- In these poems, you will find Beecher's damn truth and, I've a hunch, ours, as well. I'm not certain how to describe his style. At one moment, he's Huck Finn, grown-up, and long after having lit out for the territories, telling us like it is. At another moment, he has the fire of an old-time preacher lining a hymn. Always, it's hot with passion and a belief, that this world can be a better place for all those anonymous millions who make the wheels go round. And that's the damn truth.
Beecher wrote verse that slammed the foundations of the American consciousness about our own society, and as a result suffered strong social consequences personally, like being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and losing various teaching jobs on various occasions. His poems, and also his prose writings, illustrate, according to Brown, in his editor's Introduction, "the idea of America as the great experiment in democracy gone awry:. As well, Frank Adams wrote of Beecher in a 1981 article in Southern Exposure magazine: "Like Isaiah, or Bunyan, and even Sandburg for a time, his poems were for average people. Beecher seemed to know instinctively that poetry was not just for the critics, but that people used it in one way or another every day not to flatter but to survive, to express the uncommon or mysterious in their own, often tragic, lives. The poet's task was to listen, to record, then to chant his poetry".
Beecher's Report to the Stockholders (published in 1925) is a nine-part poem that carries a double meaning in each anecdotal section, while piling on examples of unfairness in the work environment. Robert Meredith, in his article Homage to a Subversive : Notes Toward Explaining John Beecher, from the American Poetry Review, writes, "As much as one-fourth of Beecher's poetry is in this mode which, with its invariable ironic structure showing the discrepancy between the official report and actual happening, is not my favorite Beecher. All the same, especially taken as a whole, it is a powerful, highly controlled writing which reveals and identifies with a class and a world unfamiliar to most readers of contemporary poetry". Regardless of whether it is Meredith's favorite or not, the powerful irony is there. The title indicates that the poem is a fictitious account of life in the company for those whose money represents the capital, but who are not involved in the daily operations inside the company's walls. The poem is certainly drawn from Beecher's own experiences as a worker in steel mills, as the son of an executive for U.S. Steel, and as a government social worker helping poor farmers. Adams's biographical comments relay : "For the next six years [1919-1925], his life was a mixture of academic vagabondage punctuated with sweat-streaked stints at the faces of open hearth furnaces in the Birmingham mills".
His poems are the culmination of his sympathies with the working man and his rejection of his father's lifestyle, relying on the reader to take the irony like bait. There are no overt statements, and no crashing indictments. The accusations against corporations, against the wealthy business owners, and against the system are heavy and subtle. To a certain extent, a knowledge of Beecher's overall biography and agenda help in the reading, but are not necessary. The statements tend to speak for themselves as he presents us with a new view of our fellow man. Other prime examples are In Egypt Land, a long poem about an episode in Notasulga, Alabama, when white landowners began harassing and even attacking local sharecroppers because blacks and whites were forming a union together to improve their conditions, and Peanuts, another long poem about a commune in Americus, Georgia, that was attacked by locals for treating blacks equally.
Beecher's writings won him few popularity contests. He is enigmatic in many ways: a social rebel from a wealthy family, a post-Eliot poet whose work is for common people, and a man who faced threw himself head-long into difficult situations seemingly on purpose. He also, perhaps, wrote poetry for people who didn't read poetry. Maxwell Geismar, in his Introduction to 1968's Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest and Prophecy by Beecher, called him, "a poet who speaks [common people's] language, and whose poetry in turn can be understood by these people". He also called his work, "so proud, angry, rebellious; so full of moral dignity and so rocklike". However, others, like Marjorie Perloff, were not so keen on his work; in her article Tradition and the Individual Talent: A Review, published in 1976 in the Southern Humanities Review, she wrote: "Beecher's verse is, however, not poetry at all," and in the same article, "Beecher's characters are generally sentimental cardboard figures, and his solutions to America's problems are touchingly simplistic". Her words are a stark contrast to Meredith's assessments in the same year: "powerful, highly controlled writing" or Adams' words five years later: "His most enduring lyrics are about the downtrodden's fight for economic justice, human dignity and political fre'dom". Not everyone took Beecher's bait. There is a lot of debate over whether or not Beecher is a viable 20th century poet. Perloff seems to say no; Adams, Marsh, and Meredith seem to say yes. I side with the latter to say that no one doubts his volatility, nor his ability to cut deep down to the "damn truth" as he saw it.
This one refrain, the core idea of "Easter 1916", is an emblem that represents a subjective reaction of the poet to his culture, an ambivalent reaction, to Irish national uproar.
The birth of a "terrible beauty" cannot, then, be separate from the idea of radical change: "all changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born". What we witness in this poem is a poet's confusion when deeply rooted traditional ideologies are uprooted, in a process represented by its historical equivalent, "The Up-rising". Yeats was well aware that his tradition, his ideology's home - his das Heimliche - was over. The uncanny complication we feel when hearing the phrase "terrible beauty" is not then particularly surprising; with the loss of traditional meaning, it is uncomely; W. B. Yeats has found himself faced with spiritual eviction - his das Unheimliche. A normalcy of "Polite meaningless words" changes to a paralyzing shrillness that seems to come with overthrowing transitions.
What was once a living stream, its change continuous and natural, is now disturbed by what is perceived as stubbornness, a stone-like commitment to one political cause.
"Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream."
With the reference to seasonal fluidity in "The Waste Land" where spring - a typical time of positive movement and change - is met by paralysis and decay. Despite it being spring, Eliot writes,
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water..."
(T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land", l. 19-25)
In "Easter 1916", Yeats (like Eliot) uses the universal paradigms of permanence and flux, in the form of stone and water, to show how tradition's flow has been disturbed by a headstrong single-mindedness - a nationalistic political ideal. Yeats, rightly or wrongly, paints such unchanging ideals as futile when he surrounds them with the growth and movement of a multitude of natural processes ("Easter, 1916", l. 40-56).
What we witness then in "Easter 1916" is the same thing we perceive in "The Waste Land" - the sense of an unwillingness to grow, an unwillingness to be renewed by spring's call. One prefers the death of winter than the rending pains of growth. Though we might accuse Yeats of being that changeless death of winter (in the form of his traditionalism), Yeats sees it otherwise. This idea is underwritten by Yeats' central refrain proclaiming radical "change" and the birth of a "terrible beauty". Paradoxically, it is the very changelessness of the rebel's ideals that cause such radical change. Historically, on Easter 1916, Dublin erupted into violence - civilization divided into barbaric confrontations. The radical change is for Yeats a reality of radical decay caused by an unwillingness to change or to grow.
Still, historically, such barbarism continued, and as it persevered, Yeats' ambivalent connection between a sense of terror and a sense of civilization was investigated in his subsequent works.
Yeats re-evokes the metaphor of water in "The Rose Tree" where the sustaining life force of "the living stream" might "Make the green come out again/ And spread on every side/ And shake the blossom from the bud/ To be the garden's pride". But such water is nowhere to be found, and again, the desert planes of "The Waste Land" are evoked, drawing the same spiritual drought, and the need for the redemptive element of Water, that is, renewal. In "The Rose Tree", the lack of water leads to a consideration of blood (one thinks "Water into Wine; wine into Blood of Christ") and the idea of blood sacrifice. The fact that Yeats has "Pearse" suggest this in the poem distances the poet, and allows for the poet's continued - and probably genuine - ambivalence. In context with our question then, it seems the barbaric act of self-sacrifice to a loving/vampiric "motherland" is in fact offered as a way to nurture a budding civilization. The idea of violent revolution in a time of spiritual drought is all done in the name of a new, "up-rising", civil nation. The central idea is that the foundation of civilization is sometimes founded by uncivilized acts, and is found in much of Yeats' poetry.
In a perfect balance, Yeats in a way also re-evokes the metaphor of the river-disturbing stone in "On a Political Prisoner". Compare
"That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill."
Which was associated with the stone amid the flowing waters, with
"Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?"
The stone in "Easter 1916" had represented single-mindedness, even stubbornness, or "hearts with one purpose alone", and coincide with "a bitter, an abstract thing".
We see now that Yeats has gone further since "Easter 1916". Now the crowd - the mob - has been incorporated into the equation as a catalyst for "her" mind's bitterness. "The Crowd" had become a major issue in Yeats' time, in philosophy and psychology, and Yeats had in no small way ignored the masses. He offered a popular theatre to the people of Ireland; but, Yeats quickly became disillusioned with such an ideal -
"...the dream of my early manhood, that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false; though it may be we can achieve it for some small circle of men and women, and there leave it till the moon bring round its century."
Yeats abandoned the idea of mass politics, and retreated to the comforts of his own close group of literary acquaintances; indeed, one may say that Yeats' poetry from this point on constitutes a lengthy process of complete retreat: a retreat from the Modern Age, the body, from life as lived (politically / practically speaking). "Sailing to Byzantium", a poem looming in the poet's future, holds within its words just such a reality of Yeats' retirement from mass-politics. However, in "The Leaders of the Crowd", Yeats still offers his unique wisdom - "truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone/ and there alone." That lamp will reappear in "Sailing to Byzantium" but it will be no "singing school" this time, but rather, a study of "unageing monuments of the intellect". It seems at this point that the barbarity (sometimes) necessary in creating a society or civilization has forced Yeats-as-poet towards Byzantine past in a form of nostalgia, but, immediately, when we reach "The Second Coming", we see it also pushes him into the future in the form of prophecy.
