February 2009


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Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

If you have stood in front of this wonderful painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, more than once, as I have, you have enjoyed a rare pleasure.

What are we looking at? An ordinary woman alone in a room. She is plainly dressed in a white cap and shoulder covering . There is no evidence she is a servant; she is likely the middle class mistress of the house. Her right hand is on the leaded pane window and her left hand is on a water pitcher. Perhaps she is opening the window just before pouring a glass of water. Perhaps she is waiting for someone.

No matter, she is obviously accustomed to performing household chores. The scene is a snapshot of ordinary motion.

What makes her appealing to us is her sense of self, her self-possession. She is not a symbol of beauty or womanhood; she is not Venus or Persephone, or the Virgin Mary. She is an individual with rights and private thoughts in a humanist world.

Her’s is a clean, well-ordered space. The window light conveys peace and tranquility in the external world, which is reflected in her inner calm. The light is welcoming. It draws us into the painting, even as she permits us into her world, allowing us to observe her.

On the back wall is a map of Europe. She is aware of the wider world, but it does not intrude into her household. The outer world does not threaten the order of her day.

Why do long lines of spectators form at exhibits wherever “Young Woman” and Vermeer’s other solitary women are displayed? Because, I think, we recognize this Dutch woman, painted in the 1660s. We realize that she belongs to an earlier version of our world. She is contemporaneous with the Colonial era. She represents the virtues of simplicity, purity, frugality.

We leave our overcrowded world of vulgarity, violence, strident beliefs, ostentatious displays of wealth, upon entering the hush of the museum and the calm of her room.

Is she mysterious, mystical?

I confess that the painting sometimes give me that feeling. Perhaps she is not so pure and is waiting for a lover. If so, we know it will be a discrete affair.

by Hudson Owen

He caught a close cloud passing by
And forged a mighty spoon;
And scooped in slews of tidbit stars
And gobbled up the moon.

He finished off his tasty meal
With frosted mountain cakes,
And washed all down with pleasant rounds
Of vintage sparkling lakes.

But when the time for breakfast came
A rumbling had begun.
And though he tried, he could not move
To polish off the sun.

From Selected Poems -1967 – 2007 by Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Rhyme is an old though probably not ancient element of English poetry. According to Sir John Glubb, “In the field of poetry and romance, it was the people of the Arabian peninsula who were innovators. Rhyming verse, unknown to the Greeks and Latins, was brought by them to Europe.”

Actually, rhyme occasionally showed up in classical literature. In Catullus, for example. Rhyme traveled via the French troubadours into English after the Norman conquest in 1066.

Chaucer, of “The Canterbury Tales” fame, writing in the 1300s, was an accomplished rhymer. By the time of Shakespeare rhyme was widely practiced. However, it was not without controversy. In 1602, Thomas Campion, a skillful lyricist, wrote a pamphlet entitled “Observations in the Art of English Poesie,” attacking the “childish titillation” of rhyming. One year later, Campion drew a riposte from Samuel Daniel, soldier and sonneteer, with “A Defence of Ryme.”

Daniel defends rhyme as “an agreeing sound in the last silables of seuerall verses, giuing both to the Eare an Eccho of a delightful report & to the Memorie a deeper impression of what is deliuered therein. Ryme is no inpediment to his (poet) conceit, rather giues him wings to mount and carries him, not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a farre happier flight.”

By the end of the 19th Century poets could choose rhymed, blank or free verse. Rhyme made it into the 20th Century in the verse of the First World War. The shock of the war brought an end to Victorian optimism, but not to the ability of poets to concentrate their emotions in the trenches, notably Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Some of the most powerful poetry of the era was penned by these soldier poets.

Most, if not all, of the major poets of the 20th Century wrote rhymed verse. One thinks of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Frost. Most children’s and nonsense verse is in rhyme.

The cultural upheaval of the 1960s caused somewhat of a schism in poetry. The folk-rock lyricists became widely recognized as poets and troubadours, while experimental and mainstream poetry veered off into dry, flat-sounding free verse: Concrete and Sound poetry being two examples. Dylan Thomas shifted identity into Bob Dylan.

