September 13th, 2007

Books!

Poetry ... not mine

Oh, woe the English Major ... though all the uncountable hours of reading to find there is no market for thy skills! OK, so maybe it at least gives me a stance from which to bitch about stuff. "Hi, my name's Brendan and I'm an English Major." ("Hi Brendan!") Sometimes I think I'm scarred from the experience. I certainly "have issues" with various elements of literature; one of which is a love/hate relationship with poetry. I used to write poetry, enthusiastically even (at a pace of 250 poems a year, for quite a long time), and had started out (like pretty much everybody else) writing rhymed verse (I did sci-fi sonnet cycles, is that geeky enough for ya?), but came to generally dislike the all-too-limiting discipline of being locked into very narrow palates of words. Eventually, I discovered writers like the great John Ashbery and found that poetry could be the literary equivalent of visual arts, restoring my love of the form.

This collection of the notorious Oscar Wilde's poetry, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Poems, straddles the line of my love and hate of poetry. Frankly, to my ears (eyes), many of the "Other Poems" here are insufferable, largely due to lockstep short-line ABAB, ABBA, AABB, etc. with assorted CC additions. Things like:

All her bright golden hair
      Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
      Fallen to dust.

                    - from "Requiescat"
... just make me cringe, and much of this slim volume floats into that zone ... from things like the above to poems where the first couple of lines of a stanza are truly evocative, only to fall apart as the poet stretches to find some words to fit the rhyme scheme, ala:

The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
    Changed to a Harmony in grey :
    A barge with ochre-colored hay
Dropt from the wharf : and chill and cold

                    - from "Impression du Matin"
{shudder} Frankly, as I paged into this, I was wondering if I was going to be able to force myself to finish it ... quite a damning thought for a book with a scant 50 pages of text! Fortunately, it appears that Mr. Wilde was at his best when taking up the challenge of a longer piece, and (as part of the challenge, I suppose) going to less generic rhyme schemes.

For example, the following. While, perhaps, if broken up differently, this would be less interesting, but in it he "buries" one rhymed word within a line and creates a weaving of sounds from what (were they to be brief lines with terminal rhymes) could be otherwise far less enticing ... exhibiting something of an (A)B/(B)A structure:

But these, thy lovers, are not dead. Still by the
        hundred-cubit gate
Dog-faced Anubis sits in state with lotus-lilies for thy
        head.

Still from his chair of porphyry gaunt Memnon strains
        his lidless eyes
Across the empty land, and cries each yellow morning
        unto thee.

And Nilus with his broken horn lies in his black and
        oozy bed
And till thy coming will not spread his waters on the
        withering corn.

                    - from "The Sphinx"
Of course, as one would suspect, the best is getting top billing, and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is quite a haunting, stark, and gripping piece, While still rhymed, it takes on a somewhat liturgical A/B/C/B/D/B pattern (with additional, yet irregular, internal rhymes on the A, C, and D lines), suggesting call-and-response or the tolling of a bell.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
    Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
    Are all the gallows' need :
So with rope of shame the Herald came
    To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
    Of filthy darkness grope :
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
    Or to give our anguish scope :
Something was dead in each of us,
    And what was dead was Hope.

For Man's grim Justice goes its way,
    And will not swerve aside :
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
    It has a deadly stride :
With iron heel it slays the strong,
    The monstrous parricide!

                    - from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
To quote Larry The Cable Guy: "Now, that's good stuff there!" ... however, as noted, this collection is (to my tastes, at least) quite uneven, yet, in the final analysis, the good outweighs the bad in The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Poems, and being that it's only a buck-fifty in the Dover Thrift Edition, you're not out much to get some really remarkable work! This is available (on order) from most stores, but it's one of those things that's probably best left to "add on" on your next on-line book shopping expedition.


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