Monday, July 12, 2010

Poems recited 10.00-10.55 am, 23.09.09, 1325 Avenue of the Americas

There is a wide, high passageway at street level through the fortress that is 1325 Ave. of the Americas. On 22.09.09 she came to identify the building. On 23.09.09 she came at 10.00 for an 11.00 appointment, afraid of getting lost and being late. She was in a state of abject terror. She sat on a bench reciting poetry and smoking to calm her nerves.

She thinks of herself as someone who never reads poetry. Then she realises that she takes the OCT of the Iliad with her on even short trips. She's lazy, it's true: she should be more adventurous. She has poems in her head: lines flash through the head throughout the day, if she has to wait at a bus stop, at the hairdresser's, in a supermarket queue she will go through some of the poems she knows. So of course most of the poetry she encounters during a year is the stuff in her head. She learnt 'Courage! he cried, and pointed toward the land' sitting through a boring English class in 9th grade, leafing through the anthology: if idly standing at a bus stop 'Courage! he cried...' is the poem likeliest to come first to the mind.

'Courage!' he cried, and pointed toward the land;
'This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.'
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemèd always afternoon...

She thinks she learnt 'The White Knight's Tale' around the same time :

I'll tell thee everything I can, there's little to relate,
I saw an agèd agèd man, a-sitting on a gate.
'Who are you, agèd man,' I said, 'and how is it you live?'
And his answer trickled through my head like water through a sieve.
He said 'I search for butterflies that sleep among the wheat;
I make them into mutton pies and sell them in the street;
I sell them unto men,' he said,' who sail on stormy seas,
And that's the way I get my bread, a trifle if you please.'

But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one's whiskers green
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen
So having no reply to give
To what the old man said
I cried, 'Come tell me how you live!'
And thumped him on the head...

[She had been reciting the poem for years before she realised the agèd man was angling for a tip. 'I thanked him much for telling me the way he got his wealth, But chiefly for his wish that he might drink my noble health' is the sort of mistake she makes all the time.]

This often flashes into the head unprompted. Also 'That is no country for old men', 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan', 'Earth has not anything to show more fair', 'My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains', 'Carecharmer sleep, son of the sable night' - it's not that these are her favourite poems (she's not sure which those would be), they're just the poems that come to mind most often. (How often depends more on how much time she happens to spend in queues than on an inclination to 'read' poetry; this is, obviously, why she should be more adventurous.) If she has a long wait she brings up more. They are not very recherché, the selection being strongly influenced by a couple of anthologies and a few other fairly predictable sources. When she checks them against the original text, which she seldom does, she finds that mistakes have crept in.

Poems recited 10.00-10.55 am, 23.09.09, 1325 Avenue of the Americas

Come my Celia, let us prove...
Carecharmer sleep, son of the sable night...
Sailing to Byzantium
Ode to a Nightingale
We stood by a pond that winter day...

(The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird awing...)

Wind, wind, wind in the old trees
The White Knight's Tale
Wild Swans at Coole
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought...
Tender only to one
Why dost thou dally, Death, and tarry on the way...
Song of Wandering Aengus
The Lotus-Eaters (Courage! he cried, and pointed toward the land...)
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day...
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes...
Earth has not anything to show more fair...
The world is too much with us, late and soon...
Kubla Khan
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!
Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part...
Beginning of Apology of Socrates (ὅτι μὲν ὑμεῖς, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, πεπόνθατε ὑπὸ τῶν ἐμῶν κατηγόρων οὐκ οἶδα. ἐγὼ δ᾽οὖν καὶ αὐτὸς ὑπ᾽αὐτῶν ὀλίγου ἐμαυτοῦ ἐπελαθόμην...)
Now she is like the white tree rose
Ode to Autumn
The Walrus & the Carpenter
Time will say nothing but I told you so...
This lunar beauty...
Margaret, are you grieving...

These are not the only poems & passages she knows, but they are the ones she thought of on 23.09.09 between 10.00 and 10.55 am.

O Sunflower, weary of time
That countest the steps of the sun
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done

Where the youth pined away with desire
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow
Climb up from their graves and aspire
Where my sunflower wishes to go

[In her 2nd (and last) year at Smith she was assigned a paper on this poem and O Rose, thou art sick. She was then very ignorant. She thought that it would be cheating to read anything anyone else had written about the poems. She went to the college library and found the books on Blake and looked at books and essays on other poems, to get an idea of the sort of thing that was wanted: she felt rather guilty about this, but she eased her conscience by reading only work which made no mention whatsoever of the assigned poems.

[When she was at Oxford, a sign in the Examination Schools said Gowns Shall Be Worn In All Lectures. With the exception of Andrew Mason of Corpus, no one wore a gown to lectures. Everyone knew that this rule was not enforced.

When she began her D.Phil., she made a mistake. It was common knowledge that Oxford had only introduced the doctorate to appease Americans, who needed the degree if they wanted to pursue academic careers in the United States. At Oxford, it had been standard practice for those who stayed on to spend several years reading widely, rather than immediately locking themselves into a highly specialised research topic: this was the system which had produced great scholars like Peter Brunt and Sir Ronald Syme.

She knew perfectly well, of course, that the rubric in the Examination Regulations and Decrees specified that a candidate for the D.Phil. must submit a piece of work which represented a 'substantial contribution to knowledge'; this presupposed that the candidate would identify a topic and carry out original research on the topic. Since everyone knew that this was all nonsense - this was not the way scholars like Brunt and Syme were produced, the degree was merely a convenience for Americans - it had never occurred to her that anyone would take it seriously. When she got a note in her pigeonhole assigning a supervisor and asking her to arrange a meeting, when the supervisor expected her to find a topic of research, this came as an unpleasant surprise. A topic? She had taken it for granted that she had been given 3 years' funding to read widely and lay down a solid basis for a life's work as a serious scholar.

[She expects to get things wrong. She expects things to go wrong.


No comments: