To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the Spell demean
There is a syllable-less Sea
Of which it is the sign
My will endeavors for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies –
Of introspective Mines –
— Emily Dickinson
“To tell the Beauty would decrease, to state the Spell demean….” If Emily Dickinson’s opening lines prove bewildering, the rest of her poem offers little clarity. She writes in metaphor- but, more significantly, in mystery. Though this piece is a mere eight lines, it is hard to digest quickly. Dickinson’s esoteric language demands a reader who will “endeavor for its word.” Perhaps it is hardly surprising that a woman who interacted with the world as if from behind a veil for most of her self-contained life would leave behind such an amorphous legacy. But, on the other hand, perhaps if she spoke plainly “the Beauty would decrease.”
Mystical language infuses the very core of this poem – a far cry from the traditional, exacting Calvinist theology Dickinson would have grown up with. But, then again, she never exactly cared about the status quo. The true mysticism Dickinson reveals in this piece extends far beyond her mention of “spells” and “signs.” From both the meaning and also the convoluted nature of her very first lines: “To tell the Beauty would decrease, to state the Spell demean.…” her reader perceives the apophatic thinking fundamental to the piece as a whole, and in Dickinson’s opinion, probably to life. Her strategy is brilliant and well suited to her message: in the obscurity, lies the transcendence.
The “it,” the “Sea,” that Dickinson describes her spirit reaching to comprehend seems almost reminiscent of the speech used in one of the most famous pieces of mystical literature: Plato’s allegory of the cave. In it, one must ascend from the darkness of the cave into the light and, until one does so, one’s comprehensions are limited to only the bare shadows of things. One achieves this transcendence – this rapture as it where – through knowledge and wisdom.
Here is where the similarities between Dickinson’s piece and Plato’s allegory break down. According to Dickinson, knowledge only limits the transcendence of the spirit because the “Sea,” the realm of rapture and paramountcy her spirit feels its absence from and yearns to perceive, is “syllables.” It is not confined. It cannot be limited to words or language, and to try to do so – “to tell the Beauty” or to “state the Spell” would only demean its true nature. Thus, leaving behind the explainable and rational, the spirit attains a state of rapture, and perceiving beauty – which Dickinson so aptly capitalizes – becomes the way, and (dare I say it?) the truth and the life.
O poorest country, this is not your name.
You should be called beacon. You should
be called flame. Almond and bougainvillea,
garden and green mountain, villa and hut,
girl with red ribbons in her hair,
books under arm, charmed by the light
of morning, charcoal seller in black skirt,
encircled by dead trees. You, country,
are merchant woman and eager clerk,
grandfather at the gate, at the crossroads
with the flashlight, with all in sight.
— Danielle Legros Georges
“The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” hasn’t really come up in the news lately. Thankfully, the latest wave of hurricanes has missed it, for the most part. It is slowly rebuilding itself from the devastation of last year’s Hurricane Matthew—not to mention the massive earthquake that hit almost 8 years ago. It also elected Jovenel Moïse as its new president back in February, and has passed some pretty important anti-trafficking laws among recent legislation, but not many Americans are even aware of the fact that it has a government. They only know of it by that seven-word line, the one that American media can’t seem to resist.
When I tell people that I’m a first-generation Haitian-American, some actually apologize. Others just shake their heads, eyes full of pity, as they parrot the same tired facts—things they may have heard on the news, may have seen once in a Red Cross fundraising report, may have read in the brochure for a church mission trip that they didn’t join—back to me. The familiar spiel usually ends with, “It’s such a shame, what’s happening over there…” I don’t know what that they mean by that, and I doubt they know either. “What’s happening” is that this is a country with issues that, when put back in context, aren’t too different from those we face in the United States. That is why this poem by Danielle Legros Georges is so important.
I recognize the frustration that comes through the title of this poem; it is one of the elements that drew me in the first time I read it. It would be perfectly acceptable to sustain—throughout the whole piece—the defiance that is so evident in both the title and first line, but Legros Georges doesn’t do that. The poem’s first, second, and third lines are the quiet declaration of hope and a different kind of pride, one that resonates with all Haitians in the United States who have ever had their country explained to them. “You should be called beacon. You should / be called flame.”