Critics of rhyme have complained that it is artificial. People don’t naturally talk in rhyme. And so it is, as all art is artifice. Rhyme is artificial in music just as it is in spoken verse. Rhyme has been more accepted in music, that’s all.

Some people think that because rhyme is “artificial” it is more labored than free verse and therefore less authentic. However, rhymed verse has sometimes come out with astonishing swiftness. Merrill Moore was probably the most prolific American poet who ever lived. By age 37 he had written 50,000 or more sonnets, most in shorthand he had learned specifically for the task. Louis Untermeyer said that Moore could spin off one hundred sonnets in an afternoon, an incredible feat by any standard. While not great, the sonnets do make sense.

Rhyme is alive and well today. It is used skillfully by women as well as men. You can find it all over the Web. Rap is a form of spoken poetry frequently using rhyme. Its vocabulary and subject matter may be alien to many of a more “literary” inclination. It has nonetheless reinvigorated the oral tradition and spread far from its African-American roots.

Picasso 1973

Foundation

Something of the hoard of kings
hangs in the humid, still air
of the atrium before nine,
as the mind rebounds from stillness:

Fruit of looms rolled down like dice
before the feet of queen and vizier;
rubies, tusks, the metal of metals
gleaming like damn pieces of the sun;

Fine leaf, cork, jute, pepper, tea,
the freight of caravans and privateers,
barnacled with lore in the transporting,
tallied and laid down in ringing tones.

Something of the solid sounds of commerce
and thrift, the rumble of barrels on cobbles
and grunt of satisfaction at a deal, are
echoed here, reflected in bronze tints.

Above and around, fluorescent cells turn on,
as the day of beneficence begins.
The principle here is give and give,
to each according to his/her merit,

Someone decides. The hard cash of history
has been transformed by Ford into Eden.
Here trees grow on money and water reflects
a deeper view for the pennies tossed in.

What does it matter what economists say?
The thing is abstruse until bull meets bear
and the circulating medium runs to blood.
Still, someone will employ the gardener

And tip the custodian at Christmas
or whatever the proper time of year,
in cash, credit, gifts or favors, and say
“Good morning” in the morning rays;

Until that time when the beams themselves,
rusted as the green on bronze, evident
as the labor that builds a solid thing,
are called into serious question.

Then the first gains won from fear,
the first acceptance of shells and cattle,
will also be called into question,
should anyone speak—king, V.P., or vizier.

From The Endless Evolving Trilogy – A Poem Cycle by Hudson Owen. All rights reserved.

John Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76. I heard him read at an old church in Boston years ago. He was 35 at the time, supremely confident, and he read a long poem in blank verse called “Midpoint.” I remember nothing about the poem other than the title and that it was a serious poem.

On January 29, 2009, The New York Times published a short poem from a forthcoming collection by the author, Endpoint and Other Poems, called “Requiem.” It’s a short, self-deprecating poem in rhymed verse. So the author lived beyond his midpoint by six years.

One of the things I liked about Updike was his good verse. He kept at it over the years so that he was in sufficiently good shape, though he was dying of cancer, to write 16 good lines for his sendoff.

Like most American writers of talent, he discovered early in life that poetry doesn’t pay much, and so threw the bulk of his time and talent into novels and stories. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely. He certainly lived the writer’s life before the age of media distractions we are now immersed in.

He appeared on Charlie Rose on PBS in November last year. He was charming, as usual, quick-witted and sharp in his answers. He said that maybe he had been too much the writer of the suburban world he had created in the Rabbit series. I think he was right about that. After all, how seriously can we take a character named Rabbit?

Updike was a very good writer, on the top tier of second rank or, generously, on the lower tier of first rank. He could pack about as much into a sentence as anyone could. I don’t think he was a great writer; America has produced very few, if any, really great writers in the 20th Century, though we certainly have many very good ones.

The difference is depth of feeling and character. In Updike, there was a bit too much cleverness where there should have been depth. Still, I will miss him for his sparkling, poetic prose. His death diminishes the world I grew up in. May he rest in reprints.