Tag Archive | poems

Butterflies and points of time

The Lepidopterist

Photo by Nabok. Creative Commons license.

 Vladimir Nabokov, who was a collector of  butterflies as well as an author,  alludes to this butterfly, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) in many of his writings. For example, 

“Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed,/ 

My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest/ 

My Admirable butterfly” (Pale Fire, line 269-271). 

Interviewed about it, Nabokov said “Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from North Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called the ‘Butterfly of Doom’ because it first appeared in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seems to read ‘1881’”. 


The Poet 

It’s not clear when he wrote it, but sometime in his long life (1899-1977), Vladimir Nabokov wrote about a summer rain in 1914 “when the numb fury of verse making first came over me….” 

He was in a pavilion in a park in St. Petersburg, where a thunderstorm had just passed with all those wonderful phenomena that attend the ending of a storm: steaming fields, a rainbow, fast flying clouds, the shimmering of the forest…. 


A moment later my first poem began. What touched it off? I think I know. Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief – the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes: I say “patter” intentionally, for when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip all together in as crude an imitation of the recent downpour as the stanza I was already muttering, resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced for a moment heart and leaf had been one. 

Nabokov's boyhood home in St. Petersburg

The moment passed, but he didn’t stop trying to compose his bit of verse. An encounter with the neighborhood schoolmaster, the singing of a cuckoo, passing awareness of a lost pedometer, the “savor of the grass stalk he was chewing” — all these distractions caused the words of his poem not to seem quite so “lustrous” as they had before, but they all came back again, nearly as glowing and alive as they’d been. 

That magical moment is what writing is about. In a sense, says Nabokov, “all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. Tentacles, not wings, are Apollo’s natural members….” 

In the same piece Nabokov quotes a friend of his on a philosophical point. The scientist, he says “sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time.” 

Vladimir Nabokov

No matter what age we are, odd to say, I think we have many of those “points of time” left to us.




What is poetry?

Somerset Maugham called poetry “the crown of literature.” “The writer of prose.” he said, “can only step aside when the poet passes.” I can argue with many other things he said. He didn’t grow old gracefully. In fact, he turned sour and evil-tempered. But I agree with those particular sentiments one hundred percent.

It’s surprising how many people have tried to say what poetry is. I was going to copy a host of quotations onto this post, but it was too difficult to decide which. Sometimes their sentiments are almost too apparent. We would mostly agree with a fellow named Robert Fitzgerald that “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.” Or enthusiastically with Christopher Fry that “Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement…. says heaven and earth in one word… speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time.”

Other times, the descriptions themselves are like poems. Mary Oliver, for example, said “Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.” I like that. Thinking about it could take months.

Or what about Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

I’ve never liked any of my own attempts to write poetry. I regret them the way I regret my inability to draw or to compose music, and usually blame them on a lack of genius for the art. I did take some poetry classes in college, and had a few famous names as teachers. One of the best known was Muriel Rukeyser, a large sweaty woman with dark hair and smoldering eyes who chain-smoked Parliaments while she lectured.

Rukeyser said that “Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling . . .. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually – that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too – but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.”

That sounds like what I think she was trying to say. But I was callow and a little afraid of her: she taught at a women’s college and we were a mixed bunch of students. I think she was pleased at last to have boys in her class, and had little patience with the distaff rest of us. I didn’t come away from the experience buoyed with confidence.

And then there was Leonard Woolf whose daughter recently wrote a book about him. He almost gave me a D (I’d never had one of those before!) because I simply could not get the hang of writing poems that were also assignments.

I also experienced some well-known poets in seminars and workshops, and one or two in living rooms. Stephen Spender was like a shy blond animal, perhaps a deer or something even larger. Too big for a living room.

George Barker (better known way back then, perhaps) complained that Wallace Stevens’ poetry  was like cake or candy. He didn’t mean it kindly, and since I loved Wallace Stevens I stopped liking George Barker. I never met Stevens: in his working life he was an insurance executive from Connecticut and I don’t think he would have impressed me. But oh, his words!!!

I think perhaps the best thing I learned from the people who tried to tell me something about poetry, for example Marianne Moore, was that it wasn’t necessary to understand something to love it. It wasn’t even necessary to write it. It was, however, very important to read it.

Two more quotations. Stephen Mallarmé said, “It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.” Sometimes, I think that should be the job of all good writing, and if we haven’t accomplished it, perhaps it’s time to be silent.

There’s one last quote that I couldn’t help but love. Said G. K. Chesterton, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

I want to end this post with the remainder of Sally Levy’s

Roonbook of Wild Stuffs, and one more fact about cheese.  Enjoy!

Striving to be nothing at all

Frog eye. Photo by nutmeg 66. Creative Commons.

