On Island

January 14, 2012

Child, do you see anywhere that I could sit,
either on the common ground or in the groves
belonging to the god?

For your eyes’ glint, green is not of land, but of
Anselm’s famous assumption that greatness
resides in existence—like salt water in the sea, say,
or fantasy’s strange struggle with what is,
after all, simply a child at the edge of the ocean.

Idle eyes can be like a crown
you wear to mock the idylls of a king.
They can be a story of a wedded existence—
its laurels, its pride—here on this island, where we
can be as a bride saying her nuptial vows.

Or they can reveal only the darkest of shadows,
that which there is  none greater than, more like
a crowded movie theatre than an empty cave
and when its monuments are an illusion…
why, we should not be able to see at all.

That which there is none greater than—
like the breaking crests of the waves forever,
some from the setting sun, some from his rising,
and some from the place of his midday beams,
and some from the northern mountains of night…

…must necessarily exist. And so
the swell of water becomes a rising of the evening air.
Poetry resides in its existence.
My name is Anselm.
Child, please find me my chair.

* Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus


8 Responses to “On Island”

  1. John Stevens Says:

    I’ve been eavesdropping! But your exchange is worth listening in to – and I like that discussion of Harold Bloom and the inevitably of words as the test for the quality of poetry. I would say that’s a pretty useful and demanding test – and one that can be applied to free verse and traditional forms equally.

  2. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, I have written a play or two and played with the idea of a chorus, but never been able to make it live right. Maybe your reflections on a chorus might lead to another play writing effort, although around here I don’t have a theater to work with, and that has sort of ended playwriting until we move back to Wisconsin after I retire.
    I love what you report about Bloom’s latest book. I think he’s right, at least partially. If you run across a poem that seems to have an “inevitability” of language you can remember that poem better than if it does not have that language, but also the poem means more. I have written both traditional poetry and free verse, and though I like some of the free verse I have written, I believe my traditional work is by far better. Ethel, on the other hand, only writes free verse, but is so disciplined at it–and so imagistic–that her talent outshines mine. My reading is all over the place, but I always come back to poetry that has structure.
    As for the discussion about existence, that I’ll have to ponder for awhile. I may even go back and read Yeats’ translation of Sophocles if I can somehow find the time. I really did enjoy this poem.

  3. extrasimile Says:

    ‘Oh Mr. Davis, I bet you say that to all the poems.’
    Actually, Thomas, I am floored once again by your thoughts and their penetration into what I am doing. And flattered by their flattery. Lurking behind the scenes of this poem is a paper by Thomas Nagel called ‘Death’ (in his book ‘Mortal Questions’, though it is probably on line). If death, he wonders, is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad thing to die. That is, if you no longer exist, how could anything—including your death—be bad for you? It is very hard for us to imagine our complete lack of existence. Sure, we can imagine ourselves imagining we don’t exist, but…
    This situation sort of parallels the classic ontological argument. That which exists is always greater than that which does not. How could we imagine anything but this? Except Sophocles is way ahead of us here. In the Yeats translation:
    Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
    Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
    The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.
    Interesting, the role of the chorus in this. In my, ah, somewhat flippant comments to John Stevens about his use of parenthetical voice, I raised the issue as to how this might allow one to say almost anything. The chorus works like this, but in a subtle way. It is a character in the play, but not quite a person—or, let’s say, not quite in a mimetic relationship with a person. Its relationship with existence is different. Its voice could conceivably be…oh, I don’t know…on the other side of existence.
    or fantasy’s strange struggle with what is,
    after all, simply a child at the edge of the ocean.
    A brief thought on the use of traditional meter: Harold Bloom in his new book, The Shadow of a Great Rock, writes ‘the test for great poetry and prose is an aura of inevitability in the phrasing.’ In reviewing this book (which I have not read) Robert Harrison in the current NYRB (Feb 9) comments: ‘poetry written in English today shows precious little ‘inevitability’ in its phrasing. Some of the factors that have contributed to the drastic decline of the art of bringing phrases to closure are clear enough. They include the wholesale de-formalization of poetry…and the consequent premium placed on enjambment; our dogmatic insistence of open-endedness and the bland tones of everyday language; our predilection for understatement and uneasiness about rhetorical display; our aversion to affirmation and our cult of the whisper.’
    By the way, I completely recommend Robert Harrison’s podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

