A New Song- Langston Hughes

 

slate.com

slate.com

 

“I speak in the name of the black millions
Awakening to action.
Let all others keep silent a moment
I have this word to bring,
This thing to say,
This song to sing:
Bitter was the day
When I bowed my back
Beneath the slaver’s whip.

That day is past.

Bitter was the day
When I saw my children unschooled,
My young men without a voice in the world,
My women taken as the body-toys
Of a thieving people.

That day is past.

Bitter was the day, I say,
When the lyncher’s rope
Hung about my neck,
And the fire scorched my feet,
And the oppressors had no pity,
And only in the sorrow songs
Relief was found.

That day is past.

I know full well now
Only my own hands,
Dark as the earth,
Can make my earth-dark body free.
O thieves, exploiters, killers,
No longer shall you say
With arrogant eyes and scornful lips:
‘You are my servant,
Black man-
I, the free!’

That day is past-

For now,
In many mouths-
Dark mouths where red tongues burn
And white teeth gleam-
New words are formed,
Bitter
With the past
But sweet
With the dream.
Tense,
Unyielding,
Strong and sure,
They sweep the earth-

Revolt! Arise!

The Black
And White World
Shall be one!
The Worker’s World!
The past is done!
A new dream flames
Against the
Sun!”

original ending:

“New words are formed,
Bitter
With the past
And sweet
with the dream.
Tense, silent,
Without a sound.
They fall unuttered–
Yet heard everywhere:

Take care!

Black world
Against the wall,
Open your eyes—

The long white snake of greed has struck to kill!

Be wary and
Be wise!
Before
The darker world
The future lies. “

Poems by Conrad Aiken and Robert Frost

Aurora e Titone, by Francesco de Mura

Aurora e Titone, by Francesco de Mura

 (image)

In Greek myth, Tithonus was a Trojan prince, the brother of King Priam.  According to a poem of the early seventh century BC, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (lines 218-238,) Tithonus’ youthful good looks attracted the attentions of Eos, the goddess of the dawn.  Aphrodite had condemned Eos to lust after mortal men.  Eos abducted Tithonus and kept him in her mysterious land in the east.  She lavished him with gifts.  Eos went so far in her generosity to Tithonus as to ask Zeus to make Tithonus immortal.  That may have been going too far, or not far enough- Eos neglected to ask Zeus to stop Tithonus’ aging.  So he grew old, lost all ability to move his limbs, and took to babbling incessantly.  Eos locked him up in a golden chamber when this happened.  The hymn’s detail about Tithonus’ babbling may be reflected in later traditions that represent him as a great singer.  The fifth-century BC writer Hellanicus of Lesbos says that Eos took pity on him and turned him into a cicada, a creature whom the ancients suspected might be immortal.  In the poem below, Aiken follows the modern tradition of representing Tithonus as a grasshopper rather than a cicada.

Arachne transformed, from a 1703 edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Bauer

Arachne transformed, from a 1703 edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Bauer

(image)

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne was a maiden from Lydia in Asia Minor who challenged the goddess Minerva (the Greeks would have said the goddess was Athena) to a weaving contest.  When Arachne won this contest, the goddess responded with such fury that Arachne hanged herself.  Taking pity on her victim, Minerva revived the girl in the form of a spider.  Ovid represents Arachne as an innocent, though she has been thought of in other ways at other times. The story of Arachne’s encounter with Tithonus appears to be Aiken’s own invention.  Aiken also takes some further liberties with the story, as you will see. 

(more…)

Church Going, by Philip Larkin

poem for Christmas.

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Philip Larkin

President-Elect Obama

It’s appropriate that Election Day should come so shortly after Halloween.  As the ghosts and ghouls vanish into their occult places when day breaks, so the bogeymen and superstars of the campaign season pass out of view once the election is over.  It’s back to Alaska with Sarah Palin, back to work for “Joe the Plumber,” back to the political science textbooks with the Bradley Effect, back to a museum of the 60s with the Weather Underground.  Four years from now another set of entertainments will rise from some unknown quarter and haunt us for a season. 

The candidates themselves do not go anywhere; they cease to exist.  The winning candidate is replaced by the office holder, the losing candidates are replaced by somewhat older, somewhat sadder versions of the people they were before they ran.  That’s why there’s a richer vein of literature about losing contenders for power than about winners.  Try to dramatize the winner and the best you can do is hint at what Shakespearean actors call “the man inside the king.”  The king is a symbol, he is power, he is majesty, he is order, and he is empty.  Art and literature can focus on the king only when the symbol fails and the human being emerges.  I think the Horace illustrates that process in his Ode 1.37.  As long as she is a contender for power, Cleopatra is at best a monster.  Defeated, she is one of us. 

Here’s Cedric Whitman’s translation of that poem.  Robert Frost defined poetry as “that which is lost in translation”; I’m afraid Whitman does not manage to defeat that definition.  But it does show the major gestures in Horace’s original, and unlike some other versions it is possible to read Whitman’s aloud.  I’ve appended Edward Wickham’s edition (from his Oxford Classical Text) of the original below. 

Drink, comrades, drum the ground, now it is time

for freedom’s dance; and call on all the gods

to come, lay out their gorgeous couches,

and let them recline at the feast of Mars.