In "The Second Coming" we receive Yeats' philosophy of history:
"urning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
What, indeed, can we say about this? The four lines chime universal - they appeal to a grand pattern, a cosmological vision. Plus, this is the second coming, so eternal recurrence is added in to the conceptual cocktail - with a dialectical twist - we have, according to Yeats, reached an antithetical moment, a reversal or trans-valuation of values. The poet's Hegelianism seems clear. By now the D
The facts are that over 70 years ago, the poet was on the SS Orizaba, a ship traveling 275 miles north east of Havana from Mexico to New York. It was there he drank copious amounts of alcohol, and after several violent outbursts, had to be locked in his cabin. It is said he was in such a fierce state that the door had to be nailed shut. Somehow, against all odds Crane managed to escape and was seen heading for the sailor's quarters in search of "the secret oar and petals of love" which translates from Crane-speak as a hefty bout of buggering. He was found later that night beaten up and relieved of his valuables.
The next morning, he visited his companion and sometime lover Peggy Cowley, who at the time was trying to "rescue" him from the terrible affliction that he happened to be attracted to people of the same sex. His last words to her were "I'm not going to make it dear, I'm utterly disgraced." With this he left, and was seen at the boat's stern where he approached the railing in an overcoat under the midday sun. He removed this and, in his pajamas, leapt over the side and was last seen swimming strongly towards the horizon. Lifeboats were sent out to search for him but returned empty-handed. His body was never found. The ship's captain, a man called Blackadder (clearly not skilled in the art of bereavement diplomacy), said, "If the propellers didn't grind him to mincemeat then the sharks would have got him immediately."
Though it is undoubtedly the deed that has immortalized the poet, all his work is unfairly viewed in its shadow. Certainly, it played its part in telling the story of who he was, but it shouldn't tell the whole story.
If you are looking to find out where he was born and all that Catcher in the Rye sort of crap, all I can tell you is that he was born in Cleveland, Ohio into a wealthy middle class background. Through the manufacture of maple syrup, his father made a fortune but lost it all in the Great Depression. The young Crane did not have a happy upbringing, later writing to his mother: "it's time for you to realize that my youth has been a rather bloody battleground for yours and father's sex life and troubles." Obviously taking it seriously, he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists but thankfully survived. Whether his upbringing led to his poetic inclination to unify themes, to prevent conflict and separation, as psychologists have claimed, is either the truth or psychobabble according to your view of these self-absorbed analytical times. Rejecting the business path that his father attempted to coerce him into, he struggled to hold down the monotony of a steady job, the sure sign of a genius or a rogue or both. He drifted into New York and, mesmerized by the city and filled with mad ambition, found a cheap flat at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn above the harbour, above the sound of the river, the passing boats and the fights and intrigues of the waterfront. From the window where he sat his desk, he could see the granite gothic arches and the steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. His muse stared in at him as he struggled to think of something to write. Later he found out that his window was the very one from which Washington Roebling, the bridge's engineer, had watched its construction.
Intoxicated by his hero Edgar Allen Poe's assertion that the thirst of the poet was that "of the moth for the stars", he set about to try and bring the wonderment of WBaudelaire enthused, or to reach "the rational derangement of the senses" of Rimbaud. Or they may have simply been excuses to get his rocks off and get pished.
Indeed Crane has often been called the American Rimbaud, but though he was similar in his incendiary personality he was not quite the poetic revolution that young Arthur was. Nevertheless he searched for "divine madness" and found it fleetingly in some remarkable works. It was not an easy life. He regularly struggled with poverty, trying to extract money from his parents like teeth from a drunkard, and suffered artistic frustration, resorting to throwing his typewriter from his window onto the pavement below. Staggering whiskey-sodden through the streets in search of a willing sailor he'd shout, "I am Baudelaire, I am Marlowe, I am Whitman" into the night. His only problem was that despite his calls he remained Hart Crane, and for him, that wasn't quite good enough.
At more successful productive times he would sit writing in an alcohol-induced frenzy, listening to the same song over and over again on full blast from his Victrola, and when finished, he would leave to go down into the city under the pseydonym Mile Drayton, where he'd cruise the rough spots looking to get laid.
One reason why he echoes Rimbaud is, like the demented Frenchman, he was the scourge of the intelligentsia. "Who is this young poet?" the fashionistas would ask and, "Can we have him at our next dinner party?" And sure enough he'd turn up and they would never invite him back. For this alone, I will always toast the man's memory. Oh and almost as an afterthought, his work was also quite good.
After much time and effort, his central work The Bridge was eventually forged. The Brooklyn Bridge, the "terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge," would be a symbol which would unify all the disparate elements of what he thought America was. The native, the colonizer, science and art and business and technology, the modern and the ancient into "One Song, One bridge of fire!"
Amongst this and the follow up White Buildings, there are some stunning pieces of writing. Metaphors such as "adagios of islands" gliding past slowly and gracefully like the melody of a string quartet blissfully recreates ocean travel. Nor was it all positive and idealistic. The lines
"Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan"
refer to both the individual submerged by the sheer mass of the city and Crane himself the displaced homosexual.
There is no doubt he wrote some tripe, but search through his writing and you'll be rewarded. The most admirable characteristic of his work was the fact that he sought to celebrate the world and what life could be with "rapturous intensity" and in doing so, put his neck on the chopping block for all the arch miserabilists who earn their living trying to fool us into believing that life isn't worth living. The fact that it was unfashionable, at a time when most poets revealed, and reveled in, how brutal and terrible the world was made it refreshing. His novel approach was basically "enough moaning, we require new sensations" and like the futurists of Europe, he believed we needed a new poetry for these new times. So rather than write of old women sitting drinking tea talking about Michelangelo, he'd write about the mighty Charlie Chaplin and suspension bridges and skyscrapers. He summed up the situation perfectly when he said, "The poetry of negation i s beautiful, alas too dangerously so for one of my mind. But I am trying to break away from it. Perhaps this is useless, perhaps it is silly but one does have joys. The vocabulary of damnations has been developed at the expense of these other mood. Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!" In this way his work may be the antidote to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", an upper to Eliot's downer and his America a fresh start as Europe collapsed.
The Bridge, somewhat a breath of fresh air, received critical acclaim. A lone voice, influenced by unfashionable Elizabethan poets as well as a desire to write the epic of the metropolis, he belonged to no school, no -ism, no following, and he is perhaps all the better for it. His natural allies would only come after he had died. Tragically, he is very close to the same trajectory of the Beats, merging supposedly high discourse and low street talk, celebrating bebop and swing and getting high and seeking to find out what America was or could be. This is tragic because perhaps he was a Beat born too early and was set adrift on his own, spurned by the establishment and without comrades to rely on.
Remember the words of his quoted earlier, "Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!" They could have come from the mouth of Keroauc himself. Think of the similarities: the homoeroticism, the jazz, the searching for boundless beauty through travel and intoxication. Think of On the Road ending in Mexico or Burroughs in Tangiers and it is all too easy to sense the presence of the ghost of Hart Crane, or at least the echoes of his lonesome paths. Perhaps he was a Beat born too early or the Beats were Hart Cranes born too late.
It is tempting to borrow his own iconography and say that Crane was the bridge from Walt Whitman to the Beats. Sure enough, I can imagine his lines: "We have seen the moon in lonely alleys make a grail of laughter of an empty ash can" taking flight over "the Negro streets at dawn" and their "angel headed hipsters" and deep into Howl.
To leave it at that would be a disservice to the man. For he deserves the respect to be seen as important in his own right--an end rather than a means to an end--a "was" rather than a "might have been". Due to The Bridge, Crane won a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and with the money, he set sail for Mexico where he intended to research an epic about Cortes' conquests of the Americas. There he rented a villa next to the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, who recalled that he was charming company except (and this is a big except) when he reached "that point of drunkenness when he cursed all things; the moon, the air we breathed, the pool of water with its two small ducks. He didn't hate us...he hated and feared himself." This highlighted an increasingly prevalent part of his character--a self-destructive self-loathing--which is not something that should be fed by those distanced enough to romanticize about the tortured artist, that most voyeuristic of myths. It should be remembered that self-disgust is self-attention and is narcissistic, an obsession with selfhood which should never be celebrated as a virtue. This was a human being trying and failing to endure, and it was a pitiful sight.
While in Mexico, David Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, painted his portrait but chose to portray him with down turned eyes because he said there was too much desperation in them. Crane's reaction was to slice the painting to ribbons and drink a bottle of iodine in another botched attempt to kill himself. You could speak all day about how he wrestled with his repressed sexuality, and he undoubtedly did, but to blame all his troubles on this would be a cop-out, for the man positively adored the act of homosexual sex and his character in almost every aspect of his life, not just sex, was leaning towards manic depression.
Perhaps like his descendant Keroauc, his search for happiness and beauty gave him a purpose but no contentment. Perhaps all art is, as Wilde admitted, the telling of beautiful lies. By the time he left Mexico he wasn't believing his own poetry anymore and wrote only one poem, "The Broken Tower" where he lamented each "desperate choice," all transitory in nature. He left when the money (and the inspiration and ambition) ran out and headed back to an America that seemed determined to repeat the mistakes Europe had made. It was not quite the fresh start he had envisioned.
Suffering from hallucinations due to his alcohol intake and having left poetry behind (or it having left him behind), there was only one end for the man and, having written for so long about the sea, there was only one means of doing it.
There are quite a few reasons for reading Crane. One is because of his extraordinary life or the admiration for those who follow their passions and live their lives precariously on the edge. That stunningly beautiful paragraph in On the Road:
"the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,"
...the paragraph that probably cost Neal Cassady his life attempting to live up to it, and probably cost Keroauc's his running away from it--that paragraph that could just as well have been written about Crane.