  4. Thomas Davis Says:

    Ahh, finally some time.
    I love this poem as much as I can love any poem. It has a grace to it that, ironically considering you did not use meter or rhyme, exhibits itself in the music of reading it aloud, which I have done twice now.
    Sometimes I am not sure that I do not always overthink everything, especially poetry, so I approach thinking about “On Island” with trepidation. Will I over-mean it, taking away its loveliness? David Belfast reminded me of that tendency, albeit accidentally, just recently.
    But, really, what do I make of this loveliness? An older person is talking to a younger person, and, as we older persons tend to do, emits wisdom. He does that while sensing the child is special and in the context of asking the child for a simple favor.
    The poem, at least to me, is a poem about existence, about Anselm revealing one of his greatest lessons, that greatness, even on a small island that is an abstract of color on paper, resides in existence. He says that even our fantasies, which sometimes heap up in life, are really no more than a child staring out at the ocean–even though we recognize in the child a special magic that is symbolic of the island, existence within context of all earth.
    From this beginning Anselm’s older voice changes into reflection, reflecting that idle eyes are like a crown, glory, used to mock the idylls of a king (a reference to Tennyson? A poem I have not read in too long a while). Eyes can be a story of a man wedded to existence and as joyous in that existence as a bride at her nuptials.
    Or eyes can also reveal the darknesses in existence where monuments are shadows illusory as as the seeing of the prisoners in Plato’s cave, or the moviegoers sight of existence on a movie screen. The miracle is that given darkness, illusion, fantasy, and the island itself, there is fantasy in the notion that we can see at all.
    the breaking crests of the waves forever,
    some from the setting sun, some from his rising,
    and some from the place of his midday beams,
    and some from the northern mountains of night…*

    …must necessarily exist.

    and in that necessity of existence is the rising of poetry, giving, as John says, an ontological argument for the existence of poetry, for greatness residing in existence.

    And then Anselm, remembering himself, the magical child, existence on an island, tells the child his name and asks for his chair–the place where he can place himself.

  5. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, I haven’t forgotten you. I have had a bout of health problems and the semester is starting at the college, so I am overwhelmed with trying to solve faculty and student problems, challenges, and complaints. I’ll try to get to it over the weekend as long as I have enough brain to get my brain around one of your works. John, as usual, is smarter than I am about your poetry, and I read his comments with avid interest already.

  6. John Stevens Says:

    Natural speech rhythms or strict metre? I find myself thinking about that every time I draft something new; I’m experimenting with how the different approaches work and what they feel like – and haven’t arrived at firm conclusions.
    I remember an observation by Yeats on the difficulty he had when reading sprung rhythm (and by extension I suppose free verse): he was uncomfortable because it took him several goes to figure out where the emphases should fall (in his introduction to the 1937 Oxford Book of Modern Verse – his own idiosyncratic selection).
    On the other hand, the generality of poetry readers today seem to prefer language that they say is ‘natural’ or ‘unpretentious’, even ‘unpoetic’ – close to the prosaic end of the prose-poetry spectrum.
    I sometimes think that the solution for our times is to try to capture those natural rhythms of speech that correspond fairly closely to an acceptable metre. In a way, wasn’t this what Chaucer was trying to do for his age when he pushed us down the road towards a combined foot and syllable metre? I might be off target here – you’ll know better than I.
    Perhaps we need a piece on this by John over at his Bebrowed blog? Or would you be willing to tackle it on yours? Anyway, I look forward to the poem you are working on when you are ready.
    (So the picture came first, eh? And Roschach! I like that.)

  7. extrasimile Says:

    I hadn’t actually put it to myself that I was making ‘an ontological argument for poetry’, but I accept and like the idea. The picture came first. And that really emerged as a Rorschach response—you know, that sort of looks like an island floating there—to the picture. Perhaps an ontological argument for the island would be a better way of thinking about it. By the way, Oedipus at Colonus is the play that has the chorus stating: ‘Not to be born is best of all’—a kind of reverse ontological argument. I made it a point not to pay attention to metrical considerations, but just to concentrate on the phrasing…keep it as close to my natural speech rhythms as possible—and nothing more. Any thoughts on this approach? I am working—but very slowly—on a piece on poetic form inspired by the sestinas you and Thomas Davis wrote. They are really both quite good, though very different—which is also good.
    …so much to do…

  8. John Stevens Says:

    Ha ha! An ontological argument for the existence of poetry; I don’t wish to argue with that – although, on further reflection, why not?
    After all, what you are actually giving us is empirical evidence for the existence of poetry! So, for example, those are very convincing images: salt water in the sea, the child at the edge of the ocean, plus the imported lines of verse, with their strict syllable count.
    There’s a great deal here about eyes and sight, which I noticed on 3rd or 4th reading (I’m slow). I would suppose that touch was the primary sense in our evolution and probably remains the one that is indispensable, but sight is the flashy one, the one we are most conscious of and which supports our reasoning and our gathering of evidence.
    I liked the picture you gave us ten days ago of Anselm’s island – a feast for the eyes. And which came first for you, the painting or the poem; which was the prime mover?

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