Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
“We have a long way to go, and
there is time ahead for thought.”
— Treebeard, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
On two different third days of January, an American woman was born in the United Kingdom, and an Englishman was born in South Africa. They both were brought home by their parents while they were infants. The man went through harrowing experiences during the First World War, and was sent home from the front, ill in body and spirit. The woman planned a career as a professional musician, but became a writer because she began going deaf in college.
Are the events which change our lives random, or are they put in our paths by ‘fate’ or ordained by a god or gods, or some combination of all of these? And what makes “Great Art” great? Eternal Questions to which there are no irrefutable answers.
Our Englishman struggled with most of the Big Questions in his work, while our American woman tackled the question of what makes great poetry, and the imponderables of relationships.
“The best poetry—great poetry—happens when sound, rhythm, and image bring about a mysterious feeling of wholeness that somehow draws mind, body, and spirit together into what both Yeats and Eliot envisioned as a unified dance. What we call “the power of the word” is really a pattern of words in a rhythm originating in heartbeat and footfall. Language, like the human mind, consists of a conscious and an unconscious element, and what “real” poetry can do, even when it looks like prose on the page, is to reproduce the hidden music we are all born hearing but lose as we grow up. The danger today lies in pursuing novelty beyond a point of no return, of technically “making it new” until we no longer hear anything but the virtual pulse of a spoiled, over-mechanized civilization that is destroying its childhood as it ages, boasting the while of its progress.”
– Anne Stevenson
Anne Stevenson was born on January 3, 1933, to American parents in Cambridge, England, where her father, C.L. Stevenson, was studying philosophy under I. A. Richards and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The family returned to America when she was six months old. She grew up in New England, while her father taught at Harvard and Yale. Stevenson played cello and piano, and assumed she would be a professional musician. But while studying music and languages at the University of Michigan, at the age of 19 she began to lose her hearing, so she shifted to writing instead. After graduating, she moved to the United Kingdom, and lived and worked almost entirely there, at Cambridge, the University of Dundee in Scotland, at Oxford, North Wales, and Durham. While she considered herself an American, she said, “I belong to an America which no longer really exists.” Stevenson also wrote, “it took me two unhappy marriages and three children to make me reconsider my assumptions.” She was the author of over a dozen poetry collections, and several books of essays and literary criticism, as well as a controversial biography of poet Sylvia Plath, and two critical studies of Elizabeth Bishop. In 2007, she was honored with the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Stevenson died from heart failure on September 14, 2020, at the age of 87.
On Going Deaf
by Anne Stevenson
I’ve lost a sense. Why should I care?
Searching myself, I find a spare.
I keep that sixth sense in repair,
And set it deftly, like a snare.
by Anne Stevenson
‘You have to inhabit poetry
if you want to make it.’
And what’s to ‘inhabit ‘ ?
To be in the habit of, to wear
words, sitting in the plainest light,
in the silk of morning, in the shoe of night;
a feeling bare and frondish is surprising air;
And whats ‘to make’ ?
To be and to become words’ passing
weather ; to serve a girl on terrible
terms, embark on voyages over voices,
evade the ego-hill, the misery-well,
the siren-hiss of success, publish,
success, success, success.
And why inhabit, make, inherit poetry ?
Oh , it’s the shared comedy of the worst
blessed ; the sound leading the hand;
a worldlife running from mind to mind
through the washed rooms of the simple senses;
one of those haunted, undefendable, unpoetic
crosses we have to find.
by Anne Stevenson
(for Caroline Ireland)
They were to have been a love gift,
but when she slit the paper funnel,
they both saw they were fake; false flowers
he’d picked in haste from the store’s display,
handmade coloured stuff, stiff as crinoline.
Instantly she thought of women’s hands
cutting in grimy light by a sweatshop window;
rough plank tables strewn with cut-out
flower heads: lily, iris, primula, scentless
chrysanthemums, pistils rigged on wire
in crowns of sponge-tipped stamens,
sepals and petals perfect, perfectly
immune to menaces from the garden.