Or you could read his works just to see what he had to say about the world while he was here.
History can be generous or traitorous to even the greatest, the most untouchable of writers. Time can make Nobel Prize winners redundant and can inject new life, fresh significance into the previously unknown. History has been rightly kind to the likes of Miller, Camus and Gunter Grass, it has not been so compassionate towards Kipling, Forster or Wodehouse. History doesn't know what to do with W.B. Yeats. Doomed to be consigned to the backs of now defunct bank notes or rarely read anthologies his early romantic works, filled with faeries and fair maidens, have not aged well and his later modernist works appear submerged by the larger ripples of Joyce and Auden. So there is the curious situation where he is held in high esteem, put on a pedestal and then promptly ignored. He has become a legend and as with all legends somehow in being elevated he is relegated, his works promoted in suffocating syllabi seem the stuff of historians, of leather elbow patches and tweed suits, accessed from the highest shelf only through the use of wheeled ladders in dusty libraries. No doubt the futurists were right when they said all critics are useless and dangerous, but only criticism can undo the damage criticism has done. It would do Yeats a great favor, to rescue him from this sterile prison of respectability, if his life and works were truthfully dissected without fear of desecrating his status as a sacred icon. For then at least he would be human and, for better or worse, his works would be alive.
Yeats was a fool, a privileged, talented one, but a fool nonetheless. He held some of the most contemptible and stupid views that can be held, views that weaved together through the years with eugenics and such frauds as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to end under the railway arch entrance to Auschwitz. And yet it is hard not to feel a deep sympathy for a tragic Don Quixote-esque figure who was doomed not because he was born into the wrong time, as has been claimed, but because he clung to a time and set of values that never really existed to begin with.
An avid supporter of the Gaelic Revival, W.B. Yeats promoted the use of the Irish language and the reabsorbtion of Celtic mythology into the modern consciousness. His early poems dealt with traditional subject matters such as fairytales ("The Man Who Dreamed Of Faeryland"), hero-worship ("Cuchulain Comforted") and Irish places ("The Lake Isle Of Innisfree," "Under Ben Bulben"). Their lyricism and rhythms suggest that they are somehow musical in character and it is no surprise that many of his poems have been incorporated into Irish folk songs. And some of them are supreme examples of the right words in the right order, that simple but elusive definition of successful poetry. To appreciate his talent, simply read aloud "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Wandering of Aengus" or "Who goes with Fergus?" as James Joyce did to his dying younger brother. Along with Lady Gregory, he was founder of the notoriously progressive Abbey Theatre that brought Ireland screaming into the twentieth century. All these acts sought to create a cultural renaissance, to revitalize the Irish national identity after the death of its language as the national tongue and the subjugation of its people. Following this philosophy on its logical path, he became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a militant elite band of rebels fighting for liberation and democracy or "international terrorists" in today's rhetoric) and celebrated the heroes of the Easter Rising for their sacrifice. The "terrible beauty" of their martyrdom simultaneously attracted and repulsed him but he did not necessarily share the rebel's sentiments or their will to power. He respected them from afar, behind the security that an aristocratic poet could possess, and to his credit he made no bones about this; often the issue of involvement and the turning of words into deeds gripped his conscience. Undoubtedly he was, as Edward Said referred, "a poet of decolonization" particularly when he called for protests against the Dublin celebrations of Queen Victoria's jubilee and deeply opposed the liberal's use of World War One to delay Irish Home Rule. This led him to perceptively equate the Irish situation with the international effects of imperialism--"all through the Abyssinian war my sympathies were with the Abyssinians"--rather than with his fellow Europeans (the Italian empire). He could see the bigger picture and the fact that the Irish issue struggle was a small part of something larger and internationalist in character.
Realizing, however, that ideology could ruin life ("too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart") Yeats saw his role not as a propagandist or apologist but as a witness who must simply record history as it evolves: "our part to murmur name upon name". Yeats never accepted the extremist view that the freedom of Ireland justified any and all means, for he retained an individual conscience too complex to be constrained by any doctrinaire ideology. Indeed he actively opposed the unquestioning militant strand of republicanism, berating Countess Markievicz (the Sinn Fein female MP and first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, though she abstained from taking her seat) for becoming a demagogue, "Blind and leader of the blind, drinking the foul ditch where they lie." Intelligence, Yeats believed, was corrupted by fanatical hostility and he never ceased associating "violent ways" with "ignorant men." His conscience at play, he worried, "Did that play of mine send out, certain men the English shot?" about "Cathleen Ni Hoolihan (1902)", his ode to the female personification of Ireland. Thus he stands as an Irish cultural nationalist rather than strictly a political one, for he despised the self-defeating Catholic streak in Republicanism, which sought merely to swap slavery from London for slavery from Rome or Dublin, supporting James Connolly's assertion that the puritans among the revolutionaries were "seeking to empty a barrel of rotten apples just to fill it with rotten pears."
During his life and throughout his works, Yeats was a steadfast defender of free speech and freedom of thought. To his eternal credit, he remained unceasingly loyal to Oscar Wilde and Parnell, whilst the Irish establishment hounded them ("Can someone there recall the Cretan barb that pierced a star?" and "we devoured his heart" respectively), believing that sexuality was a private matter, beyond the reach or concern of the state or the public. This was a man at his most fearless and admirable, using his position to bravely give voice to his conscience even when in a minority of one. At the Abbey Theatre he championed Sean O Casey's "Plough And The Stars" against rioting puritans who saw it as mocking the blood sacrifice martyrdom of the Easter Rebels. He condemned the riots at Synge's "Playboy Of The Western World" that had erupted because of the improper mention of woman's petticoats. He personally addressed an insurgent audience to boos and jeers, "You have disgraced yourself again, is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?" a question that was courageously asked in front of a potential lynch mob. Even more than the State he saw the mob ("a frenzied crowd") as the enemy of free speech and regarded democracy as a form of dictatorship of the majority, a majority easily led and easily hoodwinked. Relishing his self-appointed role of defender of free speech against the conforming philistine crowds, he challenged them "Come, fix upon me that accusing eye, I thirst for accusation" and branded them "the contagion of the throng" and "rats," who had driven their liberator Parnell to an early grave. Eventually, he became the figurehead of the conflict against Ireland 's swerve down the repressive narrow-minded clerical path, declaring, "An ignorant form of Catholicism is my enemy." In a sense, he stood up for the values of those remarkable fellows who had died on Easter 1916 (and indeed on 1798) and against the mediocre who had profited in their absence. He also predicted accurately the long-term consequences of basing Irish Civil Law on authoritarian Catholicism; "If you show this country to be governed by catholic ideas alone you will never get the north. You will put a wedge in this country". This tolerance led him to oppose compulsory Gaelic, fight censorship and support women's right to work. In terms of sexuality, his lines such as "I offer to love's play my dark declivities" (boldly spoken from a female perspective), in the repressive Irish climate became declarations of defiance.
The pinnacle of his laissez-faire political stance remains his stand in the Irish Senate asserting the right to divorce. Adopting the Dissenter stance, he celebrated the Protestant tradition (later to harden and bitter with Unionism) of rebellion and tolerance ("We are the people of Parnell and Swift, we have created the best of this land's political intelligence") echoing Milton's phrase, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience" a freedom that Yeats, like Milton, regarded as "above all other liberties". He reminded the hypocritical Senate members of the infidelities of their heroes, recalling "O' Connell and Parnell" by name and asked, "Should their statues be tore down?" and declared to the bishops and their political stooges, "When the iceberg melts [Ireland] will become a tolerant society" and "your victory will be brief and your defeat final." In the realm of private individual freedom, Yeats was very much a brave radical freethinker even though his idealization of Maud Gonne and his unrequited love for her spawned many a poem but left him emotionally in tatters. Following the logic of Yeats' outlook on personal freedom and privacy, you could come to the conclusion that Yeats' complex, often deliberately unsuccessful and often analyzed romantic life was none of anybody's goddamned business and you would probably be right.
Ironically, considering his defiant defense of personal free will against judgment, in the sphere of public politics, Yeats toyed with Fascist ideas about class, eugenics and democracy. Following aristocratic tradition, he was liberal concerning private sexual and artistic freedoms, freedoms rationed only to those who were by accident of birth born into privileged enough backgrounds to enjoy them, but was ruthlessly autocratic about public freedom and equality. He supported the death penalty and floggings and voted for the repression of republican irregular dissidents after the assassination of Kevin O Higgins (Vice President and Minister Of Justice). In support of draconian measures he at least attempted an explanation, "One does not vote for treason bills out of hatred for anyone but because one believes they are necessary to protect harmless people against anxiety, danger, poverty perhaps death." This substantiated his belief that the death of romantic Ireland was caused by those "who fumble in a greasy till." He favored authoritarian government as a bulwark against the anarchy of human nature and the omnipotent threat of the lower classes. A disciple of Hobbes' "Leviathan", he retained the traditional conservative dim view of humanity as fallen, corrupt and so in need of protection and pre-emptive acts of getting your retaliation in first. This intense traditionalism included seeing the Celtic past through rose-tinted spectacles as a utopia lost ("And ancient Ireland knew it all,") to the extent Orwell accused him of "throwing overboard whatever good the past two thousand years have achieved." It leads you to think that despite his obvious literary talent Yeats' snobbish upbringing had perhaps made him too distanced from ordinary people and the distance made him go slightly soft in the head.
