be far too subtle an explanation of this poem), and the phrase "I fondly ask" stands out alone, unrelated to any of the previous. Yet apparently central. Or is it simply that he needed four more syllables, and these occurred to him as satisfactory?

And is it, then, simply, a very bad poem? One which has endured because of the poet's name, his reputation, and in spite of his failure on this occasion? When we consider the canon of European art and literature and music, it is the case that vast amounts of second-rate work continue to be performed, published, exhibited, anthologised, simply because they belong to the oeuvre of an artist whom we regard as great, and we too humble, or too lazy, or too lacking in fastidiousness, to separate the good wheat from the chaff. In truth, half the European canon should be dumped, and the space filled up with truly great works that have been forgotten, and this simply because the artist who had that one moment of genius also produced nothing else of any merit in his life. In the case of this poem, it isn't even Milton's reputation that has caused it to endure, but a simple cliché that has entered the vernacular, a lame and insipid cliché at that, one that should also have been forgotten: "they also serve who only stand and wait". In most of our experience, the cliché isn't even true, especially in restaurants

But still this poem has endured, and if I had nothing but these negatives to say about it, why would I include it in a blog-anthology of my "favourite poetry and prose"? 

In the beginning, St John of Patmos tells us at the start of his account of the life of Jesus, in the beginning was the Word. He isn't actually correct. For there to be a word there first have to be the letters that make the word, and also the idea that requires a word in order to express it, hopefully articulately, though most often the words are ambivalent, if not ambiguous, and the ideas, usually borrowed anagrammtrically from someone else, are not quite as fully developed or elaborated as in the moment of our aspiration (that's inspiration with a more correct first-letter a). So Samuel Beckett infers, in almost any line of his you choose to choose, that in the beginning was the stammer, and the stutter, and the incoherence, and quite probably the crossed-out-and-replaced, the thrown-in-the-garbage, the abandoned-and-resumed, and the sheer fluke that this time it came out perfect. 

So we - what is the word I'm looking for? - so we, fumble, stumble, grope, no, not grope, I think fumble is as near as I can get, so we fumble (do I need the "about"? it's unwieldy) - so we fumble in the darkness like a, like a man gone blind, desperately trying not to surrender to the despair induced by blindness "Ere half my days in this dark world and wide"... and wait, isn't that a kind of anagram of Dante's opening to "The Inferno", "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... at the mid-point of our life", and doesn't Eliot cento that same line in the "East Coker" fragment of "Four Quartets", and is it just coincidence that when he centos the Dante, he also takes up the very theme that Milton is alluding to...

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious...

"By men whom one cannot hope to emulate" indeed! Dante, Eliot, Milton. And if there is blind Milton to allude to, is there not also blind Borges, engaged in the same struggle, which ultimately is not the struggle of blindness anyway, but the struggle of lucidity in any form?

Which leaves one final question. If Milton is resigned, as that closing clich
é seems to indicate, to a life in which the writing of poetry is no longer available to him because of his blindness, if there is nothing left for him to do but "stand and wait", whether for the invention of the digital voice-recorder or the development of ocular surgery, if this is the case, how is it that he managed to overcome these obstacles, and write this poem? 

The illustration at the top of the page shows "Milton" by the Hungarian Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), in the New York Public Library.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

Limerick for the English Pastoral

Author Uncertain

The Dean’s son, Nathaniel Clover
Once bowled seven no-balls in an over
Which had never been done
By a clergyman’s son
On a Tuesday in August at Dover

The form is Edward Lear, the tone A.A. Milne, the title my invention, the author reputedly Clement Freud, though this is probably either apocryphal or wishful-thinking on his part – it ought to have been written by Bill Frindle or Henry Blofeld, but I don't suppose it was. Could there, however, be a more succinct and complete description of that certain-type-of-Englishman, Larkin with his bicycle clips, Betjeman with his train-spotting manual – the quirky obsessiveness, the clerkish idealism, the self-mockery that isn't really self-mockery at all, the victory at Waterloo inspired by House Sport at Eton, the memorialisation of failure as though, like Dunkerque, it had actually been some kind of triumph.

The poem has never appeared in print, so far as I am aware. It may be read, however, on the website of the England cricket team, which one day will hopefully be www… , a rather better scorecard than Nathaniel Clover's - I leave it to those of you who do understand these things to explain the subtlety of the above to those who don't.

The illustrations are, top, The Close at Clifton College in Bristol, made famous by Henry Newbolt in a poem you will find on another page of this book - click here - though in fact it wasn't really Newbolt who made The Close famous, but rather W.G. Grace, cricketer extraordinaire, whose portrait is in the illustation on the right.
As to the presence of these poems in a serious anthology, let me just say that I take everything in life extremely seriously, not least the need for mockery, including self-mockery, and a good deal of irreverence, satire and iconoclasm. This page is my contribution to that genre.

Bloomsday Sermon, June 16th 2004

It was, I have to confess, somewhat surprising, to be invited as the Head of Synagogue to deliver a sermon in the school's Christian chapel, but then Clifton always was a radical institution, and a sermon by someone on the centenary of Bloomsday did make perfect educational sense. I would have preferred to keep it entirely secular, but Joyce’s own texts dis-enable that, and… but you can judge the final paragraph for yourself. This is what I read, and said (and then, if you want the source of the aesthetic theory, go to The Quidditas of Esthetics, elsewhere on this blog):

   STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.
   He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
   “Introibo ad altare Dei.”   Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:
   “Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful Jesuit!”
   Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak. Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.
   “Back to barracks”, he said sternly.
   He added in a preacher’s tone:
   “For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine christine: body and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.” He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. “Chrysostomos.”
   Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.
   “Thanks, old chap”, he cried briskly. “That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?”
   He skipped off the gunrest and looked gravely at his watcher, gathering about his legs the loose folds of his gown. The plump shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate, patron of arts in the middle ages. A pleasant smile broke quietly over his lips.
   “The mockery of it!” he said gaily. “Your absurd name, an ancient Greek!”

