Selected by Kwame Dawes
National Poetry Month 2014
Letter from the Editors
Our thanks to Kwame Dawes for today's Poet's Pick!
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Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary!
Don Selby & Diane Boller
Kwame Dawes's Poetry Month Pick, April 28, 2014
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
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-vermilion.
Kwame Dawes Comments:
Between 1978 and 1980 I was a teenager preparing to take what would turn out to be the most difficult exams I have ever taken: the Cambridge A-Levels exams. In retrospect, the exam may not have been, in and of itself, the most challenging (although I remember it differently), but those two years demanded from us a completely different way of thinking, reading, writing, and organizing our lives as students, and in a sense, the expectation of growth and maturity and sophistication in that space of time was alarming. You took eight to ten O-levels, and then two years later, you would take two to four A-levels—the stakes were higher.
Those were the years I met Gerard Manley Hopkins, and when I first read with dismay and trepidation, “The Windhover”. I was in good company. It was a boys’ school in Kingston, Jamaica. There were about eight or so boys in that class. We were being taught by a Guyanese man called Mr. Bobb-Semple whose casual unperturbed manner struck us as verging on the masochistic—as if he saw our plight and was gleefully saying, “Well at least it is not me.” We were, some of us, athletes, and others were just cool people. Thus outside of class, we could only make jokes about literature and poetry. In class, we knew we faced something quite daunting.
If all we had to work with had been those first few lines of “The Windhover” we would have been in deep trouble. As it was, we could have skipped Hopkins altogether and stayed with the familiar and easily engaged: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Shakespeare’s Henry IVs and all those other story-based literary works we were asked to study. What does one do with the propulsive sound fest of “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-“? First there is that double “morning”, which seems like a mistake, and then you realize it is not, and that it is an opportunity for tonal play, like we have lingering in our dialect in Jamaica from the more tonal West African languages. The second “morning” must lift, it must propel us forward, but if we believed in the immediate apprehension of the line, we would be stuck at “minion” and the enjambed (at least we hope it is enjambed) “king—“ and are relieved when we find the “dom” in the next line.
Hopkins was a special challenge because we had a sense that any work that was not called “Modern” was somehow easily apprehended through reasonable application of logic and a general understanding of syntax. Allusions were coherent and not in abundance. Once we got through the trick of inverted syntax and all the “thees”, and “thous”, we would be quite fine. The Moderns, we knew, were meant to be hard, and if we were honest, incomprehensible. We came to Eliot with a sense of challenge and with the often vaguely worded advice that there was no right or wrong and as long as we supported our answers we were fine. Hopkins, however, was defying the “easiness” of his period. Further, his poem on the page was shaped like a tradition sonnet—it had rhymes, it had meter and it was about normal poetic fare for that period. And yet we had the sense that something complex was eluding us even as we could enjoy the pure delight of sound that clearly consumed Hopkins. We did not need our teacher to tell us that Hopkins felt “modern”—we knew it because we could not fit him anywhere else, and yet, we also knew that he was from an older tradition.
Thus it may have seemed strange that as a collective, the class arrived at the notion that one way to engage this work was to imitate it. This was not a clever assignment by our teacher. Indeed, for all I know, he did not know we were doing this. I suspect that this game began as an act of mockery, a way to express our uncertainty about this work by turning to parody. The fact, however, is that soon we were writing imitation Hopkins’ poetry and in doing so, we began to know things about his style and formal practice. They were familiar quirks. Frankly, that we could do so was sure indication that we were dealing with a distinctive voice. We never parodied or mocked the uninteresting characterless teachers. We parodied only the true characters, the quirky ones, the strange ones, the distinctive ones, the fascinatingly beautiful and grotesque ones. They were easier and they were distinctive. Hopkins was that.
And in “The Windhover” you have all the hallmark Hopkins’ gestures. First the whirl of blatantly indulgent alliterations: “dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon…”—no holding back there, at all. Then there were the compound constructs: “bow-bent” and “blue-bleak” and “dapple-dawn-drawn” and so on. These clusterings revealed an impatience with the wordiness of normal syntax. Hopkins liked to push verbs, adjectives and nouns hard against each other, forgoing any mediation of pronouns and articles where possible: “shéer plód makes plough down sillion/ Shine”. The verbs are working hard and coming at us forcefully, and the spondee like punchiness of the rhythm is achieved by dropping articles and pronouns. But in this example we also see the careful orchestration of his assonance and alliteration—just see how the s’s and p’s are working here.
So many things a poet can learn here, but we were not poets. We were boys finding ourselves struck by the full sound of these poems, and in trying to imitate Hopkins we were starting to grasp something of his art and its power. But we were helped most when one day our teacher brought in a hard cover book of photographs called something like Hopkins’ Landscape. Some enterprising photographer had decided to illustrate all of Hopkins’ visual imagery with photographs of the landscapes and the people that Hopkins would like have seen in his lifetime. And in this I, for one, felt something opening up inside me that is still in me. Hopkins’ language was physical, rooted in place, and desperate to find the right words, sounds, feelings and rhetorical constructs to somehow capture the world around him. I had a sense of the rich sensuality of the thing—all those yelps, shouts, exclamations, the headiness of the lines.
Significantly, those two years were some of the most spiritually defining of my life. I was consumed by the inevitable forces of my sexual desire and maturation and, at the same time, by my confrontation with the presence of death as an inevitability and as a haunting part of Jamaica’s volatile political situation. In the midst of this, I was facing questions about God and faith. I was drawn into the Christian faith during those years, but kept it all fairly hidden from my classmates. Hopkins with a poem like The Windhover resonated with me in ways I could not even explain. That final image of sheer color as the symbol of something like grace and delight still moves me in quite a visceral way.
My imitation Hopkins poems were bad. I could not parody him, I suppose, because, secretly, I felt there was nothing funny or strange about Hopkins. Instead, I wrote poems in the style of Hopkins but that were not about his landscape, but about mine. And it was the first time I imagined myself in the way of the great reggae prophets, wandering through a landscape as a pilgrim trying to make sense of it all. Ice skating was not a part of my life, nor had I ever watched a falcon—I would not know what one looked like in nature—but I understood the place these sightings had for Hopkins. It has to mean something that over the last thirty plus years, I have never returned to Hopkins with anything but a sense of the newness and freshness of things, and without appreciation for what he called “the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”
About Kwame Dawes:
Kwame Dawes's latest collection is Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems(Copper Canyon Press, 2013). His awards include the Hollis Summers Prize, the Forward Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor's Professor at the University of Nebraska. He also teaches in the Pacific University MFA in Writing program.
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