Monday, September 21, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 9: The Dialectic of Praise and Lament

Now I’d like to turn to another aspect of praise and lament: the unexpected links between these two seeming opposites. We saw in Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy” that there is a connection between praise and lament. One learns to praise well by describing in detail the pains of life. I would like to take this even farther and say there is a dialectic of praise and lament.  

Like the ode, the dialectical method originated in ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle developed a form of dialectic, but this method of reasoning was brought to fruition in nineteenth century German philosophy, particularly in the work of G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel argued that the more an idea or moment in history became truly itself, the more it starts to bend toward its opposite. Eventually, from this conflict or contrast of opposites, a new synthesis is born.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I think there is a dialectic of praise and lament, because in all these poems we’ve discussed there are elements of both. Lament suggests praise, because if we feel the loss of something acutely enough to mourn its passing, then we are implicitly praising it. If it is worthy of being lamented, it’s worthy of being praised.

The other side of this equation is a little harder to see, but I think it makes equal sense. If something is being praised, there is a grain of lament in it, since nothing lasts forever or can be completely possessed. The more we value something and praise its virtues, the more we are setting ourselves up for lamenting it now or in the future.

To illustrate this, I’d like to focus on the final psalm of the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 150. Here is the King James Bible version of the psalm:

Psalm 150

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his Sanctuarie: Praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mightie actes: Praise him according to his excellent greatnesse.
Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet: Prayse him with the Psalterie and Harpe.
Praise him with the timbrell and dance: praise him with stringed instruments, and Organes.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath, praise the Lord. Praise yee the Lord.

That’s about as straightforward an example of praise without lament as you can get in the Psalms. When it’s sung in English, there is usually only performed with rejoicing and hallelujahs. By the way, “hallelujah” means “praise God.”

Listen to how this psalm sounds in Hebrew, though.


If you’d never heard that piece of music before, would you think it was a hymn of praise, or a lament? It’s not that clear. It's a hymn of praise, but with a mournful tone. 

I think the closer you get to the roots of these two traditions, praise and lament, the more their roots are entangled with each other. If we are aware of that dialectic, whether we’re engaged in praise or lament, we can allow the opposite to add salt to our praises or honey to our laments, as the recipe demands.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 8: Praise of Common Things in Neruda’s “Ode to Salt”

The next poem of praise I’d like to talk about is by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived from 1904 to 1973. Neruda is probably best known for his early book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published in 1924 and written when Neruda was only 19. He’s also well known as a poet of political protest. In this blog, I’m going to discuss Neruda’s odes.

Pablo Neruda
The ode was originally a song of praise in ancient Greece commissioned by a rich person. For instance, a wealthy individual might want to celebrate the victory of a chariot he sponsored in the Olympic games. People with means used to pay for chariots in the Olympics just like corporations now put their logos on NASCAR racing cars. Greek poets, notably Pindar, began writing odes to celebrate those winners, but the ode eventually came into much wider use.

Neruda didn’t write his odes in praise of a rich person’s chariot, though. He wrote what he called “Elemental Odes,” odes in praise of ordinary things used and enjoyed by ordinary people, such as “Ode to the Watermelon,” “Ode to My Socks.” I’d like to focus on Neruda’s “Ode to Salt.” Here’s a translation that I did loosely based on the translations of James Wright and Robert Bly, and the translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. If you'd like to read the Spanish original, you can find it here.

Pablo Neruda

Ode to Salt

This salt
from the salt shaker
I saw it on the salt flats.
I know you
won’t
believe me,
but
it sings,
that salt sings, the hide
of the salt flats
sings,
its mouth choked
with earth.
I shivered in those lonely
expanses
when I heard
the voice
of the
salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the whole
pampa of saltpeter
rumbles:
it’s a
gruff
voice,
its song
a lament.
And in its crevices
rock salt, mountains
of buried light,
a transparent cathedral,
sea crystals, forgotten
by the waves.

And you’re on every table
on this earth,
salt,
your eager
sustenance
scattering
vital light
over
our food.
Preserver
of the musty
barrels of ships,
explorer
of the oceans,
your substance
anticipated
by the undiscovered, half-open
paths in the foam.
Dust of the sea, through you
the acquatic night
kisses
our tongues,
your oceanic taste melts
into each seasoned morsel,
so the slightest
the least
wave of the salt shaker
reveals
not just your domestic whiteness
but the flavor at the core of the infinite.

                                                                                                    translation © 2015 by Zack Rogow

Most of us, if we were asked to celebrate salt, might start with something like, “It’s good on eggs, and it’s really terrific on corn with butter.” Neruda goes way beyond this because praise for him is not just description, but an act of imagination.

Let’s begin with Neruda’s title, which in Spanish is “Oda a la sal.” It only takes five letters to spell the entire title: a, d, l, o, s. A name with only five letters—how much more elemental can you get? Neruda starts with the basic building block of salt in line one, and then in the next two lines begins to permutate that word into “salt shaker” and “salt flats.”

