Heaney and Plath: Two Poems about blackberry picking

Blackberries in a white bowl.

Blackberries in a white bowl.

We read two poems about Blackberries the other day. One by Seamus Heaney, one by Sylvia Plath. While both are dark, the latter is much darker. I did not tell them the facts of Plath’s life or how near in time the poem was written before her suicide. I will let them find that out on their own. (We try to downplay the biographical.)

Here is Heaney’s poem:

Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

And here is Heaney reading it:

What we have are the thrills and joys of nature’s bounty, of love, of lust, followed by its ultimate disappointment, and capped by the human facility to continue even with the knowledge that disappointment is almost always assured.

But that last line is hopeful despite the odds: “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

Hopeful is what Sylvia Plath’s poem is not! It too holds the gathering of blueberries in awe, is humbled by their abundance and their promise, but in the end there is nothing. Though that should not be a surprise. The first line itself drums in that nothingness, repeating the words “nothing,” “nothing,” “nobody.”

Blackberrying by Sylvia Plathimage

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

The speaker, who is traveling downward on a path lined with blackberry bushes, believes that there is something at the end–the sea. Earlier, when she sees a swarm of flies satiated with blackberry juice she states that the flies “believe in heaven.” (Is her statement that “they believe in heaven” an implication that she does not?)

Perhaps the flies believe they have found it.

For the speaker, however, no reward awaits. The sea–to which she had looked forward to throughout her journey–is a pale wasteland. Again there is the repetition of the word “nothing”: “…that looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space” and from within this void she hears the “Beating and beating of an intractable metal.”

That ‘beating and beating” reminds me of the sea in “Dover Beach” where:

you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

It’s that eternal note of sadness that Plath’s speaker also hears, an empty, pale silence. After her walk, after her hoping to be loved, after her wanting a heaven, she comes to this cliff. And this is what she hears.

Perhaps we’ll do “Dover Beach” next.

Wallace Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar”

Blue Guitar illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Blue Guitar
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The Book Review of the Sunday New York Times this week (July 20, 2014) focused on contemporary poetry. It reviewed five books of contemporary poetry and featured an essay by David Orr entitled “On Poetry.”  The front cover was a whimsical drawing with archaic poetic terms such as “forsooth,”  “twas,”  “alas-alack”  and “thither” graffitied onto walls, suit jackets and boots. And on page 4, where the Book Review often introduces the matter of chief focus in that particular issue, there is a brief recap of New York Times’ poetry criticism through the years.

The four paragraph piece remembers the 1937 review of Wallace Steven’s  The Man with the Blue Guitar,  a review of John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs in 1964, a 1975 piece on John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and a 1981 review of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems (18 years after her death). And it was the review of the Steven’s piece that caught my eye.  The reviewer–Eda Lou Walton–stated that “the skill of these plucked and strummed-out improvisations proves him again the master of the most subtle rhythmical effects.”

And so of course, I had to pull from my shelf my copy of Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems and looked to “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”  Actually the title refers to both a particular poem and the book in which it was contained.  The individual poem is the piece that attracted the world’s attention. It is a long piece, thirty-three sections of between four and sixteen couplets.  Stevens claimed that he was inspired by Picasso’s painting Old Man with a Guitar. (Later David Hockney would paint a series of works inspired both by Picasso’s painting and Steven’s poem.)

Picasso's Old Man Playing Guitar

Picasso’s Old Man Playing Guitar

What is surprising is that the poem is so much more a “shattered” portrait than Picasso’s piece. Picasso’s Man with a Blue Guitar belongs (not surprisingly) to his Blue Period, but more importantly comes  several years before he is influenced by African art and–with Georges Braque–invents Cubism.  It is the cubism–and his art that follows–that is “shattered,” that most resembles the large schisms and small fractures running through society and which most resembles the world of Stevens’ guitar.  In fact, despite his referencing Picasso in the poem itself, it seems as if Stevens’ poem is more in tune with Hockney’s painting (impossible since it was painted in 1982, forty-five years after Stevens’ poem.)

David Hockney's Blue Hockney

David Hockney’s Blue Hockney

I

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

And so, we have the “man with the blue guitar” refusing to tell things as they are–or perhaps unable to. Or is he implying that even the imagination, the creative faculty, is unable to depict “things as they are”?  Or is this phrase “things as they are” simply a coded phrase for the physical world–and guitar and the player are able to sing of what is behind that physical world. And yet his audience seems somewhat philistine–they are slow to understand. For them, “Day is desire and night is sleep” and “the earth for us is flat and bare/there are no shadows anywhere.”  And yet, we–and the player of the blue guitar–know that if nothing else, the 20th century has taught us that shadows are everywhere.

The poem has often been depicted as a tension between the guitarist and his audience, between the imaginative truth and the surface perceptions.  I believe it shows the failure of the audience to see deeper, a failure of the audience’s imagination.  Modern life–and this is surely not original with Stevens–is deadening and routine, and we need the players of the blue guitars to break us out, to center our focus on the more important things than mere survival.

Because of copyright issues, the entire poem is not available on line. (Though I am sure some clever computer user has found it somewhere.) But it is worth finding. It is a Whitman-esque explosion of images and thoughts and debate and sound.

