The Consolations of Poetry
Being sick sucks. I sit down to read or write and I am stupid, my head hurts, I can’t breathe freely, I don’t sleep well, and still the world goes trundling by. Today I’m coughing up bloody sputum, and I feel better than I have in a week.
But I did fall in love again with Robert Graves’ poems: here’s an early one in full, which I managed to post in two tweets Saturday:
“Love Without Hope”
Love without hope, as when the young birdcatcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.
And on the same page of the 1975 Collected ( I haven’t seen the Complete) there’s the charming “Henry and Mary,” which begins with two quatrains in nursery-rhyme trimeter except for the tetrameter penultimate line of the second stanza, setting up the fully tet dialog of the last stanza:
She gave him a new-laid egg
In the garden there.
“Love, can you sing?”
“I cannot sing.”
“Or tell a tale?”
“Not one I know.”
“Then let us play at queen and king
As down the garden walks we go.”
There are so many wonderful poems: “The Persian Version” of the battle of Marathon, ending “Despite a strong defence and adverse weather / All arms combined magnificently together.”; the “Gardener” who “had something, though he called it nothing — / An ass’s wit, a hairy belly shrewdness / That would appraise the intentions of an angel / By the very yard-stick of his own confusion, / And bring the most to pass.”; a terrifying poem called “The Sweet-shop Round the Corner”; “Beauty in Trouble,” who goes back to the “beast who beats her,” prompting the reflection
“Virtue, good angel, is its own reward:
Your guineas were well spent.
But would you to the marriage of true minds
Graves is best known for his novels (one of which, “I, Claudius,” provoked a movie featuring both Peter Sellers and visible sexual penetration) and for his study of mythic structure, The White Goddess. But the poems flowing from the latter, including his most well-known poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” (you can hear Graves read it here), seem to me just Graves riding his hobby horse, and ignoring what he does best:
The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? —
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
Update April 20: At Vary the Line, the Poetry Collective posted the full text of “The Persian Version.” During Viet Nam War days — and over the last 8 years as well — this poem had a special resonance for me. I can easily imagine it spoken by Donald Rumsfeld or Douglas Feith, with Graves cackling in the background.