Poetry and the American; Things of this world
This is poetry in the American produced and recorded by station KPFA in Berkeley California under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. This program is called Things of this world a discussion with readings by Anthony and Miriam Ostrov. So far in this series of conversations about American poetry we have discussed a number of the main themes and subjects with which the poets of concern themselves. War death love social vision for example and have found in the case of most of these peculiarly American attitudes or developments of idea in spite of the universal nature of the concerns of the poems. For this program we're going to discuss a number of poems that do not seem to reflect anything in particular of American life or history although these poems too are focused on a single theme or perhaps it would be better to say these poems were going to take up are related
in terms of an essential interest of all poetry. This interest is extremely difficult to name but I think we might use it as an instrument or device for getting into what the essence is. The title of one of the poems we're going to consider which is Richard Wilbur's love calls us to the things of this world. Above all the poet is a person who sees the world he lives in and all of these poems we're going to read and discuss today. Our point is that in one way or another are especially concerned with or especially demonstrate that capacity of the poet for seeing the real world in a way. The unifying element in this group of poems we are considering is the easiest of all to define Don't you think because all of the poems we are considering today deal with things of this world for the most part rather commonplace things which are made special simply by being looked at.
I think we can say that a main element in each of them is descriptive. You might say the their success depends to a great extent on the degree to which the reader sees the object they present. I think O most of us go through most of our lives tending to respond in more or less practical ways to what we call reality. We I think rarely respond to things very fully really fully enough to enjoy them in their particularity with the poet However it's another matter. It is his concern with the particularity of the universe with the integrity of individual being that remarks what shall we say The Artist's Way of Life his way of looking at life his way of living. Indeed from that of the rest of the world all of us participate in this in one measure or another. But the whole idea of art it seems to me is predicated on
first of all that attention to the world and the appearances of the world for their own sake. And I think this may be the point where love becomes involved. Anyway most of the points we have chosen for this program are busy looking at things for the affectionate pleasure of seeing and probably it's high time we began to look at the poems themselves. The first poem we're going to consider is the Red Wheelbarrow By William Carlos Williams. This poem was at least when it appeared a very controversial poem perhaps it still is an event people at one time chose up sides rather vehemently about this. Some thought it was a very fine poem. Others thought it was not. Not only not a good poem but not a poem at all but essentially a very trivial thing. I think it's a simple book. Well I think that's the key. All right. Suppose we read this poem and then talk about it a little bit in connection with our scene of
the red wheel barrow. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens. Your comment about this being a simple poem I think is the real answer to the difficulties it presents to some people who obstinately refuse to regard it as being plainly that it seems to me that the basic idea of the point is simply that it is important to see things the bottom wants to make a see that red wheelbarrow really see it vividly. There it is because of redness. Because of that glaze of the rain. And then even the contrast to the white chickens the whiteness sets off the redness brilliantly. Yes I think the purpose of the poem is to call to our minds vividly the scene he
sees vividly. This chicken yard rain soaked in the red wheelbarrow there and the crux of the poem lies in that first line. So much depends on the next problem we have in our order here I think is flowers by the sea which is also By William Carlos Williams And this one seems to me an interesting one to compare to the red wheelbarrow because what we get here is one thing seen not only in contrast to another I think of the red in the white of the wheelbarrow and the chickens but also in comparison with something else. Perhaps it would be a good idea just to read the poem. When over the flowery sharp pastor's edge unseen the salt ocean lifts its farm chicory and daisies tied release seem hardly
flowers alone but color and the movement or the shape perhaps of restlessness whereas the sea is circle and sways peacefully upon its plant like stem. I don't know why this is a good poem I looked at it before the program tried to figure out why it does capture the special feeling it does. But. If you haven't grown up on the coast the first time you see land by the ocean is that it gives you a very special feeling. There's something about the juxtaposition of the land mass with water mass and I think this poem captures that feeling and well don't you think perhaps partly at least it's in the in the tensions the sharpness of that juxtaposition of sea and pasture. I think it's interesting that the sea is circled and sways because it's strange to get
the inverted sense of the sea being encircled instead of circling. Well that's one of the Inevitable Surprises of the point. Indeed we customarily think of the sea as being restless. But here it is the pasture with its blowing flowers that is restless it and the sea have in some way traded places. And the image of the sea circled swaying peacefully upon its plant like STEM is a marvelous one of repose of quiet. Now it's by no means one of lifelessness it is it is balanced contain. I think that point is a good example of making something seen through a contrast. And this is one of the important devices of the poet really looking at the world and then trying to make his audience see the particularities of it which interest him. Very often he tries to present what he's seen through something else or in terms of something else. Well I agree with you but isn't that likely to be an oversimplification. I mean doesn't he
see the Soul see so lucidly simply because he sees things in terms of other things. That's the nature of the poetic vision is is the nature of relation. But the problem I was leading up to who in fact comment there is still a case in point this famous short poem by as Ezra Pound called a station in the metro and the poem is simply this. In a station of the metro. The apparition of these faces in the crowd petals on a wet black bow. Well there are the faces in the crowd are made vivid by the comparison to petals on a wet black bow and it gives us a very special sense of the humidity and pack of the people but also of fertility and essential quite miss. I would call this an image not a poem.
