Original Poem: Of all the signs of spring

Drafted yesterday, revised today, inspired by the 5th of 5 poetry writing prompts received from Tweetspeak Poetry this month. Not limited to National Poetry Month, you can sign up any time to receive the 5-prompt poetry mini-series.

Feel free to look away if you’re incurably cheerful or even remotely suicidal. Or just don some shades. That should suffice. Recommended if you’re somewhere in between–the poem, that is; shades optional. Poem on.


How is it that of all

the signs of spring

—bulbs budding and

blooming, birds once

off returning, catalogs

for summer clothes and

swimsuits, lawn-greening

trucks and greening lawns

bloated by the cause of mud,

rabbits, baby rabbit-ventures,

showers, thunder, thunder-

snow, swift snow-melt, even

high winds, high clouds, long-

wanted warmth, and light’s

longer days—the least

welcome harbinger

should be, over all,

the shining sun?

 

Why does the bright light

—its crisp, brassy heat and

golden hue causing such stir-

rings, a deeper, lovelier blue

of sky; why does the sun’s

shine

portend that inner dullness,

inescapable oppression of the

heart, the soul’s own shadowing

over, a deadness of ashes turned

blacker for the beams cast on their

heap, and so fully the more I look,

the more I sit and stare out the

window that is a door I could

open but for my blanched

sight and just this one

globe’s eyeless

glare?

 

© C. L. Tangenberg / Philosofishal


From other sources, sunnier verse about the sun:

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?


To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

You can also get to them directly here:

The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils

While my last post focused on animals with two poems by American poet Elizabeth Bishop, this piece travels back in time and across the sea to England, just for a little flowering magic.

The father of Romantic poetry in English, William Wordsworth made poetry more accessible to the “common man” by purposely avoiding alienating vocabulary and using a less formal tone. Wordsworth published the poetry collection Lyrical Ballads with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798, influencing the verse of later Romantic poets such as John Keats, Lord Byron (George Gordon), and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

daffodil w light pool BW

The Daffodil Trail, Furnace Run Metro Park, Richfield, OH, 2004. Image by C. L. Tangenberg

One of Romanticism’s key characteristics is delight in nature. This poem emphasizes the impression of seeing thousands of flowers at once. If you have never been through a daffodil field, it’s quite something. We have a daffodil trail at a park on the border between the Summit County Metro Parks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park here in northeast Ohio. It’s a chance to see a brief explosion of blooms each April. I imagine tulip fields in Holland and elsewhere are similarly breathtaking in person.

In time for summer wild flowers as we look back to spring, this poem also offers a “twinkling” reminder (see stanza 2) to check out the Perseid meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere, which peaks on the early mornings of August 11, 12, and 13 this year.

Reminisce on former, take in current, and welcome future fields, or single stems, of flowers and stars. Star gazers might also enjoy Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s short poem “The Evening Star.”


“I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” a.k.a. “The Daffodils”

William Wordsworth, 17701850

I wandered lonely as a cloud
  That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
  A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
  And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
  Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
  Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
  In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
  In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
  Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

                 - published in 1807

I felt comfortable sharing the entire poem because Wordsworth’s poetry is in the public domain.

If you haven’t already, see samples of Elizabeth Bishop’s excellent nature poetry featured previously as the second posted subject in the series.