Legros Georges goes on to carry the reader through the poem as though she has been patiently waiting for the chance to finally speak the truth, to gently set straight the limited record that American media has created. Her statements are propelled by commas and enjambments until the eighth line. From there, she regroups and continues in the same style until the end of the poem. What’s more is that Legros Georges is not speaking to the reader, but to Haiti. It is as though she does not need to explain the beauty of her country to others, but to re-explain it to herself. In just a few words, she encapsulates the true, complex, rich essence of her country, from “garden and green mountain” to the “girl with the red ribbon in her hair.”
As for her own background, Danielle Legros Georges was born in Haiti and raised in the United States. She is a graduate of Emerson College and New York University, where she respectively received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 2014, she was chosen as the second poet laureate of Boston, where she is currently a professor at Lesley University.
“Poem for the Poorest County in the Western Hemisphere.” Poets.org. 2010. Web. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/poem-poorest-country-western-hemisphere
[This poem appears in Danielle Legros Georges’ 2016 poetry collection, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (Barrow Street Press 2016), which is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Dear-Remote-Nearness-You/dp/0989329690]
Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and sea water.
She reminded them of the war.
On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope
and smoke it over burning frankincense.
You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell of lonely or empty.
You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her,
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
What man wants to lie down
and watch the world burn
in his bedroom?
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things.
doesn’t she wear
the world well?
— Warsan Shire
I spent this previous summer working at a social justice newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa. While on assignment, I caught a glimpse into some of the city’s more unsavory corners. The poverty I saw juxtaposed sharply with the country’s natural splendor. I was told that that was the case for much of the continent of Africa. Cape Town’s beauty (and poverty) however, often paled in comparison to its people. Warm, diverse, and vibrant, yet struggling to reconcile with inherited legacies of horrible violence, oppression, and conflict.
While there, I tried to read as much African literature as I could get my hands on in order to understand a little of this struggle. I grew especially fond of young Somali-British writer Warsan Shire. A 26-year-old working through some serious themes in her poetry, she was named Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014. The above poem is an excerpt from her 2011 collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. What I love about Shire is that she’s undeniably a part of a new, exciting generation of poets: those born on MySpace, nurtured on Tumblr, and currently coming of age on Twitter. They have social consciousness and political motivations. They live and write in our world of hyper-connectedness online.
As for Shire’s own background, she was born in Kenya to Somali parents. She migrated from Africa to Europe at a young age and much of her poetry deals with her subsequent struggles to cope with her identity post-migration. Detached from her cultural homeland and ancestors, through her poetry Shire has often embodied the displacement many immigrants feel in an unfamiliar country. In her spare time, she collaborated on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016), a mark of her quickly growing influence within the artistic sphere.
“Ugly” is a powerful and heavy piece that taps into the rich tradition of storytelling present in many African cultures. The way I read it, “Ugly” uses a girl-child – an immigrant – as an allegory for Africa: its history of ugly civil war, ugly colonization, and ugly oppression. This child’s body, like the continent, is “littered” with “ugly things” – refugee camps, riots, boarders: souvenirs of brutal conflict and hard journeys. Because of her “problems,” she is found difficult to love by the more fortunate corners of the world, who do not wish to feel the intimate loss she feels, who do not wish to “watch the world burn / in [their] bedroom.” To me, Shire is trying to square what she knows is beautiful – Africa’s peoples and cultures – with its traumatic inheritance.
The form of the poem is authoritative. It’s declarative – there are many end stops, almost every line closes with a comma or period. Shire isn’t asking for input or opening a conversation: it is as if she is simply stating reality, what is. “You are her mother.” “She reminded them of the war.” “Your daughter is ugly.” End of discussion. It feels like a chastisement to the rest of the world: Take care of your human family.
However, the final stanza does not end on a despairing, or even negative, note. It takes a turn for the hopeful: “But God, / doesn’t she wear/the world well.” Another statement: Shire knows the daughter is beautiful both due to, and in spite of, her colonies, islands, boarders, riots, wars, and camps. And I think she’s daring the rest of the world to know likewise.
