Thursday, November 19, 2009

Housman, Berryman

OK, here's the Housman I promised. I was reading A Shropshire Lad the other night. It's easy to think you have Housman's measure and not read him. And then you do read him, and you think that yes, you pretty much had his measure, but it's a fairly wonderful measure for all that. In amongst the macabre pieces about young love and death there's one, poem XXVI, which does something a bit more special. The poem which follows it is the famous one beginning 'Is my team ploughing,/That I was used to drive' where the living boy is sleeping with his dead friend's sweetheart. And I have nothing against these beautiful, simple lyrics (I don't even wish to condemn them with faint praise, as I appear to be doing). But the poem before is more complicated, for the way it is not simply a ghost story, but a kind of hypothetical ghost story in which the dead sweetheart inhabits another possible world, or rather in which the ghost is seduced by an idea which cannot be true. It's so difficult to specify in prose, but in the poem it is clear and, yes, beautiful:

....Along the field as we came by
A year ago, my love and I,
The aspen over stile and stone
Was talking to itself alone.
‘Oh who are these that kiss and pass?
A country lover and his lass;
Two lovers looking to be wed;
And time shall put them both to bed,
But she shall lie with earth above,
And he beside another love.’

....And sure enough beneath the tree
There walks another love with me,
And overhead the aspen heaves
Its rainy-sounding silver leaves;
And I spell nothing in their stir,
But now perhaps they speak to her,
And plain for her to understand
They talk about a time at hand
When I shall sleep with clover clad,
And she beside another lad.

Meanwhile Katy Evans-Baroque links to that brilliant clip of John Berryman reading Dream Song 29. Of course the most striking thing is how drunk Berryman seems, though apparently he wasn't [EDIT: oh, I don't know - was he?] was. But what makes me really marvel is the way that in spite of or even because of the poet's manner, the reading shows off the poem to great advantage. Although it seems garbled and confusing, I find it actually brings to life the poem's logic – for example, the absolute rightness of 'an odour, a chime', which on paper (heh) both seem vague and arbitrary. It's a wonderful poem. Must read more Berryman.


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