Yeats reflected his distaste for the working classes by associating democracy with mob rule and regarding politics, rather pompously, simply as the battlefield between the educated versus the uneducated rabble. The Russian Revolution, and the precedent for social rebellion it had encouraged, consumed him with terror and as with most bourgeoisie, the fear of communism caused him to swing politically to the security of the far right. He saw the uprisings--the defiant saying of enough's enough by the common man and woman--not as an admirable stirring of the human spirit, but as a threat to apparently god-given status and wealth, a threat to the world of myths, the imaginary worlds of grateful peasants content with their lot and honorable aristocrats he had conjured within his head. This is reflected in "The Second Coming" where "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood dimmed tide is loosed," the best" (the aristocrats) "lack all conviction while the worst" (the proles) "are full of passionate intensity." And the chilling lines "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" Thus the demands of the working people for common human decency in their treatment had apocalyptic connotations for Yeats, a man easily taken in by talk of ouija boards, seances and Masonic secret lodges. This led him to lend irrational support for fascists like Mussolini and Eoin O'Duffy's homegrown Blueshirt equivalent. He often proudly quoted Mussolini: "We will trample upon the decomposing body of the goddess of liberty" and future generations for Yeats would have "for their task, not the widening of liberty but the recovery from its errors." He went so far as to call Fascism "the best modern way" and claimed the Fascists found their "eloquence upon knowledge". George Orwell was his most perceptive critic when he attacked Yeats' naivety: "[Yeats] fails to see that the new authoritarian civilization will not be aristocratic. It will be ruled by anonymous millionaires, shiny bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters." Yeats struggled to see that he belonged not to the chivalrous Victorian age of the aristocracy but the all-consuming nihilistic totalitarian age of the Fascists. In fact, the chivalrous age, which he desperately clung to, had never existed to begin with, filled as it was with exploitation and poverty of which he was all too blissfully ignorant.
Though his interest in Fascism was a mere flirtation (as with Eliot, Pound and the Futurists) he retained many of the characteristics of Fascist thought. He called for the abolition of parliamentary government to be replaced by a hierarchical state ruled by "the ablest," rather than the most popular. His opinion of women was distinctly anti-feminist and patriarchal and he wished his daughter to grow up "courteous rather than clever", denying women intellectual ability: "an intellectual hatred is the worst so let her think opinions are accursed." "May she become a flourishing hidden tree" effectively summarizes Yeats' belief that written language belongs to men and women's duty is to remain obedient and silent, one step on the road to Children, Church and Kitchen.
Yeats' ideas on eugenics are perhaps his most extreme and irrational views. Adopting the malevolent Fascist ideas about racial superiority and class supremacy, he attacked the "degenerate" working classes and evoked Scottish myths of disabled women and children being buried alive for the common good "lest the whole nation should be injured or corrupted". Interestingly, these babblings went strangely quiet when his health began to deteriorate and he grew older and frailer. He went on to conclude, with no evidence, that "the caste system has saved Indian intellect" and "the real danger" to civilization "is if there is not a world war" to thin the herd. Whilst Yeats' earlier flirtation with Fascism can be excused as a combination of aristocratic snobbery, fear of communism and contempt for democracy, his eugenics ideas are particularly discomforting. It is worth noting though that such ideas were the intellectual norm at the time and though repulsive, Yeats had no knowledge of the depths to which eugenics would take mankind. Indeed Winston Churchill summed up the intellectual climate at the time when he proposed in a government White Paper, with little opposition, that "100,000 moral degenerates be sterilized and placed in labour camps to prevent the decline of the British Empire." Yeats' eugenics ideas, for example, were the standard intellectual ideas of the time held by many (for example H.G. Wells, Jack London, George Bernard Shaw). This does not make them right; popularity is no excuse for acquiescing in blind ignorance, but it makes them at least that bit easier to understand. Thus Yeats' beliefs, while immoral and inexcusable, are more a product of ineptitude than genuine hatred. Unfortunately, it was such popular ideas that aided the ascension of the Third Reich and the resulting Final Solution. And ignorance is no defense to history.
Yeats at his most admirable was an eloquent Irish cultural nationalist and a perceptive skeptic of colonialism. His involvement with political republicanism was always tempered by his Protestant Libertarian streak; his distaste for blind militarism and his opposition to the narrow-minded Catholic establishment are always evident in his work. In a cultural sense, he is an undoubted link in the noble dissenting republican lineage from Wolfe Tone and Roger Casement to the Irish poets of today (Tom Paulin, the late John Hewitt, Seamus Heaney) who reject the religion and race swindle and instead pursue a non-sectarian humanist Ireland. Hopefully, this points a direction independent of the yuppie economics and the patriotic sleight of hands that have defined the modern Irish body-politik. His passion for free speech and the right to sexual and artistic expression resulted in his loyal defense of Wilde and Parnell and his courageous defenses of art to rioting mobs at the Abbey Theatre, and are acts that, even without his poetry, should enshrine his place in history and show him to be a character worth investigating. When we look at the dark side of Yeats and his flirtation with Fascism, we should be careful to avoid judging for we look at history with the benefit of hindsight, forgetting that when Yeats spoke of admiring Fascism he knew nothing of the death camps. His views may have been distasteful, imbecilic even, but he died before they would have become disgraceful. While he may have chosen the wrong side at times, at least he was never apathetic. His opinions, however wrong, at least implied that he cared about things enough to formulate an opinion.
Only the hardest of hearts would crucify a man misled and foolish, a product of his environment who delighted in the politically incorrect without knowing that to do so was to support genocide, whose flaw was naivety, but who bore no malice in his soul. Indeed, some day in the future we may be judged ourselves to have collaborated in the insanity of today's intellectual climate.
When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, Yeats lost the theme that had been his muse politically, but importantly he came to realize that he had always been a poet and never a politician. In 1937 he wrote "I am no Nationalist except in Ireland for passing reasons; State and Nation are the work of intellect and when you consider what comes before and after them they are, as Victor Hugo said of something or other, not worth the blade of grass God gives for the nest of a linnet." His true inspiration had always been and would become increasingly spiritual and metaphysical questions. He underwent a late renaissance when he questioned his own mortality, his age and the tension between his undimmed passions and his aging body in poems such as "After long silence," "Among School Children" and "When you are old and full of sleep." They are marked by their glorious refusal to betray his youth and his passion, which could not be separated from his being even by time, and they mark the point where he blissfully left politics to the gossips and the blackguards and the Machiavellis.
I began this essay determined to attack the man's character and end it determined to stand in his defense. How can you judge a man who wrote the following lines?
"Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends."
The point is he lived, he died and he left a lot of stuff behind that benefits humanity and enriches, deepens and heightens the joys of being alive and the question arises what gives us the right to judge him as a person beyond what he left behind when he left this world?
For is it not such contradictions and mistakes, that litter his life, that which makes us human?
Or am I talking shite?
When he died in France, far from the Ireland that was "no place for old men" the Nazis, those whom he had admired years earlier, occupied France and ordered that his body be dug up and thrown into a mass grave. After the war the Irish government requested his remains to be sent home. Eventually, after much diplomatic negotiations and awkward silences they received a coffin. The odds that even one of the bones are his are very, very remote. It is an ironic metaphor, fitting, but also deeply sad, that this aloof figure should rest in a mass grave somewhere in France, and under his favored resting place, beneath the beautiful plateau of his beloved Ben Bulben, beneath the headstone that bears his name, like the dubious relics of saints, lies the bones of unnamed, unidentifiable French workers.
W.H. Auden wrote the greatest elegy for him, which began,
"He disappeared in the dead of winter
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted
And snow disfigured the public statues
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day."
If there is one thing that is left to be said, it is that we could learn from Yeats' mistakes so we don't repeat them, so that we don't run into the arms of tyrannies promising security in these turbulent times. And if we must be nostalgic, let it not be for an imagined past but let us be nostalgic for the future. Of course, you could be of the belief that lives should not necessarily have lessons salvaged from them. In that case, you should read Yeats, you may well find that his poetry has enriched not just the culture of Ireland, but can enrich and intensify your perceptions of the world, above and beyond politics and all the orthodoxies that leave us so divided and unhappy.
And from a poet, perhaps that's the best we can hope for.
This article addresses the Bible as literature, not as a religious text. The story told in Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon, one of the Kings of Israel, a son of David. Whether or not it is literal or allegorical is no more or less important than knowing which characters in On The Road represent what real life people.
Not everyone who quotes the Bible is a conservative or evangelist. Hunter S. Thompson wrote "I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than anything else in the English language--and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music." -- Generation of Swine. Gonzo Papers Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s(Thanks to Kevin Kizer for helping me find that quote.)
Of course, the famous folk-rock band, The Byrds, had the hit song "Turn, Turn, Turn". This song is based on a passage from Ecclesiastes:
To every thing, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap"
Even when the book speaks directly of "fearing God", the skeptic need not avoid it as fairy tale; "fearing God" can mean many things. Remember, Ecclesiastes is a Jewish document and so fearing God harkens back to the ten commandments. Those ten commandments can basically be broken down to "treat others fairly and honestly". So when the Elder says "fear God" he is saying, "live by your code of right and wrong. Start living now. But know right from wrong. Don't wait until it's late in life and the 'silver chord' is about to break.
The first thing the writer shouts out right from the top of the page is, "Vanity! Futility!" Okay . . . well, the King James Bible says "Vanity, but all the scholars agree that the word meant, "Futility." It's really the same thing.