I had forgotten about it–and about where and who I was when I first read it–and so am grateful for last Sunday’s paper which mentioned it a tiny corner of a large section. Sunday’s paper was the blue guitar that sent me re-reading and re-thinking.

Here are the first six sections of the poem:

I
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

II
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

III
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings…..

IV
So that’s life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing.

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that’s life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.

V
Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,
Of the torches wisping in the underground,

Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.
There are no shadows in our sun,

Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.

The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry

Exceeding music must take the place
of empty heaven and its hymns,

Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.

VI
A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

(27 more sections yet to come)

Billy Collins … and how to think better of poetry

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

The other night I went to see the poet Billy Collins deliver a lecture. It was a pretty fancy event–I’d been given the tickets– held in the  beautiful Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. As Billy Collins remarked, it is like standing inside an enormous cello.

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Anyway, I don’t know a lot of Collins’ poetry, except maybe two or three poems, but I always use his poem “Introduction to Poetry” at the beginning of any course I teach in poetry.  In it, Collins claims:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

It is those last five lines that are important. They describe why poetry is met with such an “ugh” from people whose only experience with it has been in classes where the well-intentioned teacher urged them to “find the meaning.”

I tell my students that human beings are innately wired to respond positively to poetry (think infant lullabies, toddlers’ picture books, nonsense riddles, jump-roping songs). It is the English teachers who teach students to dislike it. To think of it as something to fear and dread.

And that is a shame.

For last night, Collins (who repeated what I said about poetry being innate) was as entertaining as could be. He told the audience a bit of his life and his term as Poet Laureate of the U.S.  He spoke of his influences and literary influences in general. He spoke of the death of humor in poetry–he blames the Romantics who he said “replaced sex and humor with landscape.” And he spoke of the difficulty for some people used to hearing formalist poetry to hear the acoustics of what is commonly called free verse. (He doesn’t like the term.)
He also read several of his poems, although half of what he read came from others. Here is a wonderful two line poem by Howard Nemerov called “Bacon and Eggs”:

The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.

See it’s good to laugh.  And have fun in poetry.

And so he spoke of the importance of humor and used a poem by Ruth L. Schwartz to demonstrate how humor can be used as a transition point, moving from light to darkness (or vise versa). He got a laugh on the line “look at that DUCK,” which is how he wanted it to be:

The Swan at Edgewater Park

Isn’t one of your prissy richpeoples’ swans
Wouldn’t be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
at that big duck!
Beauty isn’t the point here; of course
the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible—no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesn’t know yet she’s gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back—and
He’s a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It’s not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both—
That’s the kind of swan this is.

But the most effecting poem that he read was the one that he read last. It is his beautiful poem about the love between a mother and son–told with sweet humor:

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Quote #29: Adrienne Rich on “love”

Adrienne Rich illustration 2013 jpbohannon

Adrienne Rich
illustration 2013 jpbohannon

An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

Adrienne Rich (quoted from brainpickings)

Thanksgiving, mothers, food and unspoken love

Ancestors' Song by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Ancestors’ Song by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

A friend of mine went to a conference in New York City a few weeks back, where she saw the poet, Maria Mazziotti Gillan.  When she returned, she had thoughtfully brought me back a copy of Gillan’s latest collection, Ancestors’ Song, with a lovely note on the title page (which I didn’t discover until I had read most of it two or three times.)

The poems are powerful. They are heart-wrenching and thought provoking and memory inducing.

Anyway, I thought I would share one with you. (I hope that Ms. Gillan does not mind.)

Even if you claim not to like poetry, read this one anyway. It is not a thanksgiving day poem, but a poem about mothers and food and abundance and unspoken love, things that are often intertwined during this holiday which so heavily focuses on the kitchen and table.

Enjoy it:

Conjuring Up My Mother

Why this morning, twenty years after my mother died,
do I conjure her up in her basement kitchen, clear
as if I had seen her yesterday? Watch her lift the roasting
pan out of the oven, the chicken browned and sizzling,
the oven-roasted potatoes, sliced and quartered, brown
and gold. Watch her pull out the stuffed artichokes, dark
green leaves holding homemade breadcrumbs that have formed
a crust while the artichokes cooked. She places the food carefully
as an artist on serving platters in the basement dining room
where 16 of us sit around three tables placed end to end
to form a long row. The chicken and artichokes are the third
course she has served this Sunday, as she does each Sunday, her
children and grandchildren laughing and talking, take for granted
the aroma of tomato sauce and homemade ravioli, meatballs, bowls
of olives and walnuts, huge salads from her garden, the entire meal
ending with her special lemon cake and bowls of fruit and cookies
and espresso. Such bounty presented to us each week as though it
would go on forever, my mother happy to be cooking for hours before
we arrived from our morning coffee and NYTimes and sleeping in, happy
to see us all together at her table, the way we came to believe we deserved
to be served, came to believe she would always be there. Even now, I imagine
I can see the crispy skin of that chicken, long since eaten, the crusty potatoes,
the artichoke leaves, the bread stuffing, that I could drive to her house
and she’d be waiting for me, and not as I do now, each day, all the voices
that surrounded me vanished, only this memory to comfort me in my empty
house where too often, I eat alone.

“Conjuring Up My Mother,” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan.  In Ancestors’ Song, Bordighera Press, 2013.