I have subtitled my blog: All About Poetry: Sublime, Ridiculous, Useful. And that is what it is going to be. Over the next few posts, I aim to unpack those three things, starting today with Sublime.
When I think of a good example of a sublime piece of poetry, I think of Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great.” Spender (1909-1995) was a British poet and essayist who wrote a good deal about social injustice, was first pro- and later anti-Communist and ended up being knighted about ten years before his death. Let us look at the first verse:
“I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.”
There are a lot of things to notice about this verse. There is no rhyming. The lines are not metrical or even the same length: the longest is 14 syllables and the shortest is 9. But they feel right. And the language! I feel like I know what it means to remember “the soul’s history/Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,/Endless and singing.” I can see it and hear it. And desire is not located inside the body but outside like falling blossoms.
The Japanese have a saying about the blossoms of the cherry tree, which blooms very briefly in April, perfuming the people wandering below their branches: beautiful and gone. It means that life is brief and to be treasured for what little time we have. I think Spender is using this imagery in just this way, especially given how he ends.
“The names of those who in their lives fought for life,/Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre./Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun/And left the vivid air signed with their honour.”
One of the things poetry can do is remind us to wear the fire’s center at our hearts, to live vividly in the sun. Computers cannot do that for us, not really. I cannot see anyone living with a fire in their heart huddled over a smartphone on the train while outside the window golden leaves are falling across the tracks, longing to be noticed like the people inside the train are longing to be noticed. Poems can wake us up.
Spender, Stephen. Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1965. (I like this poem so much I accidentally bought a second copy of this book.)