The speaker starts in a very domestic setting, which is often where salt is used, but then is quickly swept up to an expansive landscape of salt flats and desert. Neruda names this unusual landscape: it’s the region of Antofagasta in his native Chile, which is part of the Atacama Desert, often called the driest place on earth. Charles Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle, wrote of it, “It was almost a pity to see the sun shining over so useless a country.”


Salt crystals in the Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is a place of hallucinatory strangeness, where rain sometimes doesn’t fall for decades at a time, and when it does, the air is so dry the water sometimes evaporates before it touches the ground. Some of the lakes in this area are pink or silver-gray from the minerals in them, even when gathered in a clear bottle. In parts of the Atacama Desert the salt forms strange sculptures. Neruda knew this area well because it was the district that he represented when he was elected to the Chilean Senate. Neruda vividly describes campaigning in this region in his Memoirs:

“It hasn’t rained for half a century there, and the desert has done its work on the faces of the miners. They are men with scorched features; their solitude and the neglect they are consigned to has been fixed in the dark intensity of their eyes. Going from the desert up to the mountains, entering any needy home, getting to know the inhuman labor these people do, and feeling that the hopes of isolated and sunken men have been entrusted to you, is not a light responsibility.”

Responsibility. I think that is a crucial word when it comes to praise. Often a work of praise is created out of a deep sense of responsibility.

Neruda makes the salt flats much more than a cliché place of toil. They take on an otherworldly beauty—”mountains/of buried light”—“a transparent cathedral.” These fantastical images transform this desolate, impoverished area into a place of splendor. Neruda makes this forsaken region a most holy place because of the dignity of the human sweat that goes into it, suggesting medieval cathedrals that were an accumulation of decades and even centuries of work.

Right at this point in the poem where Neruda seems to be taking us farthest from everyday reality into the realm of imaginary cathedrals, he yanks us back to the here and now:

And you’re on every table
on this earth,
salt,
your eager
sustenance
scattering
vital light
over
our food.

Salt is again the familiar condiment of daily life, but it has metamorphosed during the poem’s journey to the salt plains and saltpeter mines. He addresses the salt directly with the familiar tu, as if it’s now a person he knows well, and what could be more familiar than salt? The salt has retained that remarkable light that it had in the desert—la luz vital, Neruda calls it in Spanish, so it still has an aura to it, though it’s back to the most ordinary, domestic setting. Neruda uses a delicious word—espolvoreando—to describe the salt’s sprinkling, portraying the simple act of its pouring as almost gymnastic.

The conclusion of “Ode to Salt” reunites the planetary and the particular. The salt combines the smallest and largest things, the driest and wettest, all in the space of a few short lines of poetry. By the end, the salt is the flavor of a cosmic kiss that lets us touch the core of the universe.


As in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s psalm of praise to “Pied Beauty,” Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” begins to take on the attributes of the thing praised. He sprinkles the words lightly down the page as if they are grains of salt. Neruda is also careful not to overstate, always an important consideration in poems of praise.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 7: Mary Oliver's hymn of praise, "Happiness"

The next work of praise I'm going to discuss is a poem I love, “Happiness” by the U.S. writer Mary Oliver. The poem appeared in her book American Primitive, which won the Pulitzer Prize. You can read the poem here.

One thing I admire about this poem is that Mary Oliver resists the temptation to say too much. A lesser poem might use the image of honey to draw a facile parallel to the sweetness of life. Mary Oliver includes that as a subtext in the poem, but it never becomes saccharine. 

Mary Oliver
Praise has a tendency to get sentimental or gooey, and she never crosses that line in this poem, except maybe with the words “perfections” and “shining” in the final lines: “the perfections/ of honeysuckle and roses and clover,” and in “day after shining day.” Even that last line is an image, though, and not a judgment.

One lesson from Mary Oliver’s poem is: when you are praising, avoid overstatement. It will sour the sweetest writing. In some of her other poems, Mary Oliver cannot resist the temptation to wax rhapsodic and personify the smallest daisy. I’m not convinced that’s her strongest suit.

Another thing that is interesting in the poem “Happiness” is that there are major changes in the space of this poem’s twenty-eight short lines. Here's how she portrays the bear initially, for instance: “Black block of gloom." There is not much to like about this bear at first. 

I think it’s important that this is a she-bear. The aggression we often associate with bears seems somewhat lessened by that detail. But this bear is aggressive in the way it disrupts the bees’ hive.

There is a turning point in the poem where this bear seems to become more likeable: the stanza break. That break is not only a pause, it’s a change in many other ways. Once the bear finds the honey, the bees’ sweetness seems to infuse the bear. The imagery portraying the bear transforms at that point in the poem. The bear becomes like the bees. It acquires wings, and seems almost like a big, furry angel.

Notice also how the sounds of the poem change. Mary Oliver starts with the hard consonants of “Black block of gloom.” Then she progresses to the clunky but inoffensive short vowel sounds of:

down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.

Even though the sounds are not terribly welcoming, we do have the image of “the rugs of her arms,” with its warmer, domestic connotations. Less fierce than the “Black block of gloom,” for sure.

