December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
  Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
  From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
  If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
  Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
  I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
  Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
  Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
  My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
  So I did sit and eat.

– George Herbert

In Catholicism, the Eucharist is the taking of the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. I suppose there are some old-school Catholics who believe that the bread and wine are literally the flesh and blood of Christ, and not symbolic gestures, in what amounts to holy cannibalism. It is unclear whether “Love” is love personified or Christ himself in Herbert’s poem (probably the latter), but when Love instructs the speaker to taste its meat, the invitation resonates as a spiritual and possibly physical feast.

Original Sin at the Water-Hole

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

"Original Sin at the Water Hole" - Morgan

– Edwin Morgan

The slippery snake insinuates itself in the sinewy lines and, in ouroboral fashion, begins and ends the poem. If we uncoil Morgan’s concrete creation we get this: a spontaneous obstreperous osmosis of hysterically snorting posses of sporting she-hippopotamuses spotting a little floating asp!; or, The Fall of Safari Animals. Morgan’s careful layout clusters similar letters together so that the poem looks like one tangled mess of a word, the repeating sounds tripping over each other. If we pay particular attention to the broken-off bits that book-end the poem, we get this summarization of sin:


Adam’s Task

June 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field” – GEN. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
  Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
  Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
  Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
  Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdie; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
  Thou; thou; thou — three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket, thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
  Eared mashawok; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
  Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
  Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
  Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
  Naming’s over. Day is done.

– John Hollander

There are four types of names at play here: the onomatopoetic (paw-paw-paw), the eponymic (McFleery’s pomma), the seemingly exotic (awagabu, mashawok), and names that describe the creature (lily-eater, whitestap). Curiously, McFleery’s pomma suggests that there is another man besides Adam walking around Eden. Ferdinand de Saussure might delight in witnessing how the animal’s names came about; they are arbitrary insofar as they spawn from Adam’s whim, but I’d like to think there are reasons behind each name. Paw-paw-paw must be a mammal, rivarn perhaps a stripy antelope-like thing, whitestap a nervous bird, and the glurd either an oafish ungulate or a big stupid fish.

Easter Wings

April 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
   Though foolishly he lost the same,
     Decaying more and more
       Till he became
          Most poor:
          With thee
       O let me rise
     As larks, harmoniously,
   And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did begin:
   And still with sicknesses and shame
     Thou didst so punish sin,
       That I became
          Most thin.
          With thee
       Let me combine,
     And feel this day thy victory;
   For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

– George Herbert

Like, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Herbert’s religious beliefs helped fashion a body of truly inventive and inspired work. Contrasting with the artifice of its secret acrostics and nonce forms, his poetry speaks frankly to God on issues of faith and morality.

“Easter Wings”, which is probably the earliest concrete poem in English, bolsters its message by the use of form. Originally published sideways, each stanza mimics the shape of an angel or bird wing in flight. The lines, which wax and wane in length, are shortest when expressing doubt or severance from God and longest when proclaiming His glory. It is, at least in a typographic sense, a resurrection.

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