Other, less difficult media

While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.

Cockney Keats?

“Keats Speaks,” my essay about whether the real Keats spoke the way the one in the recent Jane Campion movie does, appears in the 1 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

You can read the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article that accused Keats of “Cockney rhymes” here (though signed “Z.,” it was by John Gibson Lockhart, and it appeared in the August 1818 issue). Just as infamous was a similar attack in the Quarterly Review by John Wilson Croker (though the issue was dated April 1818, it actually appeared in September).

Lhude sing cuccu

With a puppy in the house, I have had occasion lately to be reminded of the poem “Cuckoo Song,” also known by its first line, “Sumer is icumen in,” which is the first poem in both of the editions of the Oxford Book of English Verse that I happen to own. In particular, the second verse has seemed pertinent:

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!

Or, to modernize it slightly, thereby ruining the rhymes:

Ewe bleats after lamb,
Cow lows after calf;
Bullock leaps, buck farts,
Merry sing cuckoo!

It’s the verting of the bucke that makes the poem, in my opinion. It’s so homely and unexpected—so unexpected that for a long time I’ve carried around in my head the notion that perhaps deer really do fart more in the early summer than at other times of the year. After all, ewes are more likely to have lambs then, and cows calves. I speculated that maybe in late spring deer start to eat grass and leaves in greater quantities, and maybe it takes their digestive systems a little while to adjust, and in thirteenth-century England, where deer and humans lived in gunpowder-free proximity, people noticed.

Maybe. But thanks to the internet, I see that a hunter in Texas heard a whitetail doe startle her fellow deer in January, and there are a couple of videos of farting deer available online, posted in October and November, so I’m guessing that deer fart year-round, not just in June, and that the poet intended for farting deer, like leaping bullocks, to signify a general, seasonless exuberance.

Lullaby

You shall be the rose you see
And the cardinal’s cry you hear.
No frost will come, when north is south,
To end the cutworm’s year.

And you shall be the breeze you feel
Caress you with a sigh.
But songbirds’ breasts will pillows be
For mites that never die.

And you shall be the bud that starts,
And petals as they fall,
And the sixfold mouth that eats the bud
That never starts at all.

 

The New Climate

One day Grandmother drove us away from such a sky,
Iron gray, clotted like mud, leaking light
Like sheets stripped from a bed in a dim room and thrown
Over a lamp still plugged in. She held our fear
With hers at the steering wheel; for play, my sister and I
Watched trees bow and arch, and wondered if we might
See cyclones. One crossed the road behind us, we learned by phone
Near Houston, by only half an hour. How sharp the air
Then smelled. We were so young, we would never die
And thought it clever to have preceded fate with flight,
Instead of lucky, or, as she might say, if alone,
Blessed. To keep us from such knowledge was her care
    And our adventure, an order changed if the sky here,
    In Brooklyn, is the same that came after us there.