I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet deck.
The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with the man’s argument
that such postponement
is now the nature of
that we are all late
in a slow time,
that we grow up many
And the single
is not easily
It could be, though the sharpness (the achiote)
I note in others,
makes more sense
than my own distances. The agilities
they show daily
who do the world’s
And who do nature’s
as I have no sense
I have done either
I have made dialogues,
have discussed ancient texts,
have thrown what light I could, offered
But the known?
This, I have had to be given,
a life, love, and from one man
But sitting here
I look out as a wind
and water man, testing
I know the quarters
of the weather, where it comes from,
where it goes. But the stem of me,
this I took from their welcome,
or their rejection, of me
And my arrogance
was neither diminished
by the communication
It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
from my feet
— Charles Olson
I discovered Olson on an oppressively dreary day in southeast Scotland, locked inside a library cubicle with an impenetrable book of obscure English avant-garde poetry. I had an assignment to read J.H. Prynne, the widely-admired but seldom-read (for good reason) leader of the English experimental cutting edge, a poet deeply tied to Cambridge University and its cadre of anti-lyric radicalists.
I was introduced to Prynne through my professor at the time, Don Paterson, OBE, an excellent poet in his own right whose gorgeous and deeply Scottish verse won him a pair of T.S. Eliot prizes and a consistent publication in British dailies. Despite telling us that he was not a fan of Prynne, and, instead, wrote poetry specifically in opposition to his sensibilities, Prof. Paterson had us read a long, manic, tangential, and brilliant lecture that Prynne gave on a somewhat obscure American postmodernist named Charles Olson.
Prynne’s topic–and my selection for this week–comes from Olson’s Maximus Poems, an epic exploration of American history, the local world of Massachusetts, and the wandering Greek philosopher Maximus of Tyre. Not unlike Pound’s Cantos, Maximus Poems was an attempt to create a uniquely American mythic literature. And, like Cantos, Olson’s work was crucial to the development of a poetic style that was completely divorced from the sensibilities of the most important and influential British poets.
British poets of the 1950s–the era when Olson rose to a place of prominence and influence–expanded upon the lyrical modernist tradition developed by T.S. Eliot and continued by poets like W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Theirs was a poetry that combined modernist sensibilities with the English lyric tradition. Meanwhile, on the other coast, a different style was developing. Influenced by the objectivism of William Carlos Williams, which focused on accurately representing objects as they appeared in the world, and the linguistic experiments of late Ezra Pound.
“Maximus, to himself,” offers itself in direct opposition to the mythic tradition of the British lyric, which found itself in conversation with texts from across history. “I have made dialogues,” Olson says, as Maximus. “I have discussed ancient texts,/have thrown what light I could, offered / what pleasure / doceat allows,” he says, specifically mentioning the classics and using a Latin word. However, despite mentioning these things, Olson’s Maximus says that “the known,” the concrete parts of life, “I have had to be given, / a life, love, and from one man / the world.” Whether the “one man” is interpreted as a higher power, a father, or even the speaker himself, Maximus, and, by extension, Olson, are saying that engagement with the stories of the past does not deliver the crucial parts of life, which must instead be given to a person by the world.
Finally, in a way typical of the objectivist school, Olson ends this poem with a concrete image that encapsulates the central feelings of the poem. Describing the “sea stretching out from my feet,” Olson evokes the feeling of locating oneself in an overwhelming world, while still emphasizing that experience is entirely based on one’s personal perspective, hence the sea emanating from Maximus.
It is this image of the “sea stretching out from my feet” that I connected to, walking along my favorite cold, wind-swept beach in Fife, thousands of miles away from the place I call home. In his lecture on the Maximus poems, Prynne offered a commentary on why he gravitates toward the uniquely American, often anti-lyric styles of Olson’s postmodernists: “But to be at home in that larger sense is not permitted to the lyric. It is permitted only to the great epic performances: and what’s more, to the great epic performances that can carry across that distance, and which you can carry with: that’s to say, the obscure epic.” An evocation of a true concrete home, the sense of feeling anchored on the planet, is exclusively the domain of a great epic like The Maximus Poems. By utilizing concrete images, Olson is able to create a feeling of home that Prynne finds not in the lyrics modernism of the British poets.