The opening fragment of James Joyce's novel "Ulysses", set in Dublin on a single day, June 16th 1904 – one hundred years ago today precisely. It tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, based somewhat on Joyce himself, a modern-day Telemachus searching for his father Ulysses, and finding him in Leopold Bloom, who is himself returning to his Penelope in Ithaca at the end of his personal quest. But the story of the novel is its least significant dimension…

Joyce used an immensely complex schema for the novel. First, he wished to parallel Homer's original, and so divided the novel into fragments that echoed the Homeric tales of Telemachus, Nestor, Proteus, Calypso and the rest. Each scene is fixed at a precise moment of the day, allowing Joyce to follow his characters on an epic journey that lasts precisely a single day, the day still known as Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904. Each scene carried an anatomical leitmotif: the kidney, the heart, the liver. Each scene also reflected an area of mental activity: theology, botany, art, mechanics. Each scene had an associated colour, and an associated symbol such as the horse for Nestor or the tide for Proteus. All of this established both the incidents in the scene, and the poetic language, often highly experimental, through which Joyce could explore the psychology of his characters, something that no one had ever done in literature before, though it had been explored in musical composition, by Bach in a number of his fugues for example, and by Robert Schumann in his F.A.E. Sonata, where the names of musical notes were also made to stand for letters of the alphabet. This complex schema makes the language of Ulysses so rich and multi-textured that at times it is hard to say that it is still prose and has not in fact become transmuted into poetry.

But far more significant than any of this was the variation scene by scene of the literary techniques employed. Like Cézanne's great paintings of Mont St Victoire, where the same scene is painted again and again on the same canvas, but a few hours or a few metres apart, in order to demonstrate the impact of minute changes of light or perspective, so Joyce approached his novel from a multitude of different points of view. What he understood, and he was probably the first serious writer to understand this, is that we use language very differently in very different contexts, and thereby shift our meanings. A third-person narrative recounts a story from the outside and can attempt to be objective; a first-person monologue recounts a story from the inside and must of necessity be subjective. A dialogue without narrative gives only the words spoken, devoid of authorial interjection. A comic scene epiphanises different aspects of the human character than does a dramatic one, though it may be the same scene that is epiphanised. So each episode is recounted in a different mode, or different voice, sometimes seen from Dedalus' perspective, sometimes from Poldy Bloom's, and in the famous final chapter through a stream of consciousness form that allows the private erotic thoughts of Bloom's wife Molly to achieve an extraordinarily lucid articulation.

There are those who would call Joyce's "Ulysses" the greatest novel in the English language. Others detest it, and with equal fervour. What I would say is that it is, without doubt, the second most challenging novel in the English language – Joyce's next work, "Finnegan’s Wake", taking first place on that list. As someone who loves books, and reads voraciously, I am deeply disappointed, again and again, to find so many of our writers turning out the same old anagrams of the same old plot and characters and themes, using the same old, boring, conventional narrative techniques. It seems to me that, if you want to be a great painter, you have to take on board what Picasso and Matisse have done to change that art, just as a great composer cannot ignore Mahler or Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Yet other than a very small band of disciples, Nabokov and Samuel Beckett in particular, to a lesser degree William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, all our contemporary writers wilfully ignore Joyce, preferring to act as though he simply never happened. Joyce is a huge challenge to any reader, and an even greater challenge to a writer. But culture becomes static and sterile if it does not grow, or if a growing stem is left un-nurtured. I would suggest that Joyce is the greatest flowering stem of modern English literature, and that it is our duty to nurture him. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath deliberately chose Bloomsday to get married. Fans of Joyce have celebrated Bloomsday for a hundred years, and in Dublin, the city which is really the central character of the novel Ulysses, this centenary year has been marked with a Joyce festival lasting no less than five whole months. Even if this is all we do at Clifton, there is no reason for any of you to miss out on Joyce and "Ulysses" in future, and you can tell your grand-children that you participated in the centenary celebrations of one of the world's great works of literature.

In the final chapter of a previous novel, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", Joyce involved Stephen Dedalus in a long debate about aesthetics. His tutor puts to him Aquinas' proposition that "pulchra sunt quae visa placent - beauty is in the eye of the beholder" - and says to him: "You are an artist, are you not, Mr Dedalus? The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is, is another question." Dedalus, or rather Joyce, replies that: "Plato, I believe, said that beauty is the splendour of truth. I don't think that it has a meaning, but the true and the beautiful are akin. Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible; beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible. The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act itself of intellection. The first step in the direction of beauty is to understand the frame and scope of the imagination, to comprehend the act itself of aesthetic apprehension."

It seems to me that this not only sums up the achievement of Joyc's "Ulysses", but also the whole purpose of education and of culture. It presents a challenge to every one of you gathered here today, and I wish you every success if you dare to take on that challenge.

Let us pray: If beauty is indeed the splendour of truth, may each of us receive a portion of that beauty, and that splendour, and that truth. May our imaginations and our intellects be nurtured until they are fully ripe, and may each of us understand the frame and scope of the intellect and the imagination, so that we may climb the ladder of the human soul, and reach its summit. Amen.

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