Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Poem A Day - National Poetry Month

Poetry....hmmmm. Seems to have fallen out of favour with many, since there is now a library of several million (at least) tunes to listen to over the Internet...and you all know how I feel about that. But you may not know how I feel about poetry...and so, you are about to find out. April is National Poetry Month, and I have decided, last year, that there is too much wonderful classic poetry languishing between the covers of books no longer opened. So....every day, here in the month of April, I will be sharing poetry with you, both that of my favorite poets, and my own. Every day a new poem to share, and sometimes one I wrote with a bit of an explanation. This is what many of us did before there were online journals and iPods....we wrote, and read aloud or silently, and shared, the distillations of thought, feeling and language known as poems. And I would like, for just one month, to remember myself, and share with you, how rewarding that was. Maybe you'll feel that way too.

Here is the first poem, for the first day of National Poetry Month. I decided to just let a poet's name roll to the top of my mind, and choose one of that poet's works. And the first name that arrived at the top of the witch-ball was one of my favourites, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here's a short bio, and one of his most famous poems, which I love. I will admit I think a great deal about why I like Hopkins' work so much, since almost all of it is written from the perspective of a Christian priest in love with Jesus. But there is something about his unique rhythms and eye for surprising detail that simply entrances me. And the fact that he was in love for years with another man also makes him far more approachable. So, with no further ado, here is Hopkins, and his possibly most famous poem, The Windhover;

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Born at Stratford, Essex, England, on July 28, 1844, Gerard Manley Hopkins is regarded as one the Victorian era's greatest poets. He was raised in a prosperous and artistic family. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, in 1863, where he studied Classics.

In 1864, Hopkins first read John Henry Newman's Apologia pro via sua, which discussed the author's reasons for converting to Catholicism. Two years later, Newman himself received Hopkins into the Roman Catholic Church. Hopkins soon decided to become a priest himself, and in 1867 he entered a Jesuit novitiate near London. At that time, he vowed to "write no more...unless it were by the wish of my superiors." Hopkins burnt all of the poetry he had written to date and would not write poems again until 1875. He spent nine years in training at various Jesuit houses throughout England. He was ordained in 1877 and for the next seven years carried his duties teaching and preaching in London, Oxford, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Stonyhurst.

In 1875, Hopkins began to write again after a German ship, the Deutschland, was wrecked during a storm at the mouth of the Thames River. Many of the passengers, including five Franciscan nuns, died. Although conventional in theme, Hopkins poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" introduced what Hopkins called "sprung rhythm." By not limiting the number of "slack" or unaccented syllables, Hopkins allowed for more flexibility in his lines and created new acoustic possibilities. In 1884, he became a professor of Greek at the Royal University College in Dublin. He died five years later from typhoid fever. Although his poems were never published during his lifetime, his friend poet Robert Bridges edited a volume of Hopkins' Poems that first appeared in 1918.

In addition to developing new rhythmic effects, Hopkins was also very interested in ways of rejuvenating poetic language. He regularly placed familiar words into new and surprising contexts. He also often employed compound and unusual word combinations. As he wrote to in a letter to Burns, "No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness…" Twentieth century poets such as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Charles Wright have enthusiastically turned to his work for its inventiveness and rich aural patterning.

The Windhover - To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

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