There is not even a verb and therefore not even a sentence and therefore not even a book for me. Well why isn't that enough just to have an image. Well it may be enough but it's not a poem it may be an interesting image but it. Well I may call up an interesting vision to your mind but it doesn't say anything beyond that it's not even a sentence you can say you might have a very splendid short story but it's not a novel no matter how splendid it may be. As a short story. Well it seems to me now of course here we become involved in the definition of poetry or what it takes to make a poem I think. I think it's enough simply to make you see something and if this really makes you see these faces in the crowd in the subway in one way or another but really see them have an experience of them I'd say that's a poem. Let other an artistic phrase. While I I hate to be pressed on this point in this particular poem
but if it's an artistic phrase then for the moment to go along with that I think it is a very artistic one. I would like to read another poem by Ezra Pound which is three lines instead of two and I do think this is a poem. This is called fen peace for her Imperial Lord. All that no flights to clear is frost on the grass blade. You also made a side that is very much in the tradition of Oriental poetry. I think it's worth pausing to remark that there is a very great tradition in the poetry of the east a tradition of preoccupation with watch always say images of themselves with the things of this world. Above all with making a scene and drawing very simple equations between the grass the bird the fish and so on. And human life. But above all the preoccupation
is with somehow freezing the object for a moment as in a painting. Are you calling attention to the phrase. Clear as frost on the grass. That wasn't my hope is I think talking about the reason I'm trusting you now in the connection you mention in this little poem we have the question first between the fan and the frost on the grass blade the fan like it is unblemished perfectly good but it can't last. And the finally question of course is between the fan and the lady of her Imperial Lord. She beautiful as the fat and as the grass blade tells the fan that it too is laid aside and thus we learn of her own fate. I think these three lines say a great deal they make a poem. Well you're very persuasive now though that we have discussed these these very short pieces dealing with the world of nature and things in a few very sharp images.
Let's go on to a longer poem one of the American poets who is perhaps best known for her extreme astuteness in drawing the world in which we live is Marianne Moore. And one of her poems which is perhaps not among her best known pieces but nevertheless a lovely and very rich poem is the steeple jack. This is a poem which describes a seaside town in great detail and. It's up pleasant poll and everything in it everything it describes is nice from the physical location the ocean side and the tropic flowers to the architecture. We have a sense that all of that is beautiful to the people simple people. There's not a jarring note in the entire poem. And we we learn that the people living there are happy. She says I think the college student named Ambrose and the steeplejack and the hero each in his way is at home and she says it couldn't be dangerous to be living in a town
like this. Everything is nice about it and the very last stanza which calls attention to the star on the steeple which stands for hope implies that in a way that that hope lies in the simple life of her yes I'm especially glad to come to this poem because I think that perhaps in some of our other discussion we strayed a bit from an important part of our concern which is the loving nature usually in one way or another characteristic of the poet's vision. That is what is drawn with real care is drawn with a tender care. And Mr. Moore in this point especially I think is a splendid model of of this thesis. She may be strong maybe vigorous but she is also always tender. Can we have a reading of the poem the steeplejack by Marianne Moore.
Dürer would have seen a reason for living in a town like this with eight stranded whales to look at with the sweet sea air coming into your house on a fine day from water edged with waves as formal as the scales on a fish one by one in twos in three days. The seagulls keep flying back and forth over the town clock or sailing around the lighthouse without moving the wings rising steadily with a slight quiver of the body. Or flock mewing where a sea the purple of the Peacocks neck is paled to greenish Azure as jurors change the pine green of the Tyrol to be cock blue and Guinea Gray. You can see a 25 pound lobster and fish nets arranged to dry. The oil in fife and drum of the stall bends the salt marsh grass
disturbed stars in the sky and the star on the steeple. It is a privilege to see so much confusion disguised by what might seem austerity. The seaside flowers and trees are favored by the fog so that you have the tropics at first hand. The Trumpet Vine foxglove giant Snapdragon a south pole glasses that has spots and stripes. Morning Glories gourds or moon vines trained on fishing twine at the back door. There are no Banyan frangipani nor Jack fruit trees nor an exotic serpent. Life ring lizard and snake skin for the foot or crocodile. But here they have cats not Cobras to keep down the rats. The diffident little new with white pin dots on black horizontal spaced out bands lives here yet there is nothing that ambition can
buy or take away. A college student named Ambrose sits on the hillside with his not native books and hacked and sees boats at sea. Progress quite in rigid as if in a groove. Liking an elegance of which the sauce is not bravado he knows by heart. The antique sugar bowl shaped summer house of interlacing slats and the pitch of the church spire. Not true. From which a man in Scotland lets down a rope as a spider spins a thread. He might be part of a novel but on the sidewalk a sign says C.J. Poole steeplejack in black and white and one in red and white says Danger. The church portico has four fielded columns each a single piece of stone made modest or by a whitewash. This would be a fifth haven for waifs children animals
prisoners and presidents who have repaid sin driven senators by not thinking about them. There are a schoolhouse a post office in a star fish houses and houses a three masted schooner on the stocks. The hero the student the steeplejack each in his way is at home. It could not be dangerous to be living in a town like this. Of simple people who have a steeplejack placing dangerous signs by the church while he is gilding the solid pointed star which on a steeple stands for hope.
This poem leads I think very nicely into another poem by a contemporary American poet who is also a woman. Elizabeth Bishop. One I think of the very fine poets writing today. The poem of hers we've chosen to read and talk about here is one of her well-known poems of the fish. And it seems particularly suited for inclusion because it is very clearly focused on one thing and it does see that one thing in considerable and brilliant detail. I suggest we simply listen to this poem. It's one that doesn't really require any prefatory explanation don't you think. All right. The fifth By Elizabeth Bishop. I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight. He hadn't fought at all. He hung a grunting weight battered and venerable and homely. There in there is brown skin hung in strips like inch and wallpaper and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper shapes like full blown roses stained and lost through age. He was speckled with barnacles fine rosettes of line and infested with tiny white sea lice and underneath. Two or three rags of green weed. While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen the frightening gills fresh and crisp with blood that can cut so badly I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers. The big bones and the little bones the dramatic reds and blacks of his shiny and trails and the pink swim bladder like a big
peony. I looked into his eyes which were far larger than mine but shallower and yellowed the irises backed and backed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of all scratched eyes in the glass. They shifted a little but not to return my stare. It was more like that tipping of an object toward the light. I admired his sullen face. The mechanism of his jaw. And then I saw that from his lower lip. If you could call it a lip grim went down a weapon light hung five pieces of fish line or four on a wire leader with the swivel still attached with all their five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth. The green line frayed at the end where he broke it. Two heavier lines and a fine black thread still Quint from the strain and
snap when it broke and he got away like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering five haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw. I stare and stare. And victory filled up the little rented boat from the pool of bills were oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine to the baler rusted orange the sun cracked warts they were locks on their strings the gunnels until everything was Rainbow Rainbow Rainbow and I let the fish go. What do you makes the fish especially important or significant. Well in the first place it seems to me that we the fish is there for
us we cannot resist and we really see him in such you know intimate detail that there's no denying his being. But then more important than that we see this fish now in terms of his relation to life itself. This fish who has been assaulted shall we say by the human world five times man has tried to catch him five times man has almost succeeded but failed. The fish has succeeded and now having come through this heroic life he has lived. Having fought now at last he's been conquered not by not by men but simply by old age. And it's when Bishop sees this about him that inspires her then with a vision not simply of the fish as wonderful in being and being alive but. Through the fish a vision of all creation has been wonderful. It seems to me that in the in the end here what we really get is a mystical vision where all the universe is gathered in a single light. The
rainbow covers everything within her ken. And this is because of the fish. But it's not simply an inspiration in the fish itself or an inspirations I should say of the fish itself. It's an inspiration of of all creation for by the end of the poem. And there it's a moving poem which I think you've just proved in your rather emotional. Yes I think you Station a very wonderful poem. Perhaps we should move along to the last poem. We're going to consider here which is the title poem from Richard Wilbur's Galit surprise a National Book Award winning volume of last year Love calls us to the things of this world. I'm afraid we haven't allowed ourselves very much time to talk about this point which is certainly by far the most complex of the poems we've chosen to consider today. But I wonder if there is any. Oh simple statement or suggestion we might make by way of introduction to this
poem. Well I think this poem recalls the point you made in the beginning of the discussion about the the poet viewing the world with love. It's very clearly pointed out in this poem that the man is awakened by the very commonplace sign of pulleys and and turns out to be the police on the laundry line. And as he as he wakes the soul. Is reluctant to face the every day world the punctual rape of every blasted day but he does pull it together and descends in bitter love. But but in love. Yes I think I remember from an essay of Robert harangues about this poem his saying something or other about the inside being humble and assertive but love calls us not only out of ourselves from our deserts of tedium and impasse nor toward a single other being or thing or relationship but
toward various realities which are the things of this world and this laundry which is seen ideally is also related to the world of total reality that the soul emerging from sleep finally must face. But the vision finally as you remark is above all a vision of love. I think that Mr. Wilbur also conveys very effectively the sense of the struggle which everyone has with the everyday world. In the last stanza he speaks of the heaviest of nuns walk in a pure floating of dark habits keeping their difficult balance and I think we get. We realize that all of us are keeping a difficult balance. Would you say that the difficult balance we keep is somehow a balance between the loveliness of things in their ideal forms
and the difficulty of the configurations in which things normally appear to us upset with all kinds of practical considerations. Yes I think it's that's the the bigger love. Well let us close with a reading of this poem. Love calls us to the things of this world. The eyes opened to a cry of police and spirited from sleep. The astounded soul hangs for a moment bottomless and simple as false dawn. Outside the open window the morning air is all awash with angels. Some are in bed sheets some are and blouses. Some are in smocks but truly there they are. Now they are rising together in calm swells of halcyon feeling feeling whatever
they wear with the deep joy of their impersonal breathing. Now they're flying in place conveying the terrible speed of their omnipresence moving then Stane like quite water and now all of a sudden they swarmed into so rapt a quiet that nobody seems to be there. This so shrinks from all that it is about to remember from the punctual rate of every blessed day and cries Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam and clear dances done in the sight of heaven. Yet as the sun acknowledges with a warm look the world's hunks and colors the sow descends once more in bitter love to accept the waking body saying now in a changed voice
- Poetry and the American
- Things of this world
- Producing Organization
- pacifica radio
- KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Discussion and reading by Anthony and Miriam Ostroff.
- Other Description
- Twenty half-hour programs designed to further the enjoyment of poetry.
- Broadcast Date
- Media type
Performer: Ostroff, Miriam Virginia
Producing Organization: pacifica radio
Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Speaker: Ostroff, Anthony, 1923-
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-12-8 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Poetry and the American; Things of this world,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 24, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-5h7bwm37.
- MLA: “Poetry and the American; Things of this world.” 1959-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 24, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-5h7bwm37>.
- APA: Poetry and the American; Things of this world. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-5h7bwm37