“How dreary
to be
How Public
like a Frog.”

Ironically, those line are among some of Emily Dickinson’s best known. Her antipathy to fame has never been a popular tendency among artists of any kind, but in the May 2010 Harper’s, there’s an article by Rivka Galchen about another writer whose humility and immense modesty outdistanced hers. His name was Robert Walser and he was one of those 20th century middle European writers I missed when I studied literature.

Born in Switzerland in 1878, by the 1920s he had published many short stories and several novels and was much admired by Kafka. As the market for short pieces began to fall off, his career also declined until he’d stopped publishing altogether. He moved into smaller and smaller apartments in less and less attractive cities, his handwriting shrunk to a miniature code in which he wrote more than two thousand pages of barely decipherable texts on envelopes, calendar pages and other scraps of paper. Not every writer goes on to write in old age. Walser spent the last 27 years of his life in mental institutions.

Writes Galchen:

It was from that final and steady non-employment that Walser claimed finally to abandon the avocation game altogether, with a line now remarkably famous considering that it comes from the least famous canonical writer: ‘I’m not here to write. I’m here to be mad.’

Not surprisingly, I was inclined to feel badly for the man. “It’s tough to think of another writer who strove so precisely for next to nothing at all, for becoming near nameless, though, given the long view, he failed at that too.” Rivka believes that “the paradox is that by becoming so small, so quiet, so penciled, Walser became vast, indelible.” The essay gets complicated and subtle, and you must read it for yourself if you care. I have my own points to make.

What surprised me at was that I found myself suddenly not unhappy, but glad for him. In a world where people compete to tell any and all things about themselves, things that in past years their parents would have struggled to keep private at all costs; in a world where people’s sexual compulsions, their most disgusting habits and their most pathetic failures are grist for celebrity TV, reality TV and some mixed breed of the two; where Dr. Phil, bless him, has turned us all into voyeurs-it was exciting to read about someone who strove to be nameless and invisible, someone with secrets, and more unimportantly perhaps, unimportant secrets!

Walser wrote: To contemplate a little foot for four years on end. What a great achievement.

Baby foot. Photo by PAS. Creative Commons.

And then I began to think, at least a little, which is probably about right, about all the small unimportant things and how important they are. Emily Dickinson made great poetry out of them. Robert Walser made some kind of literature out of them – I don’t pretend to understand quite what kind. In what have come to be called his “microscripts, there is a piece about beer coasters written on the back of an art print and not published in his lifetime. We meet ‘silly beerglass mats’ that were filled with radiant joyousness at seeing themselves employed to playful ends.’ The coasters are nothing but also animate; they’re insignificant and yet also ecstatic as servants of the Lord….”

Reminds me of the poems my friend Sally used to write on cocktail napkins. The napkins were frequently left to find their way in the world. They might; they might not.

Art can be awfully serendipity.

Fashioning tombs or poems

When I turned 63, I didn’t feel old, but I knew time was beginning to run out and, having always meant to write a great literary novel, I started working at it as if I were 20. Mostly, no one paid much attention, which was just as well since I needed practice. Now, at 70, I’m still writing but it’s getting harder for people to take me seriously, even though I’m getting better. I mean, it does seem to be the case that most successful writers started years earlier than I did. If they’re still doing it at 70, people marvel.

But, at the same time, being old has left me no choice but to write. As if the day-to-day facade of me were a garden gate and the lifetime of memories and feelings behind it a lush jungle of a garden that can no longer be contained. As if the objects and events of my past are souled and beg to be resuscitated and let loose from my muddled brain. You know. Something like that.

Still, the most extraordinary thing about old age is its closeness to death. It takes guts to be old. Does the nearness of death inform everything the aging artist does? On some level, are we all like Ferdinand Cheval, the French outsider artist, who, refused official permission to be buried in the vault he’d prepared in his Palais idéal, the magnificent product of 33 years of labor, spent eight more years building another, a burying place for himself? Two years after he finished his Tomb of Silence and Endless Rest, at the age of 88, he died and was entombed there.

Le Tombeau du Facteur Cheval, 4 November 2006, Wikilug

A fine ending to an artist’s life—to find rest in his work. Or, for those of us who aren’t actually making tombs, consider this from poet May Sarton:

I have always looked forward to old age, and the reason, as the poems make clear, is that I have known so many great old people. Well, I looked forward to old age wrongly because I imagined it would be serene and uncluttered, and rightly because it would make it possible for me to grow and to create poems and books that have growth in them. I am convinced that we are on earth to make our souls. And to that extent old age, of course, is the most thrilling time of all. Because we are coming close to an end, this conviction, that the making of a soul is of paramount importance, is very much with us.