Sunday, August 21, 2011

Poems That Change You

From Wallace Stevens:

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.
He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him, 
The worlds that were and will be, death and day.
Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end.
His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.

I've adored these lines, which open a long poem, "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," since I encountered them decades ago. Their beauty and power are for me simple, direct, unquestionable.

Out of the spirit of the holy temples,
Empty and grandiose, let us make hymns
And sing them in secrecy as lovers do.

The poem continues for fifty brief stanzas, most of which are clear and powerfully expressive. And even the obscure, opaque parts contain gorgeous language and phrasing.

John Constable they could never quite transplant
And our streams rejected the dim Academy.
Granted the Picts impressed us otherwise
In the taste for iron dogs and iron deer.

The poem goes on leisurely, stepping in and out of meaning, finishing thus:

Union of the weakest develops strength
Not wisdom. Can all men, together, avenge
One of the leaves that have fallen in autumn?
But the wise man avenges by building his city in snow.


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