It’s April, which means it’s National Poetry Month. It’s also National Anxiety Month and National BLT Sandwich Month (“the second most popular sandwich in the United States”), and this trinity of nationwide awareness can be no coincidence—so let’s fix ourselves a bacon sarnie, crack open the Xanax, and settle in for the first installment in Malvern Books’ arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series.
A is for Aubade
If a serenade is an evening love song, an aubade is its early bird equivalent. Aubades often recount tales of adulterous lovers who must part company as the sun comes up, and they were quite the thing in the freaky Middles Ages, when troubadours roamed the world, playing their annoying fiddles and reciting aubades to anyone who would listen. The aubade then passed out of fashion for a while—sixteenth-century poets preferred to bang on about unrequited love, which meant very little romping at dawn—but the form enjoyed a brief revival in the seventeenth century, with John Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” in which the poet chastises the “busy old fool, unruly Sun” for disturbing two lovers in bed. Now that reciting poetry under someone’s window at 5am is likely to get you arrested, the aubade has lost much of its appeal. Still, the marvellous Mr. Larkin gave it a go; here’s an excerpt from his “Aubade”:
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
A is also for Auden, W. H.
Creative writing teachers love the “poem about a painting” exercise, in which you take your class to an art museum, dump ’em in front of a Jackson Pollock, and then chortle to yourself as they spend the next twenty minutes trying to come up with synonyms for drip. In “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Auden stares hard at Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and shows us how ekphrasis should be done:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
B is for Bly, Robert
I know, I know. Robert Bly. Mr. Iron John. He’s just so… embarrassing. Whenever I hear his name, I picture a gaggle of chubby accountants standing in a circle in a moonlit forest, howling pointlessly at the moon. After a while they grow tired, these lardy, booming babies, so they lie down in the mud and share tales of man-sadness. Now that I no longer kill wildebeests with my bare hands, my life has lost all meaning! Now that my wife has been promoted to Head of Marketing at Zappos, my penis has stopped working! They are sheepish at first, ashamed, but after a while they grow bold. They are men, damn it! They paint their faces with mud and admire one another’s terrifying pubic hair. DUMB. Still, men’s movement nonsense aside, Robert Bly writes some lovely poems. He’s very good at birds and seals and weather. Here’s an excerpt from “August Rain”:
The older we get the more we fail, but the more we fail the more we feel a part of the dead straw of the universe, the corners of barns with cow dung twenty years old, the belt left hanging over the chair back after the bachelor has died in the ambulance on the way to the city. These objects ride us as the child who holds on to the dog’s fur; these objects appear in our dreams; they are more and more near us, coming in slowly from the wainscoting; they make our trunks heavy, accumulating between trips; they lie against the ship’s side, and will nudge the hole open that lets the water in at last.
I recommend Eating the Honey of Words, a collection spanning fifty years of his work. Just ignore the icky title, and skip all poems featuring spirit horses.