Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two Poems for Times You Find Yourself Palely Loitering

Two of your favorite poems have remained your favorites not because of their surface romanticism, which is considerable,but for some greater, much more modern and realistic purpose.  

Both poems take you well beyond the romanticism so appealing to your pre-teen years and all the way into your twenties, where you sometimes cried yourself to sleep in envy of these works, so moving, tantalizing, so just a bit beyond your reach that you thought you could one day draw abreast of them as a fellow contestant in a race.

Your good fortune led you soon enough to the awareness that such notions of competition were not only unwise, they were impossible.  Thus freed, you could cry yourself to sleep in the service of more practical goals, the ability to untangle your frustrations associated with your own composition and the ability to turn these poems into the equivalents of background music you could begin to hear as you attempted to deal with your own frustrations of composition.

Both poems take you to the timing and placement and discovery of story.  Both take you beyond the emotional reach you seek when you read, and into the realm you seek when you enter the terrain, poised to compose.

The poems are William Butler Yeats's (1865-1939) "The Ballad of the Wandering Aengus," and John Keats's  (1795-1821) "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."  Lovely as it is to take both poems as visions evoked in their creators by the psychedelic of Romanticism, to braid Irish fabulism in the former with Arthurian knighthood-errantry in the latter, you also view them as literal representations of what ii feels like to encounter an idea for a poem or story or essay.

Each poem contains a quest.  In "Aengus" the narrator is from the Tuatha De Danann, a tribe of supernaturally gifted beings spoken of in Irish mythology.  He had a dream about a girl. Aengus "went out to the hazel wood/Because a fire was in my head."  Doesn't this sound like a writer, getting an idea for a story?  As the Yeats poem continues, 

"It had become a glimmering girl  
With apple blossom in her hair  
Who called me by my name and ran   
And faded through the brightening air."

The dream soaks through the layers of sleep and consciousness to become the object of the writer's innermost desires.  He must follow until he captures the essence to the point where he is able to replicate it for all of us.

Think in the mean time about what individuals have done in their transactions with the various gods, the risks and stands taken.  Think of Prometheus and Cassandra and Sisyphus and Leda.

Back to Yeats, Aengus is so determined to capture the story, there is nothing for it but for him to stay on task until the job is done:

"Though I am old with wandering  
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,  
I will find out where she has gone,  
And kiss her lips and take her hands;   
And walk among long dappled grass,  
And pluck till time and times are done,  
The silver apples of the moon,  
The golden apples of the sun. "

The Keats poem can be seen the same way.  In Stanza IV, 

"I met a lady in the meads,
  Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,         
  And her eyes were wild. "

By Stanza V., his writer is in, over his head with the idea.

"I made a garland for her head,
  And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
  And made sweet moan."

Of course the poem plays out as Keats wrote it, a lasting and fateful journey into Arthurian legends and the shadowy mists of the ghostly English cultures.  But it also fits as you see it, the writer drawn into the immediacy of the creative ghosts and spectral shadows.  "O, What can ail the, knight-at-arms/Alone and palely loitering?" the poem begins.  And you say it it, What ails him is that he is stuck, can't quite get at it yet.  How many times have you palely loitered over a next step that would not come because you had not ridden deeply enough into the story yet?  How many times have you stood from your desk and told yourself, "This knight at arms is going into the kitchen to make coffee and stop palely loitering?"  

The poem continues:

"I saw pale kings and princes too,
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—'La Belle Dame sans Merci
  Hath thee in thrall! ' ”         

Aren't these some writers you know, who have been caught up from time to time?

When story hath you in thrall, coffee is one hope for a way out as you grow old with wandering through hollow lands and hilly lands, hopeful of finding the answer to your story somewhere in there, in absolute mash-up of the Yeats and Keats.  This is why you sojourn here. alone and palely loitering, though the sedge is wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing.




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