The story follows this powerful King who surrounds himself with all of life's pleasures. He sets out to discover what life is all about. He tries everything: studying and gaining knowledge from books and teachers, drinking wine and laughing like crazy, building great gardens and increasing his possessions and wealth, having as many women as he wanted (strange thing that the conservative Christians don't explain why Solomon had so many wives, other than to say "those were different times"). He gets tired of studying and brushes it off with the observation, "Many words can be wearying." In fact, he gets tired of everything. He doesn't say that any of these activities are wrong, but simply that there is still something missing on the inside. All activity under the sun is futile in and of itself.
The writer of this story also sought pleasure in working hard and enjoying the feeling of calm and rest that comes after an honest days work. At one point he even says:
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen , that it is from the hand of God.
But even this life becomes wearisome to the Wise Man, and he unleashes this:
So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me [I can relate to that] because everything is futility and striving after the wind.
The writer then looks outward, globally, and he sees:
I looked at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them.
This great King who can have any woman and all the wine he wants says, "It would be better to never be born." He can't find peace in all of his labors and revelry until he gets the epiphany! It's all right to be happy. It's all right to enjoy the fruit of your labor and the wine and food. Just live with a conscience. There is right and there is wrong. Stand as honest as you can to your fellow human.
This is not much different from the revelation the Buddha had. As Levi Asher writes in his Litkicks article on Buddhism, Prince Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened when he looked at both the self-destructiveness of those who deny their desires and the misery of those who follow their desires, the Prince realized that there is a Middle Path, which is to simply lose one's desires. That is, an enlightened person should simply exist without desire. His needs and urges cease to control him, and he thereby avoids the cycle of indulgence and denial that tortures, confuses and distracts every living soul."
We've all heard the saying, "If I knew then what I know now . . ." That's what the writer is talking about. Get a little wisdom now, while you are young. It can only help you.
I'm not sure what to make of Chapter 8 where he says, "Obey all your rulers." Either the rulers were really good at the time, or this writer had some vested interest. Oh, wait a minute. Didn't we say King Solomon supposedly wrote this? Well, he sounds like a good ruler in my book, so to speak, I guess he can express a call to order.
Toward the end, the writer challenges the reader "Whatever you hand find to do, do it with all your might." When I was younger, some conservative Christians tried to tell me this meant I had to work myself to death; then I found out, it's like, if I'm engaged in an artistic project like writing or playing guitar, I will put my entire self into it.
Noel Paul Stookey is one of the members of Peter, Paul, & Mary, who are friends with Bob Dylan. In a magazine called Christianity Today, Mr. Stookey said, "Scriptural references were commonplace in Dylan songs, mostly Old Testament images. The allusions were rather strong, and there was no denying the power and authority of lines like "the first will be last," in "The Times They Are A-Changin'". Then Woodstock, 1967: "I'm looking for truth; Bob is recovering from a motorcycle accident. He graciously allows a friend and me into the house to ask questions of the universe. He is totally honest with me, kind" and suggests I do some Bible reading. Thanks, Bob. -- Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary from the January 4, 1980, issue of Christianity Today.
(I just threw in that Dylan story to further legitimize this foray into Bible territory. Not that I think I have to.)
Check out Ecclesiastes (EEE-Clees-y-AST-ees). I would recommend a modern version, not the Old English of the King James version. Some of them have cool illustrations.
The poetry of E.E. Cummings* is easily recognizable, even for the literary novice. While many immediately associate the work of Cummings with the liberal use of lowercase letters and acrobatic word arrangement, the depth of his writing goes beyond this, both in form and meaning.
Edward Estlin Cummings was born October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Cummings. Edward Cummings was highly educated and became the first professor of sociology at Harvard College; his history of divinity school training also groomed him to become a minister of the Unitarian church. Rebecca Haswell Cummings was one of the more socially adept women of her time and came from a distinguished family line of religious, political and even literary importance. Growing up in Cambridge during this time (and having such a strong place in local society) was a definite advantage for Estlin and his childhood has often been described as idyllic. The family spent summers at Joy Farm in rural New Hampshire, where young Estlin became interested in wildlife and the scenery of the countryside. These scenes of a happy childhood and his appreciation for nature would be described in many of Cummings' popular poems.
Cummings was encouraged to study literature and record his thoughts and stories in a journal. His mother hoped he would become a poet like another famous Cambridge son, Longfellow, and read Dickens and Stevenson aloud to the entire family. He had an education both at school and at home that placed a heavy importance on the arts, and he later recalled memorizing long excerpts from classic stories and poems. During this time, Estlin Cummings also began sketching and painting scenes from tales that he had read or stories he wrote, merging his literary and visual creative abilities at an early age.
Cummings attended Cambridge High School and became heavily involved in the Cambridge Review, in which many of his early stories and poems were published. Many of the early pieces were not extraordinary and did not show the confidence that would exude from his work in later years. Still, the early exposure to the world of public praise and publishing undoubtedly shaped Cummings' attitude on everything from typesetting to experimentation with form.
In September 1911, Cummings entered Harvard and remained there for five years. He earned degrees in Literature and English and had a mostly classical education. He had an exceptional knack for translating poems and interpreting lyric poetry. He studied under several respected Shakespearean scholars of the time and became skilled in allegory as well as other narrative devices in which he drew on his traditional Cambridge upbringing and the parables of his father's sermons. Cummings also expanded his writing in other areas, writing many short essays and prose pieces in addition to the works he published in the literary magazines of the school, the Harvard Advocate and Harvard Monthly, of which he became the editor-in-chief.
In 1916, Cummings began to take a more serious interest in modern art styles, studying Cubism and Impressionist artists. In his writing and artwork he demonstrated that he very much wanted to be a part of the modern art movement. During this time he developed the style that he is most known for today. Feeding off the influence of revolutionary artists such as Cezanne and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breska as well as studying the styles introduced by poets he admired (Pound, Whitman and Sandburg), Cummings experimented with the arrangement of words, syntax and letters to produce a unique visual experience within the lyrical elements of poetry. He became a craftsman of his work, carefully constructing each word and line to perform double duty as verbal expression and art. He often exaggerated sounds by repetition and coordinated lines and words to mimic the actions they described:
Cummings eventually moved to New York and took a job in the publishing division of Collier's as a desk clerk. The menial tasks the job required didn't exactly appeal to him but he did find time to create more poetry in this setting, writing on current events and offbeat topics such as the death of Buffalo Bill ("Buffalo Bill's defunct"). In his spare time, he explored the city and began to paint with a renewed vigor.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Cummings made the decision to avoid the draft and volunteered to serve with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. He was excited by the prospect of adventure and felt this service would best match his pacifist nature and intellectual upbringing. He soon left for France and found himself on essentially a five-week holiday in Paris due to a series of organizational mishaps. Cummings' experiences in France during this time left an imprint on the young man and became the topic of many controversial pieces. Cummings and his comrade, Slater Brown, found themselves exploring the adventure and sexual freedoms of Paris, attending burlesque shows and delving straight to the heart of the society of prostitution. He and Brown found two companions this way, Marie Lallemand and her partner, Mimi, whom they treated more like traditional dates. These interludes were detailed later in lines such as "the dirty colors of her kiss" and "wanta spendsix dollars Kid". After some time in the city, they were called back to duty and found themselves in the midst of the tedious routine of life in an inactive military unit.
Perhaps because of his experimental artistic personality or his political beliefs, Cummings did not seem to fit in well with his unit and tension began to develop. Cummings freely spoke of his distaste for the other men in the unit, and wrote numerous letters of complaint to his family back in the US. French authorities censored the letters of both Brown and Cummings and they soon found themselves under the heavy scrutiny of authorities. After being interrogated and refusing to turn his back on Brown, Cummings was detained and eventually interred in a French Prison Camp for three months. Oddly enough, he found that he was accepted into an alternate society and the experience of life at Depot de Triage at La Ferte-Mace would become the basis of his first book, The Enormous Room. Eventually Cummings was set free through the assistance of family friends. He returned to the United States on January 1, 1918.
E.E. Cummings decided to make his way back to New York and rented a studio in Greenwich Village. He reconnected with his circle of Harvard friends as well as returning to his university patron, Scofield Thayer, who encouraged Estlin in both writing and painting. Cummings spent more time painting than on his poetry and produced the painting "Traffic" for Thayer who was interested in procuring a cubist piece. Thayer also urged the Dial to publish Cummings' poetry. The poetry was met with disdain, but the editors published his work after much debate.
In the summer of 1918, Cummings was drafted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Camp Devens, near Cambridge. He was ultimately discharged in early 1919 on the grounds that his occupation was suffering. It was, however, during this time that his love for Elaine Thayer, the wife of his loyal patron, had become too great to ignore. Many of Cummings' most celebrated poems of erotica and love were written for Elaine during this time period (most notably "I like my body when it is with your", "along the brittle treacherous bright streets" and "my love is building a building").
Thayer soon found herself pregnant with Cummings' child and gave birth to a daughter, Nancy on December 20, 1919. Elaine was still married to Scofield Thayer and Cummings was the father of a child he was not able to acknowledge. After a time, the Thayers divorced and Estlin and Elaine reunited in Europe and were married in 1924, divorcing less than a year later. Cummings spent the next few decades estranged from the child that had become the focus of many sketches and written pieces.
The Enormous Room, Cummings' account of his wartime experience, was published in 1922 and the book received critical acclaim for its unique handling of such a serious and potentially morose subject. His poetry was also becoming more well known, being featured not only in the Dial, but also in Vanity Fair and other literary and political magazines of the time. In April 1923, a selection of Cummings' poetry was published under the title Tulips & Chimneys.
Over the next few years he had organized and edited enough of his pieces to produce two new volumes of poetry, XLI Poems and &. His literary success was evident at this time and XLI Poems and & were more popular than his first collection. During the 1920s and 1930s Cummings also wrote comic sketches for Vanity Fair and exhibited his paintings in several independent art shows.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cummings' work is his versatility. In addition to the works mentioned above, Cummings wrote plays, travelogues, prose pieces and satire. As an artist he was prolific in not only his painting, but also in his sketch work. In many of his poems, it is evident that Cummings had a sharp sense humor. He often used parody, puns and dialect to create humorous, yet scathing social commentary in his work. His art career was not immune to his wry wit. In one art show, he entered a doormat from the front step of his family home.
After a brief marriage to socialite/model Anne Barton, E.E. Cummings became acquainted with photographer, actress and model Marion Morehouse in 1932. The two found a strong connection with each other and while it is uncertain that they were ever legally married, they would remain together until Cummings' death in 1962. She moved into Patchin Place and accompanied him at Joy Farm in New Hampshire where he spent most of his later years. Cummings' relationship with Morehouse became the subject of many of his poems and she was often found posing for his paintings and sketches.
Cummings' writing was not always well received. He was used to getting mixed reviews and strong reactions from the public as well as literary critics. Eimi, a prose collection based on his travel diary in Russia, came out in 1933 and received brutal reviews. The American Spectator declared it "The Worst Book of the Month". Many of the criticisms focused on the radical style of writing and obscure typography contained in the 432 pages instead of the political sentiments expressed.
Throughout the next few decades, Cummings found a new angle for his career as he began speaking and reading his poetry at colleges around the country. He enjoyed the attention and found that public readings provided a new outlet for his creativity. It is interesting to note that while Cummings was more exposed to the public and his appearances were well-attended, it is during these later years in life that he also gained the reputation of being a curmudgeon and his views became more close-minded and ill tempered. Many times he wrote out his racial and religious opinions, sometimes to the dismay of his editors and peers.
By the mid-50s, Cummings' osteoarthritis had started to take its toll on his ability to get out and do all of the readings he was requested to do. Much of his poetry in his final years dealt with his views on aging and death in a lyrical, but matter-of-fact manner ("old age sticks", "Now i lay (with everywhere around"). Aside from his continuing to work on his poetry, Cummings divided his time bewtween Joy Farm and Patchin Place (in Greenwich Village) painting and spending time with Marion and his family. Cummings experimented with form and meaning up until the very end, producing two final volumes within his lifetime: A Miscellany, a collection of short prose pieces and 95 Poems, a book of fresh poetry from the creative veteran.
Edward Estlin Cummings died Sep. 3, 1962 of a brain hemorrhage after splitting wood. His literary style marked him as one of the most revolutionary poets of the twentieth century. He was accomplished as not only a writer, but also as an artist and social commentator. Cummings' body of work includes several volumes of poetry, two short plays, and prose work in addition to his collection of journals, sketchbooks and letters. A collection of fairy tales by Cummings was published in 1965 and many recordings of his readings are still available.
(NOTE: the common lowercase spelling of Cummings' name is not used here, as it was largely a convention of editors and publishers. The E.E. Cummings Society has requested that the author's name be printed with capitalization.)
By bohemian standards anyways, Bukowski walked through many fires, walked them well and was justly proud of these achievements. For his lifestyle and for the incredible written product of his struggles he's earned himself a solid spot amongst the heroes of 20th century Bohemia.
It's hard to pin Bukowski down to a moral ideology, but it's certainly not a stretch to see him agreeing that life's first principle should be that what matters most really is how well you walk through the fire. For those of us who wish to follow in his footsteps -- the footsteps of the bohemian -- things aren't quite so clear. What is "the fire" and what does it mean to walk well through it? Why should we think that this is what matters most? And what does this principle say about living a bohemian life versus a mainstream one?
The poems are worthy of the spirit of the poet and of the uncompromisingly bohemian life he walked. But it's the title that grips me the most. The title is a (post-mortem) proclamation of real manhood and real living -- not their usual softer compromises. Its claims amount to the declaration that life's value is measured in terms of the currency of courage, strength and perseverance of its trials. These are traditionally masculine virtues and they call out a challenge to others to stand up and be men. Bukowski and Hemingway and Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac's idealization of Neil Cassady stand straight-backed as the heroes of the American bohemian alternative to the blind machismo of the soldier or the suburbanized fatherhood of the rest of modern society. They call out on us to have the courage to be ourselves, to stand up for who we are and to remain ourselves through life's tabulations. Bohemia's strongest masculine ideal is to remain uncompromisingly dedicated to being who we really are or dream of becoming. Tell it that what you ultimately and truly wish to be is a suburban middle-management tv-addict or a well-functioning cog of a mighty military machine and Bohemia will respond by pointing out your self-deception. These alternatives (and others) are nobody's ultimate ideals -- just comprises of living -- and unsavory ones at that. Bohemia strongly frowns on comprises and champions those who are willing to do without them.
I've never met anyone who really measured up, though then again maybe I haven't been looking hard enough, deep enough ... At some idealistic points in my own life I thought that perhaps I someday would (measure up), but that fantasy is slipping away from me as quick as indecisions and passed-up opportunities pile up behind me and define who I am.
I'm 29 and I've been waiting for that self-confidence to bubble and rise and flower into a self-fulfilled, self-rewarding bohemian manhood -- waiting long enough to begin wondering whether that ship has long departed when the seas began rocking with a little less black and white. Long enough to begin to question the directions they gave me to this pick-up point -- were they foolin'? Did I hear them wrong? Did they ever actually say anything at all? Did I put the words into the world and build mouths and unpronouncables around them?
The reality of it is that sometimes I do feel something personal and real and beautiful and free in some of the snapshots that make up my life. Last midnight, sitting on the second story walkway outside the door of my little Hollywood bungalow, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, reading street poetry in the hot summer night, scatting with Duke, enjoying a certain type of perfect moment, basking in the rare feeling of being the kind of man I'd like to be. Copies of my first book sit in a box inside and I feel good about this morning's writing and the Sunday morning walk alone that inspired it. Somehow, I'm a dreamer and a real man, though I was always told that that was the one thing a real man couldn't be. Then again, I'm under no illusions that it'll be this way tomorrow.
The sneaking, not-so-romantic suspicion that, ultimately, the defining graces of men are not so different after all does manage to creep in on me under the curtain of bohemian cool. Maybe it really is true that what matters most is how well you could and did and do walk through the fire. Maybe stylistic aspirations aside, virtually no man can ignore the call of his gender to prove himself worthy of his manhood. The problem is that it?s not at all clear what counts as proof these days -- not so much for society, which doesn't really seem to demand it, but for us as individuals needing to justify the worth of our manhood. Not only do I have serious doubt about my ability to walk through the fire, I can no longer even tell what the fire is.
My father and grandfather earned their certificates of manhood in basic training, and cemented them in combat. They faced danger, learned to understand it and acquired the courage to push on through. When it was over they knew that they had walked through the fire and that they had it in them to be men in the world. Americans today, and worse yet, would-be-bohemians, usually don't have that horrible luxury. War is too complicated today and god is on everybody's and nobody's side. Besides, resigning all of your freedoms -- and particularly your moral decisions to somebody else - going to war is the most anti-ethical thing a bohemian-inspired could do. The soldier's path is usually closed to us - and even when it isn't, we suspect the humanity of the army clones that seem to go through it. That trial of fire produces a general type of man today that many of us simply don't want to be.
Then again, it wasn't Bukowski's trial of fire either. His was the perseverance through a life of extreme poverty, homelessness and alcohol -- most of all it meant successfully dealing with the most trying plague of the poor -- each other. Bukowski's walk through the fire is that of living in a ghetto that's almost always aflame in some quiet desperate way. It amounts to the perseverance of yourself and your ideals despite the harassment of the flames that leap around you. He grew into a manhood defined by the ability to comfortably maneuver around the desolate (whores, bullies, addicts, bums, etc.) and to respect his own position in the world as a man walking his own path.
I won't pretend that I live any type of heroic life -- I don't. I feel like a softie these days, living off my graduate teachership, so comfortable with my place in the world and with the little luxuries that pervade my life -- maybe not enough to make me feel like a rich man, but enough to make me feel like a lucky one. I spend my weekdays and weekends alike in a flurry of writing, thinking, teaching, learning, editing ? but I have no clock to punch and can do it all at my own pace and by my own convenience. The little things in life mean a whole lot more. The small dinners with friends, the rare night out to see someone perform who you know on a personal level, really meaningful conversations that leave out the small talk, enjoying the tenderness of being in love.
And yet when I sit down with someone and we tell our stories, I always have some good ones that remind me that I've acted out my share of parts in this drama: Mescaline in the high desert, the acid-house in Budapest, the porn-house in Lima, the city of the dead in Cairo, visits to my father in prison camp, running away from an inhospitable home and getting kicked out of it, getting mugged trying to follow in Hemingway's footsteps in Pamplona, etc. etc. I've been around enough and walked through enough of my own fires to appreciate the outcome of the cooling winds on the other side. I have no intention of abandoning it all in favor of middle-class contentment, but I know that I probably won't repeat the lifestyle of my 20s. I respect, but have no aspirations to relive the life of Bukowski. I don't have the strength for its continual bashings, the addiction to force me to keep stumbling within it, or the lack of straight-world opportunities to escape it.