Why so wrong, so…flattening? Why not instead
symbols of unchanging love?
Yet pretty enough,
she considered, arranging them in a vase
with dry grass and last summer’s hydrangeas
whose deadness was still (how to put it?)
alive, or maybe the other side of life.
Two sides, really, of the same thing?
She laughed a little, such ideas were embarrassing
even when kept to oneself,
but her train of thought
carried her in its private tunnel through supper,
and at bedtime, brushing her teeth,
she happened to look up at the moon.
Its sunlit face was turned, as always, in her direction.
The full moon, she couldn’t help thinking,
though we see only half of it.
It was an insight she decided she could
share with him, but when he joined her
and together they lay in the dark,
there seemed no reason to say anything.
The words, in any case, would be wrong,
would escape or disfigure her meaning.
Good was the syllable she murmured to him,
fading into sleep. And just for a split second,
teetering on the verge of it, she believed
everything that had to be was understood.
“On Going Deaf,” “Making Poetry,” and “False Flowers” are from Poems 1955-2005, © 2005 by Anne
Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
J.R.R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein in South Africa, where his British parents worked in a bank; he went with his mother and brother to England in 1895. In addition to being the beloved British author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien was also a philologist, poet, and academic. He graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, in 1915, with first-class honors. Tolkien reluctantly served in WWI, as he wrote in 1941 in a letter to his son Michael: “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” Finding himself commanding enlisted men in France, who were mainly miners and factory workers, he lamented, “The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” Tolkien was at the Somme in 1916, and his battalion attacked Regina Trench, but he was invalided out a few weeks later because he had contracted trench fever, a disease carried by the lice which infested the trenches. Weak and emaciated, he spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, being deemed medically unfit for general service. In July, 1919, he was taken off active service, with a temporary disability pension, then he left the army in November, 1920. Tolkien next went to work at the Oxford English Dictionary, mainly on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. After that, he took a post as a reader in English language at the University of Leeds, the youngest professor there. Because he was married, he often privately tutored undergraduates from the women’s colleges, as it was not considered suitable for bachelor dons to tutor undergraduate maidens. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College, where he wrote The Hobbit, and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. He later became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford (1945-1959). Though he was trained at the beginning of WWII as a codebreaker, he was informed after completing the course that his services would not be required. Tolkien finally completed The Lord of the Rings in 1948. He retired from academic life in 1959, and received steadily increasing public attention and literary fame. In a 1972 letter, he deplored having become a cult-figure, but admitted that “even the nose of a very modest idol … cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense!” He lost his beloved wife Edith in 1971, and died himself 21 months later, on September 2, 1972, at the age of 81.
by J. R. R. Tolkien
The fat cat on the mat
may seem to dream
of nice mice that suffice
for him, or cream;
but he free, maybe,
walks in thought
unbowed, proud, where loud
roared and fought
his kin, lean and slim,
or deep in den
in the East feasted on beasts
and tender men.
The giant lion with iron
claw in paw,
and huge ruthless tooth
in gory jaw;
the pard dark-starred,
fleet upon feet,
that oft soft from aloft
leaps upon his meat
where woods loom in gloom —
far now they be,
fierce and free,
and tamed is he;
but fat cat on the mat
kept as a pet
he does not forget.
All That is Gold Does Not Glitter
by J. R. R. Tolkien
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
by J. R. R. Tolkien
In western lands beneath the Sun
The flowers may rise in Spring,
The trees may bud, the waters run,
The merry finches sing.
Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night,
And swaying branches bear
The Elven-stars as jewels white
Amid their branching hair.
Though here at journey’s end I lie
In darkness buried deep,
Beyond all towers strong and high,
Beyond all mountains steep,
Above all shadows rides the Sun
And Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
Nor bid the Stars farewell.
– from Poems and Stories, by J.R.R.Tolkien, 1994 edition – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt