John Ashbery RIP

John Ashbery

I joked on his last birthday, at the age of 90, how frustrating it must be for the greatest living poet in the USA to share a birthday with Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Sadly Ashbery passed away yesterday, and to add insult to injury he bought the farm on the anniversary of the death of none other than E.E.Cummings.

The beauty for Ashbery was to be so exalted in his lifetime.  His genius was well recognized and celebrated.  Students of poetry will be unraveling his work for centuries to come.  For today we can empathise that if life is a dream this dream has ended and yet has not.

Life is a Dream; by John Ashbery

A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard, where they have rollcall.
My name begins with an A,
so is one of the first to be read off.
I am wondering where to stand – could that group of three
or four others be the beginning of the line?

Before I have the chance to find out, a rodent-like
man pushes at my shoulders. “It’s that way,” he hisses. “Didn’t they teach you
anything at school? That a photograph
of anything can be real, or maybe not? The corner of the stove,
a cloud of midges at dusk-time.”

I know I’ll have a chance to learn more
later on. Waiting is what’s called for, meanwhile.
It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things
definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,
for instance, that glides
so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.

 

Happy Birthday Gerard Manley Hopkins

PeterRabbit8

It must be rough to be a poet of the scale and stature of John Ashbery, to have won every award worth winning, to rise to the very height of your profession and then to find each year that your birthday is best remembered for a master of your craft who died before you were born.  Hopkins was born on this day in 1844 and died in 1889.  Ashbery was born in 1927 and celebrates his birthday under a weight of Hopkins credits.

If that’s not bad enough Beatrix Potter was also born on this day in 1866 which is why Peter Rabbit gets the picture credit.  As a gardener of course I am no friend of Peter Rabbit, nasty large eared rat with a short tail that he is.  I’m with the Farmer on this one.

I love Hopkins because I think he was one of the first writers who grasped the song of word, how the word itself can craft the poem.  James Joyce brought this understanding to prose but Hopkins gave it to Poetry.  The power of words has increasingly been recognized in fields of study such as neurolinguistic programming and nominative determinism.  This poem is an excellent example of how he plays with the word sounds to capture the echo of birdsong through the wood.

The Woodlark; by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can tháat be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of sóng-strain;
and all round not to be found
for brier, bough, furrow, or gréen ground
before or behind or far or at hand
either left either right
anywhere in the súnlight.
well, after all! Ah but hark—
‘I am the little wóodlark.
. . . . . . . .
To-day the sky is two and two
with white strokes and strains of the blue
. . . . . . . .
Round a ring, around a ring
and while I sail (must listen) I sing
. . . . . . . .
The skylark is my cousin and he
is known to men more than me
. . . . . . . .
…when the cry within
says Go on then I go on
till the longing is less and the good gone

Tut down drop, if it says Stop,
to the all-a-leaf of the tréetop
and after that off the bough
. . . . . . . .
I ám so véry, O soó very glad
that I dó thínk there is not to be had…
. . . . . . . .
The blue wheat-acre is underneath
and the braided ear breaks out of the sheath,
the ear in milk, lush the sash,
and crush-silk poppies aflash,
the blood-gush blade-gash
flame-rash rudred
bud shelling or broad-shed
tatter-tassel-tangled and dingle-a-dangled
dandy-hung dainty head.
. . . . . . . .
And down … the furrow dry
sunspurge and oxeye
and laced-leaved lovely
foam-tuft fumitory
. . . . . . . .
Through the velvety wind V-winged
to the nest’s nook I balance and buoy
with a sweet joy of a sweet joy,
sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy
of a sweet—a sweet—sweet—joy.’