More importantly, while I don't doubt that it matters how well you walk through the fire and that, indeed, it is important that you do walk through the fire and challenge your integrity, savoir-faire, real-world survival skills, creative understanding, etc. ? I don't think that it really is what matters most. I?ve grown to admire the softness that comes with love and responsibility as possibly the deepest and most substantial form of being and have junked many of my artist-knows-best judgments. I?ve grown soft at "almost-30" and very happily so. And yet, soft complacency is the furthest thing from my mind. Fulfilling my creative needs and living my life with integrity requires me to keep challenging myself. There will always be fires to walk through and there will always be times when I?ll burn, burn, burn as the mad ones do ? but not to the ground as so many of them did. To me, what matters most is not how well you walk through the fire, but what kind of man you were before the flames engulfed you and what kind of man you become after wiping the ash off of your face.
Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones on October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey to Coyette ("Coyt") LeRoy Jones and Anna Lois Jones. He graduated from high school with honors in 1951 and began attending Rutgers University, only to transfer to Howard University in 1952. It was also in 1952 when he first changed his name, this time from LeRoy to the "frenchified" LeRoi. In 1954, he flunked out of Howard and joined the Air Force, where he attained the rank of sergeant before being discharged "undesirably" in 1957. It was then that he settled in New York's Greenwich Village and began to be influenced by the art scene there.
Beat Period (1957-1962)
In 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, and the two edited the literary journal Yugen together. Yugen, printed from 1958-1963, published works by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Philip Whalen, among others. In 1961, he began printing The Floating Bear, a literary newsletter with Diane DiPrima. It ran until 1963.
During this period in Baraka's life and writing, his race was not a central issue. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), his first book of poems, show the influences of Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Frank O'Hara, and contain numerous references to popular culture and his fellow writers. ("Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?/ Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me." From "In Memory of Radio") In 1960, he was quoted as saying, "I'm fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it's part of my life. But I know also that if I want to say, 'I see a bus full of people,' I don't have to say, "I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people."' This view began shifting dramatically for Baraka over the next few years, as his race became a central issue not only in his art, but in his life, as he would become an outspoken activist in the Civil Rights Movement and the American class struggle.
Transitional Period (1963-1965)
It is in this period of Baraka's life when he became disenchanted with white bohemia and his race became a bigger issue in his art. In 1963, he published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, part of his lifelong interest in, study of, and writing about black music and its history. The poems from The Dead Lecturer (1964) show the struggle Baraka faced as his consciousness shifted from white bohemian to black political activist. The poem An Agony. As Now., opens with "I am inside someone/ who hates me", and goes on to describe the painful conflict between who he appeared to be and who he would later change into. Another poem from this period, "The Liar", further demonstrates this shift and his consequent distancing from the Beats in lines like, "When they say, "It is Roi/ who is dead"? I wonder/ who will they mean"?
In 1964, the Obie Award-winning play Dutchman was produced in New York, and brought Baraka his first real fame. The play is Baraka's most famous work, and was once hailed by Norman Mailer as "the best play in America." It's a highly stylized drama that depicts the American civil rights struggle in the characters of Lula (a white woman) and Clay (a black man) and their subsequent conversation while riding the subway. Clay tolerates, even flirts with Lula, but he eventually lashes out at her (and the white hipster mentality in general) with a long speech about how black art is created out of hatred for white people:
Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying, "Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass." And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would've played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note!"
Lula ends up stabbing Clay to death, then flirting with the next young black man who enters the subway car, showing that the cycle will continue to repeat itself.
In his autobiography, he wrote about the fame that Dutchman had brought to him, saying that he had realized he wanted to be a voice for his people. "...Even if I wasn't strong enough to act, I would become strong enough to SPEAK what had to be said, for all of us, for black people, yes, particularly for black people, because they were the root and origin of my conviction, but for anyone anywhere who wanted Justice!"
Black Nationalist Period (1965-1974)
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife Hettie Cohen and moved to Harlem, calling himself a Black Cultural Nationalist, one who is committed to black people as "a race, a culture, a nation." That year he also organized the Black Arts Repertory Theater-School, wrote his only novel The System of Dante's Hell, and moved back to Newark. He married Sylvia Robinson (now Amina Baraka) in 1966, and also published Home: Social Essays, which contains much of his early Black Nationalist ideology.
In 1967, he changed his name again, this time completely. He took on the Bantuized Muslim name Imamu ("spiritual leader" later dropped) Ameer ("prince" later changed to Amiri ) Baraka ("blessed"). He also published his only collection of short stories that year, a book called Tales. He published Black Music in 1968, and along with Larry Neal, edited an important anthology of African American Literature, Black Fire. In 1969, Baraka published a collection of Black Nationalism-inspired poetry, called Black Magic. One of the poems in the book, "leroy", says, "When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black people. May they pick me apart and take the useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone."
While a Black Nationalist, Baraka spoke publicly about his hatred of white people, though he later renounced the attitudes he carried during that period as racist. In his autobiography, he writes, "We hated white people so publicly, for one reason, because we had been so publicly tied up with them before ... I guess, during this period, I got the reputation for being a snarling, white-hating madman. There was some truth to it, because I was struggling to be born, to break out from the shell I could instinctively sense surround[ing] my own dash for freedom."
By 1973, Baraka began his split from Black Nationalism, marked with the poem "AFRIKAN REVOLUTION", which shows the beginning of his ideas changing toward the belief that racial oppression and class oppression are inextricably linked.
Third World Marxist Period (1974-)
In 1974, Baraka rejected Black Nationalism and announced his change to Third World Marxism in an article that appeared in Black World. In a 1984 radio interview, he explained, "As long as it was a bourgeois nationalist, reactionary nationalist kind of trend--a "hate whitey" kind of thing, during that period of the movement, they didn't really have any problem with that. They might get officially excited ... That is, if you say that the enemy is "all whites" without making a class analysis and showing that there's only a handful of super-billionaire vampires that actually control the society, the ruling class. When you do that and start making an analysis with your art in a forceful way, then they don't see that as a charming commodity that they need like they might need some tiger teeth around their neck..."
In 1975, Baraka published his first collection of Marxist poetry, Hard Facts, and in 1979, he wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (published 1984), while s erving a 48-consecutive weekend sentence in a halfway house for an altercation with his wife.
In 1995, he published the work Wise, Why's Y's: The Griot's Tale, a book of poems written in the style of the Griot, who were, as Baraka described them, "the African Singer-Poet-Historians who carried word from bird, mouth to ear, and who are the root of our own African-American oral tradition." The poems trace the history of black people in America from the days of slavery to the present.
In 2002, controversy surrounded Baraka once again, this time over the poem "Someone Blew Up America", about the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Baraka wrote the lines,
"Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?"
and started an uproar, which included the New Jersey government asking him to step down from his position as the state's poet laureate. (Full text of the poem and discussion of the controversy from the Poetry & Politics board can be found here.) Recently, Baraka was named poet laureate of the Newark schools, amid continuing pressure from the state government to get him to quit the state's position. Baraka continues to refuse to resign as New Jersey's poet laureate, and has accepted the Newark position as well.
One such poet is Erin A. Thomas. New to the poetry scene (though not to poetry), Thomas has recently self-published two chapbooks of ghazals, titled 'Uncovering English Ghazal' and 'Discovering English Ghazal'. Upon purchasing these books, I was elated to find that not only were there other poets interested in ghazals, but interested in trying to maintain the form in its utmost purity. While a majority of collections, Agha Shahid Ali's 'Ravishing Disunities' being the prime example, have one or two examples by various poets, I know of no other complete collection of traditional ghazals by one individual. Ali's 'Call Me Ishmael Tonight' will be out in March of 2003, but until then, we have Thomas.
For while Thomas indeed has a grasp of the ghazal form, he seems to have little to no grasp of poetry. His rhymes are pure, his rhythm as tight as can be expected in English, but his poems simply seem to lack substance. This lack of depth or substance seems to stem from two sources: Thomas's misunderstanding of ghazalic disparateness and Thomas's misunderstanding or severe lack, of imagery, and indeed, modern poetry.
Upon opening 'Discovering English Ghazal', we find a brief definition of ghazals. I agree with Thomas's decision to place such a definition in his book, as the form still is misunderstood by so many poets. However, I disagree with the definition itself, specifically that a ghazal should be like 'a pearl necklace'. While the idea of a necklace is appropriate (various objects strung together by a common thread) the idea of pearls, as opposed to jewels or beads, is what snags me. Pearls are similar, if not nearly identical. Jewels and beads are radically different from each other. Every ghazal essay, especially those by Ali, stresses the disparateness between stanzas. Each stanza should stand alone, and be completely separate from the poem save the rhyme and refrain. So while each of Thomas's stanzas could, theoretically, stand alone as separate couplets, most of the time, they are simply too similar to each other to qualify as ghazals. While this technically is not a major flaw in the poetry, it does lead to some monotonous images, and therefor, monotonous poems. Indeed, one of the major tasks of ghazals is to keep the rhyme and refrain fresh, the variance between stanzas, and more importantly, their images, being the obvious way to keep the poem from dragging down.
