'When a warrior is gone'... Seamus Heaney

GONE FAR TOO SOON: The master in 2009. Ah God, I thought we'd have Seamus Heaney for at least a few more years. The wispy white-haired Irish laureate died in Dublin today, at the age of 74, according to various media reports, and there are no words to properly express what he contributed to poetry and language during his immense career.

He was a makaris; an archeologist of peat bogs and Latinate etymology; a singer of old songs ("Antigone," "Beowulf," from Virgil) in a thrilling modern idiom... and on and on. He was a wonder.

I'm wrong about one thing, though. There ARE very good words appropriate for this moment of loss  -- his own, taken from his best-selling translation of "Beowulf":

It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.

He won plenty of glory, didn't he? I wonder if the thought ever crossed his mind, as he worked on these lines in his farmhouse years ago, that such words could apply to him and his career.

Rest in peace, old artificer.

'Belief is possible at night': Averill Curdy's poetry

Poetry by ancient light. (Credit: www.davidtribble.com) It was such a nice experience this week dipping into Averill Curdy’s "Song and Error," published a couple months ago by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and finding Ovid there. It’s a pleasure to pick up a book by a contemporary poet like Curdy (or Carol Ann Duffy, whose favorite seems to be Virgil) and find someone who doesn't hesitate to invoke the Latin greats.

It's encouraging too. Here's a writer who believes that those laureled heads still have much to give to our present.

In "Ovid in America," we listen to 17th-century translator George Sandys as he meditates on life in the new world (Sandys was an early settler of Jamestown) and shares the great poet's sense of exile in a strange, unfamiliar place:

Without coppice, park, romancely glade, Or commanding vantage, Woods press on us; they fester.... I find no empires here, no apostles or emeralds. Instead, all things a-broil with an awful begetting & my hours unsettled by some new show Of riotous & mystical imagination...

Long before strip malls and highways, America existed in a mythic state, wild and  "a-broil with an awful begetting." Magnificent.

Words are so powerful, but how often do we think about that in the course of our days? We don't. We write memos and send texts, using language like a shovel or a fork. Which is why poetry matters, and why a poet like Curdy, a teacher at Northwestern University, is to be appreciated in this book, her debut collection.

Here, a little later in the same poem, is an act of creation, as Sandys hovers over  his translation:

From my hands at night (my light Some oil in a dish or a rush taper smoking, Not so different from Ovid’s), flower His fantastic shapes, shadows Of an old empire’s former splendor... Belief is possible at night, solitary, firelit. Then, I can believe in Ovid’s centaurs, Or that he was met at death by a three-headed dog....

The shadow of Robert Lowell falls here, Amy Clampitt's, too. Sometimes her language is much more complex, more elusive--and if it feels too elusive at times, well, that's okay too. The beauty of the language more than compensates, as in “Anatomical Angel” :

Unfastened avidly from each ivory button Of her spine, the voluntary muscles open Viruousities of red: cinnabar

The mutagen, and carmine from cochineal Born between fog and frost....

I think I get it, but even if I don’t, does it matter? The words stay with me an hour later, an hour after that, at the end of the day, at the end of the week.

Can I say the same thing about a text or a TV show?

Not really.

That's why it's poetry. That's why it matters.

Carol Ann Duffy's songs of the Earth

Credit: Jacopo Werther It almost sounds like British laureate Carol Ann Duffy is responding to news headlines about bee populations and cellphone usage when she says:

Where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
 In pear trees, plum trees; bees
 Are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.

Guard them—against what? Cell phones? Against our environmental ignorance?

Duffy might have that situation in mind, but her  poem “Virgil’s Bees” also evokes Caesar Augustus’ favorite bard and his praise of bees and their labor in the  Georgics.

It’s a poem belonging to Duffy’s yellow-and-black-themed collection, “The Bees” -- one of two volumes published by Faber and Faber this spring to welcome the season (how many publishers are classy enough to have such poetic timing for publication dates?) from a poet who’s scooped up every contemporary poetry prize worth winning, from the T.S. Eliot Prize to the Costa Book Award to the Dylan Thomas Prize and on and on.

“There were flowers at the edge of the forest, cupping/the last of the light in their upturned petals. I followed you in...” she writes in “Forest,” a poem in the other volume, “Rapture,” about a memory of lovemaking in the woods that ends with a poignant, painful request:

I am there now, lost in the forest, dwarfed by the giant trees. Find me.

This is elemental stuff that's rich with mythic associations (how many dark woods are there in fairy tales and myths? Can you count them all? Impossible!). This is what I look for in poetry — language that I can think about the way someone else thinks about songs from the radio; and a sensibility whose roots are deep in ancient tradition and whose branches spread a lovely, contemporary shade.

Duffy prides herself on using plain, simple words — a poet like Seamus Heaney, who relishes strange, Latinate language, seems to annoy her (I don’t see why) -- but that doesn’t mean her poetry is without shadows or mystery, beauty or grace. When morning light falls on “the softening earth,” in the poem “Grace,” Duffy experiences a moment of spiritual transcendence:

...the moon stepping slowly backwards
 out of the morning sky, reward
 for the dark hours we took to arrive and kneel
 at the silver river’s edge near the heron priest....

We should all be so lucky to experience such a moment. And if we can’t, at least we can read Duffy’s work. That’s a good consolation.

Timely and timeless: Virgil's translator

I'm not trying to be morbid -- but I do tend to think of the health and welfare of George R.R. Martin a lot, and I'm sure that plenty of other fans of "A Song of Ice and Fire" do, too. Just go over to YouTube and you'll find a music video by the team Geek and Sundry called "Write Like the Wind (George R.R. Martin)" that's so funny it could draw a chuckle out of Tywin Lannister. EPIC TRANSLATOR: David Ferry, at 88.

The other writer I also worry about nearly as much is the award-winning poet David Ferry. He is the sublime modern translator of Publius Vergilius Maro --  otherwise known as Virgil.

No one translating today, in my humble opinion, has better captured the magic of Virgil than Ferry. He's given us translations of the Eclogues and Georgics, and a recent collection published by University of Chicago Press includes passages from the Aeneid. Will we see Ferry's complete translation of this phenomenal, incomplete epic one day?

I hope so, but I worry. Ferry is 88. He's not a spring chicken, and the Aeneid is not a short poem.

On the other hand, Ferry was recently interviewed on the PBS Newshour, and it made me happy. He looks incredibly well and far healthier than a person 10-15 years younger. Check it out below.

According to this interview, his translation of the "Aeneid" should be completed in about two years. I can't wait! (Mr. Ferry, please get a flu shot.)


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