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Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine

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“The world is my country and to do good my religion.”  Those words could get a man in trouble in Thomas Paine’s time.  Born in England in 1737, he arrived in America in 1774 and quickly became a spokesman for the revolutionary cause, writing first “Common Sense” and then “The Crisis” in support of the American revolution.  Returning to England he got in trouble for his writing, “The Rights of Man,” and then got embroiled in the revolution in France, where he got on the wrong side of powerful leaders and spent time in prison.  When he returned to America, his more recent activities and his freethought views on religious matters obscured his contributions to U.S. Independence.

“The world is my country and to do good my religion” was a declaration that could get a man in trouble when Paine died in 1809, and this was still the case one hundred years later.  There was little reward for thinking beyond the level of patriotism and even less for godless “religion.”

Things have improved since then.  A future President is unlikely to describe Paine, or anyone else, as a “dirty little atheist” as Theodore Roosevelt did in a biography of Gouverneur Morris, American ambassador to France when Paine was in prison there.  First published in 1888, the book was reprinted in 1899 without change, an event which caused a furor of protest from the freethought community.

Then again, not speaking unkindly of atheists may be more a matter of politeness than of true understanding and tolerance.  Politics and religion are more closely involved than ever, it seems. Certainly the ability both to think for oneself and to think an issue through to its logical conclusion seems to be in short supply in the political arena.  The media use of sound bites doesn’t help.

Note: some reports on Thomas Paine now give his birthdate as February 9.  This is because the calendar was adjusted in 1752.  The English calendar had become off by eleven days from the Gregorian calendar in use outside of Britain and its colonies..  In 1752, September 3 to 13 simply didn’t happen.  The changing of all dates before that shift seems excessive to me.  In the peak of the freethought era one hundred years ago, January 29 was the day for celebration.

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Poem for a Winter Night

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Night reflects day, not
innocent of influence
as a true mirror,
but with all the shading
of long acquaintance.

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My son gave me a new camera for Christmas and I couldn’t resist trying it out on a night shot.  Not bad for a beginner like me with a relatively simple machine.  The moon was past full, though it looks very round in this shot.

A Tanka on Memory

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The camera’s click
a snap judgment
determines what
will be recalled
after memories fade.

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The photo is from a trip to Greece long ago.  It has stuck in my head as what Greek islands look like (though I think the color of the sea has faded slightly).  I had to look at the back to find out which island it is.  It is Thasos, the northernmost in the Aegean Sea, not far from Thessalonica.  Why did I go there?  I can reconstruct that it was to see some minor monuments from my studies of Greek archaeology.  But this, the green slope overlooking the sea, is all I really remember – or think I do.

Learning to Read Wallace Stevens

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I haven’t had a course in poetry since seventh grade, and that consisted of memorizing pieces like Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” so from time to time I set aside contemporary poetry to read something more classic.  This fall I tackled Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Like Homer, this is an epic, and a long one with long speeches.  One can skim large parts of it.  I was glad to discover what this famous work has in it: a fidelity to the Biblical record combined with a wildly imaginative representation of the spiritual world, lots of classical references in its comparisons, and a firm belief in reason.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is quite a different case.  I came upon his Collected Poems in the local library.  Dipping into it, I found myself in over my head.  Since the collection consists of six separately published books, more or less complete, plus some later work, I chose to read the section Parts of the World, published in 1942.  There are sixty-three poems in this division, quite enough for the rereading and going back and forth it took me to really grasp what he was up to.  The rereading was well worth it.

One of the first things I had to learn was that a poem title may give no clue to the poem.  Why is a poem about Cotton Mather and a mouse titled “The Blue Buildings in the Summer Air”?  Stevens is not forthcoming about the sources of his poems, and it often seems that he is writing entirely for himself.  Sometimes I felt that the writing might be a project to avoid insanity caused by a very active imagination. He doesn’t use the first person a lot, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t talking about himself.  Consider the opening of “The Hand As a Being”

In the first canto of the final canticle,
Too conscious of too many things at once,
Our man beheld the naked, nameless dame,

At other times word play is apparently what started him off, as in “Country Words”:

I sang a canto in a canton,
Cunning-coo, O, cuckoo cock,
In a canton of Belshazzar
To Belshazzar, putrid rock,
Pillar of a putrid people,
Underneath a willow there
I stood and sang and filled the air.

One thing careful reading and rereading taught me was to enjoy the surprise but not be thrown off by radical shifts and unusual comparisons, as in this section from “”Variations on a Summer Day”:

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Now, the timothy at Pemaquid
That rolled in heat is silver-tipped
And cold.  The moon follows the sun like a French
Translation of a Russian poet.

Here is a sample complete poem, a description of a work of art.  It is one of 52 poems by Stevens available on Poemhunter.com, for anyone who would like to see a few more.

Study Of Two Pears

I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

Very elaborate attention to detail ends in the observation that the artist has determined what the observer sees.  Then there’s this poem, which made me, as a poet myself, think – a lot.

Poetry Is a Destructive Force

That’s what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.

It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.

Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.

He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast.
Its muscles are his own . . .

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.

The animals are in the man, then the man is inside the animal.  Is being a poet this uncomfortable?  Is this what pushed him to produce so much amazing and puzzling work?  The book is due at the library soon, but it is likely I’ll get it out again to explore another section of Stevens’s work another time.  I think I’ve made great progress in learning to read his poems.

A July Tanka in January

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Rocks become islands
rising from a table sea.
Cardboard ships sail in,
seize gold, quarrel over it,
cranky as housebound children.

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It was a rainy day.  This game was being played by adults, but the pirate characters they created to captain the ships were definitely argumentative.  And there is something about a summer place and memories.  It is as if the sounds of children of years past continue to hang in the rafters.

I got the picture when the players were away from the table; I like the wavy lines in the wood.  May we all have good fortune in 2014.