Thursday, October 19, 2006

Poetry Thursday: Avoiding the Past

This week on Poetry Thursday, the prompt for the week is to spend time with poetry we normally avoid. This idea was submitted by Michelle and here's what she had to say about it: "I'm sure we all have those poets/time periods/genres we avoid. I usually try to stay away from anything written before the twentieth century. Why? Because I've made myself believe I can't understand it; that it's too difficult. Some of us may avoid love poems because they're too mushy..." There's more and you can read it at the Poetry Thursday blog, but I quoted that part because Michelle has described exactly the type of poetry I tend to avoid. My favorite poems tend to be quirky and to have a humorous edge, even if the humor is dark (maybe even especially if the humor is dark). I have a tendency to avoid poems that take themselves very seriously, and poems that are extremely flowery and sentimental ("mushy!"). I quite often avoid poems more than 100 years old because either I expect them to be preachy or sickeningly sweet, or because the language seems old-fashioned and difficult to understand and I don't always feel like taking the time to work my way through the lines and really THINK about what the poet was saying. (Lazy, Deb, very lazy!) But this prompt seemed like a really good idea to me, so I went to the poetry section of my bookshelves and pulled off a volume I rarely open - "The Oxford Book of English Verse." I have no memory whatsoever of where I acquired this book. It might have been something I kept from my parents' things when we helped Dad clean out the house after Mom died, or it might have been something I picked up at a flea market or yard sale for some reason. (I'm prone to odd impulse buys at those places!) It's not a very large volume (about 8 inches by 5 inches and a couple of inches thick) but it's crammed full of small print - over 1,100 pages of poetry written between 1250 and 1918. The original copyright date is 1900, but this "new and revised" edition was printed in 1939. I spent a while on Monday reading various poems at random from this volume and it was really pretty interesting. Some of them justified my worst fears about older poetry in terms of style, sentiment, or both. For instance, take a look at the first couple of lines of this poem called "Blow, North Wind" that dates to around 1300 and was written by an unknown poet: I chot a burde in boure bryht, That fully semly is on syht, Um...huh??? My guess would have been that the poet was saying something like "I caught a bird in [something!] bright, that fully seemly is on sight" but I'd have been wrong. There's a footnote that explains some - not all - of the archaic words and it turns out that "I chot" means "I know" and "burde" means "maiden." It doesn't explain "boure", unfortunately. So evidently it actually says something like "I know a maiden in [something!] bright, that fully seemly is on sight." In other words, the poet knows a pretty girl. Yeah, sorry, but that's way too much work for me to get to "I know a pretty girl" when there's so much other poetry out there for me to enjoy. But on the other hand, there were several poems that I really liked when I took the time to read them and to really try to understand what the poet was trying to say. So today I want to share the poem below, written sometime in the mid-17th century because, while the style might seem old-fashioned, I found the sentiment expressed to be very modern. How many of us have seen friends dating people we couldn't stand - maybe falling in love with them, contemplating marriage - and we've wanted to say to that friend's lover "Dude, get lost. You aren't good enough for her." And here's someone basically saying that in verse almost 400 years ago. Add to that the rumors, embraced by some and denied by others, that the lady described in the poem may have been a secret lover of the poet and it all starts to sound a bit like a modern soap opera, doesn't it. Fascinating! To One persuading a Lady to Marriage Forbear, bold youth; all's heaven here, And what you do aver To others courtship may appear, 'Tis sacrilege to her. She is a public deity; And were't not very odd She should dispose herself to be A petty household god? First make the sun in private shine And bid the world adieu, That so he may his beams confine In compliment to you: But if of that you do despair, Think how you did amiss To strive to fix her beams which are More bright and large than his. ~~~Katherine Philips (aka 'Orinda') 1631 - 1664 Here's today's DAT (which has nothing to do with the poetry): "Orange Light" (clickable if you want to see it larger in a new window)

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