It had been crime till now to pour good wine

from the crypts of our forefathers, while ruin poised

over the Capitol, and fevered madness

was winding cerecloth round our realm-

Dreams of the queen of half-men, girt by her crew

of sickly shame, and drunk with delirious hopes

grown fat and reckless on easy fortune!

But all that glare of frenzy waned

When scarce one vessel of her fleet sailed home

unscorched by flame; her mind, long tranced and dazed

on heady Egypt’s wine, now waking

to terror’s truth, found Caesar’s oars

hard pressing on her flight from Italy,

swift hawk on downy dove, hunter on hare

in snowy fields of Thrace, and ready

to fling her into chains, a beast

of ominous wonder.  But she had loftier thoughts,

to find out death; blades could not make her cheek

blanch like a girl’s, or drive her flying

with huddled sails to lurking shores. 

Her courage soared; with placid face she scanned

her fallen palace, and valorously reached

her hands to rasping snakes, sucking

their venom’s blackness through her limbs.

Once death was fixed, the fiercer grew her mind:

Indeed, she scorned his cruel galleys, and men

who would have had her walk uncrowned,

no spiritless woman, in triumph’s pride. 

(more…)

Chronicles, November 2008

Scott Richert expresses consternation that many who identify themselves as conservative Catholics support the vice presidential candidacy of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  Aren’t Catholics supposed to embrace what Pope John Paul II called “the theology of the body,” and with it the idea that women should not be in public life?  “I will offer a prayer on Election Day that Mrs. Palin’s presence on the ticket does not signal the final triumph of feminism over the traditional Christian understanding of the proper relationship between the sexes.” 

Thomas Fleming reviews Peter Green’s The Hellenistic Age, endorsing it overall but showing a bit of irritation that Green uses the word “racism” to describe bigoted attitudes the ancients exhibited.  Fleming claims that “racism as an ideology is a 19th century development that can only be applied by analogy to the ancient world.  To describe [theancient Greeks’] natural prejudices as ‘racism’ would be like describing infant exposure as ‘pro-choice’ or homosexuality as an expression of ‘gay rights.'”  Fleming has a point here, but I think he overstates it.  Certainly a word like “racism” carries powerful associations, bringing in not only the theoretical structures to which Fleming refers but also centuries of history and whole worlds of trauma that are quite distant from anything the ancients would have known.  Nonetheless, their attitudes can hardly be dismissed as “natural prejudices.”  While the ancients may not been shaped by the ideas of Gobineau or Francis Galton, they were indeed swaddled in myths promoting the superiority of their own groups and were taught to see natural slaves when they looked at people who did not resemble themselves.  

Most of the poems Chronicles runs are pretty bad, and I can’t really make much of a literary-critical case for this one.  But I’m such a pushover for dogs I’ll include it anyway.

Four Firsts and a Last, by Timothy Murphy

Her first retrieve shell: a shotgun shell

Fired and ejected with no warning.

How she adored that smell,

Charcoal, sulfur, and niter in the morning.

Her first bird was a crippled morning dove.

She somersaulted down a ditch

Head over heels in love,

Buttoned her bird and bounded up to the pitch.

Her first drake dropped beyond a refuge sign.

Wriggling under the lowest wire,

She swam a perfect line

As though posting proof of her desire.

Her first loss was her superhuman ear.

Hand signalled on an unmarked run,

She could no longer hear

Whistling wingtips; even, at last, the gun.

At fourteen she was walking into walls,

Fouling the carpet, losing teeth.

Farewell to mallard calls

And decoy spreads, wild roosters on the heath.

To St Francis of Fargo fell the chore,

The barbital a gentle thrust

To launch her from our shore.

The last look in her fearless eye was trust.

The Funny Times, October 2008

This month, Dave Barry goes to the Olympics, where he finds American reporters and tourists eating things like fried scorpions and sheep-penis-on-a-stick.  Meanwhile, every actual Chinese he sees is eating fresh fruit and roast lamb.  Curmudgeon quotes witty remarks about gossip, including my favorite, Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s first rule of socializing: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, sit right here by me.”  News of the Weird describes accomodations High Point University in North Carolina offers its undergrads, accomodations so luxurious (hot tubs, concierge service, etc) that the school has come to be known as “Club Ed.”  Garrison Keillor recommends that all our leaders do as he has done and undergo Japanese spa treatments, so that they will learn that as wet naked people they are essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the world’s wet naked people.  Planet Proctor quotes an oldie-but-goodie:

We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes,

But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.

One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,

Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,

Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,

Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,

And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,

Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,

Yet hat in the plural would never be hose

And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.

We speak of brother and also of brethren,

But though we say mother, we never say methren.

Then the masculine pronouns are he, his, and him,

But imagine the feminine: she, shis, and shim?

Alabanza, by Martin Espada

In memory of the events of seven years ago, the poem Martin Espada wrote to commemorate some of the day’s dead.

 http://www.martinespada.net/alabanza.htm

  

Alabanza

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Alabanza

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100

             for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
            Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant,
            who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
 
Alabanza.
Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
 
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
  
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
  
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
 
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

from Alabanza: New & Selected Poems

 

 

 

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