It took a journey across the ocean, the teachings of a Scottish lyric poet, and the lecture of a mad avant-garde language poet to reach Charles Olson, but doing so brought me to the closest evocation of a home that I could find in poetry. Even thousands of miles away, sitting on a beach in Scotland, I felt a connection as the sea stretched out from my feet.
— Henry Luzzatto ’18
“Maximus, to himself.” The Maximus Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press., 1983. Web.
[For more by Charles Olson, all of The Maximus Poems can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Maximus-Poems-Charles-Olson/dp/0520055950/ref=la_B000AP7SG4_1_2/143-4723425-1591860?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506874139&sr=1-2]
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
— W. B. Yeats, 1919
This past Spring, I spent four weeks in Dingle, Ireland as part of a English and Religion study-abroad program here at Washington and Lee University. During three months of preparatory coursework and the month spent in the country itself, our class discussed the life and works of W.B. Yeats more than any other Irish literary figure. I vividly remember sitting in the still serenity of a Catholic chapel, poring over this poem (one of a few written by Yeats to memorialize his dear friend Lady Gregory’s son, Robert, who died by friendly fire while flying for the British RFC in World War I), feeling an immediate attraction to the seemingly at-odds qualities of tension and balance imbued in the work.
Writing from the perspective of Robert Gregory, Yeats takes the first two lines to point out that the pilot likely understood that death in combat was an expected reality, but then pivots in the next two lines to discuss the socio-political and patriotic difficulties Robert faced while serving: “Those that I fight I do not hate / Those that I guard I do not love.” The English oppressed the Irish brutally and unfeelingly for centuries, and Ireland was not even a sovereign state at the time of this poem, so taking up arms on England’s behalf must have been a terribly difficult thing to do for Robert. It was not simply a case of siding with the ‘good guys’ versus the ‘bad guys’ for him; rather, Yeats makes clear that “A lonely impulse of delight” was the reason the man decided to become a pilot. Adrenaline, not “law,” “duty,” or “cheering” crowds” compelled Robert. Instead of pointing to some bland, cliché patriotic fervor on Robert’s part, Yeats chooses to highlight a more realistic, more human motivation within his poem’s subject.
Though this evident tension weaves throughout the elegy, Yeats counters it delicately with a sense of inner-peace, achieved both through his word choice and the poem’s structure itself. A sixteen-line work, it seems to be a ‘stretched sonnet’ of sorts. Though unlike in the sonnets of Shakespearean or Petrarchan style, Yeats chooses to adopt an alternating A-B-A-B-C-D-C-D … rhyme scheme, where no end-rhyme repeats beyond its two initial uses. This pattern drives the poem forward with fresh sounds every four lines, yet provides a comforting predictability for the reader. When these structural choices are paired with lines such as the poem’s conclusion (“I balanced all, brought all to mind, / The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind/ In balance with this life, this death.”), which itself features “balance(d)” twice, the reader feels the same calm in the face of mortality that Yeats seeks to express on Robert’s behalf.
When writing this elegy, Yeats faced the same challenges that plague and have plagued every writer who attempts to do the same: how do I, the living poet, capture the essence of a person who has passed on and present it to the world in a manner worthy of their memory? The fact that he penned more than one poem to honor Robert Gregory demonstrates just how futile he must have thought it was to try and write an appropriate elegy in one go. Though Yeats may have felt that “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” was an insufficient standalone tribute, I believe the poem presents an elegant and sophisticated portrayal of a man facing his death with mixed feelings, yet finding a transcendent peace “among the clouds above” at the very end.
— Lucas M. Morel ’18
Yeats, W.B. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” poets.org. Web. 24 September 2017. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/irish-airman-foresees-his-death
[For more poetry and other literature written by W.B. Yeats, his collected works can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Yeatss-Poetry-Norton-Critical-Editions/dp/0393974979/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506304860&sr=1-7&keywords=yeats]