In 'Uncovering English Ghazals', Thomas talks about an epiphany on disparateness between couplets. 'Each ghazal binds to a theme, and in fact, each couplet within Hafiz's ghazals seems to look at the same thing. It is just that rather than flowing couplet to couplet along the same lines of insight and reflection, each couplet offers a dramatically different perspective of what the ghazal as a whole is focused on. In a way, it is like looking through the eye of a dragonfly, each couplet is a facet in the eye, but the attention of each facet is focused on something in particular.' This, while a nice idea, leads to some extremely boring poetry if used improperly. I have heard of this theory as the 'room theory' as well, in which the ghazal focuses on a table in the center of the room, but each stanza is written from a different wall or window in the room. For example, in 'Defeated', Thomas writes about affliction, and indeed an injured soul or spirit, using a dead baby as a metaphor for the experience. However, he keeps returning to the baby, to the point that he kills the thing four times before the poem is ended. The metaphor, while a solid one, becomes mute and almost obnoxious by the end, to the point that the reader is more interested in HOW the baby dies, and not the fact that it is dead. And this in poem no longer than a sonnet. When the couplets are disparate, Thomas's ghazals do indeed excite and inspire. 'Thoroughfare', from 'Uncovering English Ghazal', is one such example.
Where fragrant lilies beautify the way,
Decaying corpses putrefy the way.
Brilliant sages point the way to heaven,
Yet we in bloodshed rubefy the way.
The way of peace was plain when life began,
Then darkness fell to mystify the way.
When through harsh places arid spans the way,
How hard it is to ratify the way!
Rivers flow the way of least resistance-
Plainness will always signify the way.
A vagrant walks the way with dignity,
Yet speaks no words to dignify the way.
Crying skies are not the way of sorrow,
They only serve to pacify the way.
If to the empty center leads the way,
There is no need to simplify the way.
The wind demonstrates the way of roaming,
But does not try to justify the way.
Who taught the fowl the way to warmer skies?
How is it that they verify the way?
Compassion is the way within us all,
But we must act to reify the way.
Death cannot endorse the way of living;
It also cannot mortify the way.
This dream is the way of dancing shadows;
Trusting this farce will falsify the way.
Who can hear the way the stars are calling?
They wait for us to stellify the way.
Each time Zahhar collapsed upon the way;
Has been a mean to clarify the way.
Woefully, most of Thomas's ghazals are not of this caliber. Not only do they focus on one theme or one image to a point of excess, but they also seem to lack a potency that can only come from imagery. Thomas is wary in his use of imagery, to the point that he sacrifices his poems by its exclusion. He admits that to him, modern poetry is 'a tossed salad of verbal images'. However, he does claim a belief in 'visuals', which 'solidify the abstract and focus channels of interpretation where [he] would like them to go'. He against imagery for imagery sake, but is in favor of imagery if it aids the poem. Thus, a majority of his poems are completely void of images, but instead contain 'visuals', or 'real life visual experiences that are used within the context of a memory or feeling in relation.' However, a majority of his 'visuals' are so cliched or drab that they simply add nothing to the poem. And, when Thomas can't find a 'visual' or 'image' to suit his purposes, he goes without, much to the detriment of the poem, and the reader. The old adage 'Show, Don't Tell' applies to a majority of Thomas's work, to the point that the bulk of his poems come across as not poems, but sermons and dissertations, where ideas are spouted but immediately leave with no tangible weight to bear them into the mind. Thomas needs imagery, and while he seems fully against modern poetry, he needs to understand that he participates in that tradition, whether he wants to or not. Until the time machine is invented, his poems will always be read by a modern audience in a modern context, and therefor, anything devoid of images or imagery will be seen as trite. Shakespeare was successfully able to wield imagery, and very few editors would consider him or his poetry 'modern.' Thus, even without the aid of modern poets, Thomas should be able to understand and use imagery. Until he is, we will be forced to rely on 'visuals', which seem to be in short supply.
At the beginning of 'Discovering English Ghazal', Thomas relates an incident in which an English professor insults his free verse, and instruct s him to write villanelles. He insists that villanelles would be no problem, and upon researching them, as well as terzanelles, discovers ghazals, on which little to nothing had been published. This is in 2001. 'Ravishing Disunities' does take some liberties in what it accepts as ghazals, but a majority of the book contains complete, well-written, well-structured traditional English ghazals, abiding by all the rules of the form. 'Ravishing Disunities' was published in 2000. I suggest, if he has not already, that Thomas read this work, as well as the upcoming 'Call Me Ishmael Tonight', and learn what imagery and disparity add to the ghazal. I have a feeling that, in response to his teacher, Thomas may have followed all the rules of the form for a villanelle, but that's all he did. Very few people can name more than half a dozen successful villanelles written in English, and even then rules are dropped all over the place (Elizabeth Bishop's 'One Art' as an example). Most villanelles, including a majority of the ones published, merely participate in the form. They are simply formal exercises with a few bright spots along the way, but are not truly successful poetry. In much the same way, Thomas merely participates in ghazals most of the time. There are a handful of good, possibly even great, poems in these two collections, enough to create a prize-winning collection, maybe. But definitely not enough for a chapbook manuscript, let alone two. So, to see what can be done with the ghazal form, to see a series of ghazal exercises, I encourage you to read Thomas's 'Discovering English Ghazal' and 'Uncovering English Ghazal'. He does indeed have a mastery of the form. If you want to read something that transcends mere form, wait for Agha Shahid Ali's collection to come out and hope for the best.
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
-Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
In 1954, in a scene he described in his book, "The Dharma Bums," (pp 18-21) Jack Kerouac visited the Berkley shack of his new friend and Ur-Dharma Bum, Gary Snyder and found him translating the poems of an obscure Chinese poet named Han Shan, or Cold Mountain. Snyder told Kerouac about this "Chinese scholar who got sick of the big city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains", writing poems on rocks and bamboo and the sides of cliffs. Kerouac became so enthralled with Cold mountain that he dedicated The Dharma Bums to him when it was published in 1958. Read just a few of the 300 poems found written down on the bamboo and rocks and boulders of the mountain where he made his home, and it is not difficult to see how Cold Mountain would appeal to these two bhiku wanderers. Scenes abound of frustrations with the modern world, loneliness, leaving the manic world behind for mountaintop solitudes; wind blowing through pine trees; clouds touching mountain and tree tops; clear running streams flowing into jade colored lakes. Strong Buddhist and Taoist themes run through the poems of Han Shan, and unlike many Chinese poets of his time who often used just Buddhism as and embellishment in their work, Cold Mountain's poems show a deep understanding of both Buddhism and Taoism. Both Buddhists and Taoists often try to claim Cold Mountain as their own, but in his poems, he often delighted in poking fun at the pretensions of both traditions and seems to have considered himself a layman at best, a man of independent spirituality.
Biographical details of Cold Mountain are few and far between. Any details about his life must be gathered from his poems and the few mythic stories surrounding his existence. Chinese scholar and Cold Mountain translator Red Pine estimates Cold Mountain lived from 730-850 during the Tang Dynasty. He was born into some level of privilege and may have been a gentleman farmer and some sort of minor official in the grand bureaucracy of imperial China. At some point he was married. Eventually he became disaffected with society and left the world at 30 to make his home in the Tien-Tai Mountains at a place called Cold Cliff. He may or may not have become a monk. His physical appearance in drawings make him look like a template for the Zen lunatic or hobo-saint: wild hair, birch bark hat, patched robe, big wooden clogs, gnarled staff and an unconventional manner interpreted by others as craziness. He had two companions; Big Stick (Feng-Kan) and Pick-Up (Shih-Teh). Big Stick was something of a renegade monk at Kuoching Temple, which Cold Mountain would often visit near his home at Cold Cliff. According to legend, Big Stick showed up one day at the temple gate on the back of a tiger, took up residence in the temple library, refused to shave his head, and came and went as he liked. Whenever he was asked about Buddhism, he would answer ?Whatever.? One day when he was out walking, Big Stick heard someone crying. He found a 10-year-old boy in the bushes who said he had been left their by his parents, so Big Stick picked him up and took him back to the temple. The monks tried to locate his parents but no one came forward to claim him, so he was named Pickup and placed in the care of the temple?s chief custodian in the temple hall and later in the kitchen, where he would often leave out food for Cold Mountain. Pickup and Cold Mountain became close companions and are often shown together, their pictures hanging in Chinese households a symbol of marital harmony.
These few things seem to be the only sure things about Cold Mountain. There are different stories as to how his poems, originally written down on bamboo, rocks, boulders and the walls of people?s houses came to be collected. The most popular one is this:
Lu-Ch?iu Yin, a prefect in Tan-Ch-iu, had a bad headache and after visiting a doctor it turned worse. He met Big Stick and Big Stick told him that sickness comes from illusion and he needed pure water to cure it. Someone brought the water to Big Stick and he spat it on Lu-Ch?iu Yin, who was instantly cured. He was impressed with Big Stick's wisdom and asked Big Stick if there were any wise men he could look upon as Master and Big Stick directed him to Kuoching. He told him that there he would find two men who look like poor fellows and act like madmen. They came and went and they worked in the kitchen, tending the fire. Lu-Chiu Yin journeyed to Kuoching and inquired about the two madmen. He was directed to the kitchen where he found Cold Mountain and Pickup. He bowed to them and Cold Mountain laughed and said "Big Stick-loose tongued. You don?t recognize Amitabha, why be courteous to us?" before he and Pickup ran out the temple gate. Lu-Ch'iu Yin was determined to see these to men properly taken care of, so after he returned home, he sent clean clothes, incense and food back, but when Cold mountain saw the packer approaching, he yelled "Thief! Thief!" and ran into a mountain cave which closed behind him and that was that last anyone saw of him. Hearing this, Lu-Chiu ordered the monks to find all the poems Cold Mountain had written and to collect them to be made into a book, and those poems are perhaps the best way to get to know the elusive figure of Cold Mountain.
Whoever has Cold Mountain?s poems
is better off with those than with sutras
write them up on your screen
and read them from time to time
-Han Shan (Cold Mountain)