Monday, April 13, 2009

A Poetic Journey: First Stop, Intro to Francis Thompson

April is the cruelest month, the sweetest month, and, since 1996, a month dedicated to poetry by the Academy of American Poets.

Their goals for National Poetry Month, from the website’s FAQ:
* Highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets
* Introduce more Americans to the pleasures of reading poetry
* Bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways
* Make poetry a more important part of the school curriculum
* Increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media
* Encourage increased publication, distribution, and sales of poetry books
* Increase public and private philanthropic support for poets and poetry

In that spirit, I’m going to focus my tiny spot of the blogosphere on a poetic journey, (more partial to English than to American poetry). Where do we find it? What does bring to our lives?

Each year there is an official poster. This year it is particularly inspired in thought and execution by Paul Sahre.

“Do I dare disturb the universe”—-one of the all-time great lines--written in the steamed bathroom mirror. Does the poet dare? Does Prufrock dare? Do we readers dare? You will not look at your own fogged mirror the same way as you did yesterday. That’s an accomplishment for both Sahre and Academy.

Uttering the words “dare” and “poetry” in the same breath feels at first blush silly. Skydiving is something you dare to do, but poetry?

And yet controlling the language to expose the beguiling hints and flashes of the complexity of human emotion and thought is a dangerous activity. When it goes wrong, it’s a mess. When it goes right, its illumination can be as painful as it is helpful.

Poetry That Crosses Our Path

For a New Yorker, one way was the Poetry in Motion series on the subway. You could look up and see a snatch of Whitman or Yeats or Dickinson. I was a fan, but I think the program has been cut in the budget nightmares.

Then there are the poems we stumble across in the strangest places.

The fairest things have fleetest end,
Their scent survives their close:
But the rose's scent is bitterness
To him that loved the rose.

I came upon this quotation in an Avengers episode! "Silent Dust," from the black & white Mrs. Peel era. Mrs. Peel is in a pub getting information from a suspect, who is a rose grower.

What I love about this is that it’s not a very famous quotation. It’s from “To Daisy” by Francis Thompson (whom Mrs. Peel does identify in the episode.) Roger Marshall is the sole writer of the episode, and so we know who planted it. That’s what writers get to do to whatever they get their hands on. Newspaper/magazine titles, book titles, movie/tv dialogue-—they plant pieces of poetry for others to stumble upon and discover. After noticing that little bit of poetry in the episode for years, I decided to look into Francis Thompson.

And lo and behold, there is no more fitting figure to discover during National Poetry Month than this Victorian English ascetic poet, a fascinating, sad man who developed an opium addiction after reading De Quincey’s Confession of an Opium Eater at the impressionable age of 18. (It was given to him by his mother who died shortly afterward. It seems he was doomed.) Thompson left behind tantalizing work, including a brilliant, feverish essay on Shelley, one of cricket’s great poems, and an overly anthologized “Catholic” poem. And to top it off, he’s also on the suspect list for the real Jack the Ripper. My NPM exploration of Francis Thompson is here.


Anonymous said...

great poster!