17 March 2012

Life Force, a commentary by Imogen Reed

Life Force

These three poems all explore different responses to life and death. They range from the death of a baby, the urgent life force of the young male poet and an older poet's determination to carry on living in the face of death. These are three thought-provoking and powerful poems which force us to question our own feelings surrounding life, death and sacrifice. Poetry, at its best, functions in this way and enables the reader to explore aspects of life that they might prefer not to. But they are important questions that arguably all human beings should ask of themselves at some point.

Tears Falling Silently
Where is the love that yields the finest
cant of sacrifice? Where is the poignant
knife that steals a newborn’s nascent life?
In the love of a mother who strangles her
child so quiet saves other lives destined
to be destroyed – in the night of despair,
in a wretched blight of fear consummate,
in the lore of the tribe. In the giving and
the serving love is immaculate but none is
as bright as the light of love in a mother’s
eyes with tears falling silently on the still
warm corpse of her just smothered child.
© 18 July 2007, I.D. Carswell

In Tears Falling Silently there is a palpable unease in the poet’s exploration of a mother’s infanticide. The mother has to smother her child lest its crying leads to the discovery and inevitable death of the ‘tribe’. It’s the terrible choice that was reportedly made in wartime by some mothers, and here the poet explores this terrible choice and the sacrifice it requires, both by her and by the baby. The poet describes as admirable, if terrible, the love the mother shows at the moment she smothers the child, ‘none is a bright as the light of love in a mother’s eyes’ at the moment she weeps over the child she has just killed. But there is a deep ambivalence here. Whilst admiring the will of the mother, there is also an acknowledgement that the child has been killed for the good of the tribe, to protect the greatest number of people. ‘Where is the love here?’, could be the subtext. Is the love strongest for the tribe, for the baby, or for herself as she sacrifices her child? Where, asks the poet, ‘is the love that yields the finest cant of sacrifice?’ In this act? ‘Cant’ – meaning insincerity, or pretence, is applied to the act of sacrifice, which is normally thought of as a noble act. The knife is not cruel, or savage, but ‘poignant’. There is more calculation and regret than passion in the act. It is a calculated sacrifice, and a terrible one, taking a ‘nascent’ life before it had a chance to be lived. This poem challenges the reader to explore this difficult idea, but offers no comforting answers. This lack of resolution on the moral issue recognises the different position that each reader will take. It’s an unsettling poem that leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable, which is clearly the poet’s intention.

I Am 25
With a love a madness for Shelley
Chatterton Rimbaud
and the needy-yap of my youth
has gone from ear to ear:
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying:--I did those then
but that was then
that was then--
O I would quiet old men
say to them:--I am your friend
what you once were, thru me
you'll be again--
Then at night in the confidence of their homes
rip out their apology-tongues
and steal their poems.
Gregory Corso

Corso was one of the youngest of the Beat poets, and here youthful energy is on full display, his poetry driven by the ruthlessness of youth and his passion for his craft. Whilst professing his ‘love a madness for Shelley’ and 'the old poets Chatterton and Rimbault’ he simultaneously expresses contempt for the OLD POETMEN – capitalised as he emphasises his contempt. His anger? It’s for the old poets who have diluted and disowned the poetry of their youth – the youth that the poet himself now feels so urgently. How could they betray that passion? It is so real to Corso that he would ‘quiet old men’, a sinister forshadowing of his stated plan to befriend them, calm then, and then steal their poetry.

The title tells us all we need to know. This is the restless energy in poetic form of one who wants everything now and has not yet learned the gentleness and wisdom of old men, who can reflect with just as much pleasure as a young man, but in a different way. For the poet, to ‘speak their youth in whispers’ is a betrayal. The violence of his feelings is echoed in the rhymes and half rhymes in the poem, the gentleness of the old men’s ‘then, then, then’ met with with ‘men’, internal rhyme ‘them’, followed by half rhyme, ‘friend’ ‘again’. The claustrophobia of this rhyming is echoes the closeness the poet would have to simulate in order to get close enough to the old poetmen to steal their poems.

It is a poem of great ferocity and passion. It lives and breathes, with life and energy. It is one of Corso’s earliest poems, when he was just emerging onto the beat poetry scene.

The Lesson
I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face.
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live.
Maya Angelou

Another poem about life, and the energy of life from the superb Maya Angelou, one of America’s finest poets. The Lesson she is teaching us here, or learning for herself as she writes perhaps, is that the trials of aging ‘do not convince’ her to give up the challenge of living. Living has driven deep lines into her face, from worry and stress, her body has weakened, with the veins collapsing, and the sense of mortality is not far from her thoughts, in the ‘Memory of old tombs’ and the decay after death. But they are brushed aside, because to allow them time would distract from the business of living. ‘I keep on dying/Because I love to live.’ This is an interesting and powerful poem which, like the poet’s views, refuses to rhyme. The voice of sense tells us that we should slow down, take things easy, preserve our bodies and try to avoid the stress and worry that cause frown lines and weakened veins. But deep inside the speaker is the love of life which urges her on regardless, a passion for life which refuses to compromise. She is akin more to Corso here than his ‘old poetmen’. She won’t whisper her youth. She’s going down fighting.

Lisa Hardberg is a writer from London, England. Being a poet isn't a profitable life that leads to the best cash isa balance so she also covers topics as broad as world affairs and finance news.

Maya Angelou



Gregory Corso (left) with Allen Ginsberg