Tag Archives: standards

A Paltry Thing

This week I read the W.B. Yeats selections in William Harmon’s The Classic Hundred Poems. The four Yeats poems (included, as are all of the poems in the book, because they are the most anthologized) are: “The Second Coming”, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, “Leda and the Swan”, and “Sailing to Byzantium”. I know each of these well enough that lines and images echo in my head at the slightest rhyme from daily life. Reading them again (now older I guess, or less willing to grant genius when I do not myself see it), I can’t help but ask: why did I ever think I liked the poetry of W.B. Yeats? Sure, they’re well-crafted, and some moments are achingly well-timed (“An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick”), but Yeats takes himself far too seriously–a lonely adherent of his own bizarre prophesies: mean spirited, hokey, violent, and escapist. Even pompous, fanatical Ezra Pound possesses more humility.

Re-given the choice, I too will chose Thomas Hardy before Yeats. Re-given the choice, I’ll even choose Edwin Arlington Robinson over Yeats … on the merits of “Miniver Cheevy” alone. After all, I believe it is the voice of Robinson (his lightly veiled self-deprecation) in “Miniver Cheevy” which gives Pound the engine to first mockingly parody Yeats’s too cute “Lake Isle” and later to savage himself and everyone else in this gone-in-the-teeth civilization. I’ll have the irony of Hardy and the sarcasm of “Miniver Cheevy”, long before the re-mythologized cultic rape and gore from Yeats. Better to have a cat steal your fleshy heart than to be memorialized by a mechanical, tittering bird in an unrealized, dandified empire of artifice.

First Affections: Ozymandias

This summer Robert Archambeau wrote a breezy (and yet smart) personal Biographia Literaria on his Samizdat Blog. He demonstrates a deep poetic education. Like Coleridge, he reads and writes quickly and astutely. He also consumes (or appears to comprehend) entire literary oeuvres. Therefore, he can write convincingly about his debts to Whitman, Pound, Matthias, Wordsworth, Byron, Johnson, Blake, and (now) Coleridge. (So many Romantics, why no Keats?) To be sure, these are a scholar’s debts (and undoubtedly, a reader’s and a writer’s debts too), but I wonder if there’s not also a smaller, more quotidian way to tell the history of one’s poetic affections.

Earlier this week I was rereading a few of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems. This is always a good time of the year to read the opening lines of “Ode to the West Wind“, but what caught my attention and reminded me of Archambeau’s ambitious literary biography, was my long (and yet infrequent) fondness for Shelley’s “Ozymandias“. I first read the poem at the age of 13. I remember exactly where I was sitting. Facing west, at a classroom desk one seat away from the windows. My useless middle school teacher was painting her nails or reading romance novels, anything but teaching. Flipping to the back of my textbook, I discovered poetry. In “Ozymandias” it rhymed, was packed with moral irony, and echoed the biblical sensibilities that meant (and mean) so much to me. In the next couple of years I read nearly every poetry book I could find in my tiny school library.

As it turns out, I am not a devotee of Shelley’s poetry. I tire of his lurid long-windedness. Likewise, “Ozymandias” seems a bit too easy–milk, not meat–but I owe it (or should blame it) for much.

Who flees from Wyatt?

As a way to keep up with and revisit meaningful poems, I sometimes grab poetry anthologies, willy-nilly, and dip through them, reading to remember. I have on my desk, now, eight of these. There’s nothing special about this impromptu collection; they were at hand:

Amis, Kingsley. 1978. The Faber popular reciter. London: Faber and Faber. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4932677
Baumgaertner, Jill P. 1990. Poetry. San Diego, [Calif.]: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/20966790
Harmon, William. 1998. The classic hundred poems: all-time favorites. New York: Columbia University Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/37955493
Hollander, John. 1996. Committed to memory: 100 best poems to memorize. New York: Academy of American Poets. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/35959019
McClatchy, J. D. 1990. The Vintage book of contemporary American poetry. New York: Vintage Books. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/21338734
Nims, John Frederick. 1992. Western wind: an introduction to poetry. New York: McGraw-Hill. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/23976731
Pound, Ezra, and Marcella Spann. 1964. Confucius to Cummings, an anthology of poetry. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/335113
Williams, Oscar. 1958. The pocket book of modern verse; English and American poetry of the last hundred years from Walt Whitman to Dylan Thomas. New York: Washington Square Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4561893

Three of these (Amis, Harmon, and Hollander) include Sir Thomas Wyatt‘s “They flee from me”, a poem I have read many, many times. I know that it is great; but it has, however, shaped both my “ear” and my poetics–my notions of what a good poem should do, how it should work, and how it should sound. That is, “They flee from me” is a standard of English verse.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Having always thought of it as a great poem, I was surprised, this time, therefore, to discover that the poem is not my friend. In fact, I have for it a kind of animosity. I think this animosity has always been there … at least, it must have begun no later than my first dozen-or-so readings of the poem. Today, I read the poem as if encountering some kind of hostile agent. Why should it take so long for me to realize this? After twenty-five years of reading “They flee from me”, I now discover this growing discomfort for Wyatt’s little poem? The mind says “great poem” (and it is), but the instincts say “bastard!” Have I come to an age in which I am willing to concede to affections? Or have I merely been a slow reader and a poor listener? I do not know. I doubt that I have the machinery to know.

But, “They flee from me” is a great poem. Like everyone else, I marvel at the internal and slant rhyming, the irregular meter, the ironies and the puns. I appreciate the captor taken captive, emancipated unwillingly; the progressive betrayals, each stage grown worse (how was it ever “twenty times better”?); but most of all, the puns … heart, kindly, served, fain. And I’m all for the nudity; perhaps, only Robert Herrick writes a striptease better.

As artful as “They flee from me” may be, a great poem of a jilted courtier, Wyatt nonetheless, got exactly what he deserved–scorned. I don’t feel sorry for him at all. In this poem, he’s nothing more than a pervy stalker. And what’s worse, he whined when his mistress grew tired of his infantile neediness. “Dear heart, how like you this?”: Yuck.

Perhaps I will change my mind and read the poem newly in decades to come–read it with “newfangleness”; but the whole experience (an awakening to a distaste for a standard) has me wondering about what other great poems I might truthfully dislike. Making the list: probably much of Shakespeare, there’s a meanness to the bard; plenty of Yeats; Frost, yes; and all of Wallace Stevens, perhaps. On the other side, I’d guess there are poets and poems I thought I didn’t like, but indeed I do. Where are these poems? And how will I know to reread (since I once so kindly served) them, now, for their goodness?

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Hans Holbein the Younger. 1535-37.