Finally Mary Oliver adds in the longer vowels of roses, clover, float, sleep, and sheer. She also uses the softer sibilance of “sleep in the sheer nets” and “day after shining day.”


What do you think of the title of this poem? Is “Happiness” too obvious a moral to draw? What if Mary Oliver had decided to name it something less thematic, such as, “Bear in Honey,” or, “In the Forests of Maine”? How would that change the poem? Wouldn’t she then have to add something so we understood the theme? I think the reason she chose such a thematic and didactic title is so it would stay out of the way for the rest of the poem. The title becomes a lens for us to see through without interfering with the poem’s beautiful sounds and imagery. Yes, Mary Oliver;s poem is about “Happiness,” but she describes it through a very specific incident with its juicy details.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 6: Praise in Yehuda Amichai and Gerard Manley Hopkins

So, now we’re going to move from the valley of lament to the plateau of praise. In many ways, praise is the more difficult mode to write well. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai discusses this in his poem “The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy” from his book Open Closed Open, beautifully translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.

Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000)
What Amichai describes so well in this poem is the way in which our psyches are hard-wired to record every detail of an unpleasant situation. This tendency may be a survival mechanism to keep us from repeating destructive experiences. But we humans are not well attuned to recounting the positive. That takes a different kind of attention.

Nevertheless, poems of praise are some of the most ancient in human culture. Many forms of writing or speech or song are traditionally vehicles of praise: psalms, hymns, odes, litanies, blasons (the blason is a form of love poetry that enunciates all of the beloved’s features one by one).

Just as the lament focuses on loss, on absence, the poem of praise focuses on presence. But the poem of praise is not concerned with something that is obviously present. It’s about drawing attention to something present that deserves or demands more of our attention.

One of the earliest forms of praise literature is the psalm. The Hebrew word for “psalms,” tehillim, literally mean “praises,” in this case, praises of God. Let’s say you wanted to write a poem praising God or the spiritual side of life and you wanted to do it using objects or things or creatures in the world that are the clearest manifestations of the divine. What would be the most obvious things to inspire a sense of spiritual awe? You might choose children’s innocence, sunsets, mountains, beautiful skies, rainbows, etc.things that are self-evidently beautiful or pleasant.

Well, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sort of modern psalm where he praises God through unusual objects or things in the world. Hopkins was a great poet and an Irish priest who lived from 1844 to 1899. 
Gerard Manley Hopkins
It’s very interesting what Hopkins chooses to single out as evidence of the divine. Here’s the poem:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

What sorts of things does Hopkins choose to praise, and therefore to connect to the sacred in his poem? He doesn’t focus on days when the heavens are a clear blue, but on mottled skies. He praises not constancy and perfect complexions but what is “fickle, freckled.” He spotlights grungy, physical work: “gear and tackle and trim.” In what way are these manifestations of the divine, if God is, as he says, “past change”? Don’t these things seem like the opposite of the divine?

When I taught this poem in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the summer of 2015, my colleague, the poet Anne Caston, had an interesting interpretation of Hopkins’ choice of things to praise in this poem: “Hopkins understood something about the nature of God to accept the ‘flawed’ and ‘marred’ things in His creation. I love that notion too, that there is a part of the spiritual that sees the beauty and elegance of the ‘flawed’ things.”

One thing writers can take away from this poem is that praise needs to have an element of surprise. There’s a goody-goody side to praise that can be predictable and cloying. Avoid crystals, butterflies, waterfalls, sunsets, and cute babies, unless you can find something to praise in these things that you’ve never heard anyone laud before.

The artistic context of Hopkins’ poem is also interesting. Around the time that Hopkins wrote this poem, the United Kingdom and Ireland were in the midst of a serious medieval revival. You’ve probably heard of the Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris, for instance. 


The families of Pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones
Influenced by the art critic John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites took their name from the idea of going back in art to the time before the Renaissance painter Raphael, whose work they felt represented a sophisticated corruption of the innocence, sincerity, and freshness of medieval art. During this period of the industrial revolution, in literature as well, there was a yearning for a more innocent and pure art. Many artists turned to or imagined a period when art was inspired by faith and the importance of craft. That’s why this school in the visual arts was also called the Arts and Crafts movement.

In his poetry, Hopkins harked back to the rhyme and alliteration of the very earliest English verse, dating back to the Middle Ages. This was the period of Old English, the Anglo-Saxon roots of English before the influence of French and Latin became predominant in the era of the Norman conquest. You can listen here to a recitation of one of the greatest poems of Old English, “The Seafarer,” so you can hear the alliteration and strong rhythms that characterized the literature in English in its earliest days.


By using the sort of alliteration and rhyme from an earlier period in the history of the English language, Hopkins evokes the faith and values of that period as well. But I think one of the take-aways from Hopkins’ poem is that the thing that you are praising—or lamenting—can shape the way you praise or lament it. It has to shape the way you praise or lament it.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer