Memoranda for a Sonnet Sequence

I

The herb Lunaria, old books aver,
If gathered thus and so, in moony patches,
Has property of mystic opener
When laid upon the fastest locks and latches.
In this respect, the moonplant duly matches
The magic of the poets, who bestir
Their art to loosen spirit's careful catches
And split our secret bolts like gossamer.

To sprinkle moonseed on the tight-locked soul
Bidding it open, or stand soft ajar—
To sprinkle moonseed, gathered thus and so,
This is the poet's honourable rôle.
Like some old Tudor captain bound afar
I hear him crying Inward! Inward Ho!

II

So put your trust in poets. They'll befriend
Your mind with truth, that nourishing surprise;
In matters whither prose can scarce extend
They'll speak you plainly and without disguise.
They shrive you boldly, minus compromise:
No gusty jargon, spuriously penned,
But that true language all can recognize
And no man ever fully comprehend.

Then put your trust in poets. They'll not fake,
Pretending meanings in things utterly vain;
You cannot coffin them on lonely shelves.
The hopes we were half shamed of, and the ache,
They know; they succor us with mirth and pain
And words that make us real to ourselves.

III

How often accent, metric scheme, and time
Compel the poet to give sense a twist;
And reckoning his prosody, his chime,
He finds that what he meant to say, he missed.
But of his art this is the happy gist,
That words will sometimes blossom, spread, and climb
Like roses on a trellis. Double assist
Makes lovely the bare lattice of his rhyme.

My sonnet rhymes AB, AB, BA …
And life, like verse, seems coded on strict plan;
Too slavish to technique, we stunt the dream.
But whiles, when pure strong passion has her way,
Beauty can flourish wildest and still scan,
Truest to thought since also true to scheme.

IV

A Trial Balance, to see what I find:—
DEBIT: A greedy fool of sensual earth,
Cursed with a thousand trivials, and inclined
To surly indolence, ungainly mirth.
CREDIT: I seem to feel some spunk of worth
Or I should never be so hot to grind
My wits against the stone, and bring to birth
Sonnets, these broken fragments of the mind.

Aye: here we settle up and make redress,
We certify and find the books correct
And on the honest side a balance due:
What poets write in private selfishness
Becomes a public asset, in effect,—
For trying to tell his heart, he tells yours too.

V

This is a sonnet of praise: astounded praise
In honour of men's intricate affairs—
I weary of the indignants and blasés
Who only see stupidities, despairs.
These smoky smouldering spirits, are they heirs
Of those great souls that burned with such clear blaze?
There is in every hour, my heart declares
Wonder enough to last me all my days.

I used to keep a diary, but discerned
No evening industry could tally truly
The astonishment of life, or itemize
My mirth. Yet I'm not heartless, having learned
That if a man laughs too loud, and unduly,
He usually finds tears in his eyes.

VI

Certainly that night I was uninspired—
Too tired to write, even too tired to think;
Tired of the search for words that I desired
And their sweet curlicues penned in black ink.
And why the devil (thought I) should I swink
To discover my fool heart? So, quite unfired
By any ember, and with eyes all blink
I lurched to bed. I repeat it, I was tired.

Sudden, with heart of anger, eager-witted,
I leapt, and wrote: I lied, I lied, I lied !
In blackest of the black now let this shine:
There are some ills can never be acquitted:
Love turned to lust; and poets who have died
Before they'd ever written a perfect line.

VII

There always are a hundred good excuses
Why this particular work we might postpone—
The casual distractions and abuses,
Or weariness, the dentist, or the phone.
If people would (you say) let you alone. . . .
And letters should be answered…but the deuce is
That days to weeks, and weeks to months have grown,
And years are flowing downward through their sluices.

This is the greatest cleavage among men:
In politics or trade you daren't be rude,
But No is the master word in every art.
O poet, learn you to be churlish, then—
Your work is done in hard-earned solitude
And with a spice of anger in the heart.

VIII

Printers and proofreaders have rigid rules
And fetiches of use. They concentrate
On the mere literal text, the molecules
Of syntax; if you phrase or punctuate
An unfamiliar way, they'll regulate
And drill you to the usage of the schools.
Stiff-grammared men, and stubborn in debate,
They teach us to be canny with our tools.

And yet I warn you of Proofreader's Mind
Which, burning on the rote, grows a disease.
Read not the text of life as proofmen do,
For error, not for meaning; lest you find
(Punctilious with mere apostrophes)
You miss the inward plot, the large construe.

IX

On a subject that has been much hemmed and hawed
I'll give you ultimate reason. I mean, Sex.
Sex, I believe, is Nature's most gorgeous fraud:
She makes us think (the moralist to vex)
It more important than it is: she decks
It prettily with colours, and we're awed.
She has reasons of her own, not free from specks—
Her methods sometimes seem a little broad.

But that's biology, solely. When the poet
Deals with the theme, it shows quite different laws,
Justifies the embarrassing He and She.
Along with Sex, the Muse makes her introit:
Women are snares, no doubt, but also cause
Of all the world's most lovely poetry.

X

Here is this darling day: how shall I spin
Its texture out and make it long for you?
Extenuate these hours so wide and thin
You'll almost see Eternity shine through!
To-day we'll wear Time threadbare; patch it, too,
With little partings, just for discipline;
When necessary, without sour ado
Let this day end, that others may begin.

How well Time wears! Examined thread by thread
A Day is a baby Year…looks like its father …
Now, lost in happy silences and words
I had forgot we ever shall be dead.
And later, we'll pretend (if you would rather)
The evening crickets are the morning birds.

XI

Rich am I now; yes, rich beyond belief
Having To-day in pouch; yet soon, the reverse:
To-day will flit, which constitutes my grief
And leaves me beggar, with an empty purse.
I'm also something bolder and much worse
For this To-day I stole, and that's my chief
Exult. As in the rune we learned at nurse
I'm rich man, poor man, beggar man, and thief.

But conscience pricks me not. To be explicit,
I feel more pride than shame at this poor theft:
I deem it Petty, not Grand larceny.
Old spendthrift Time will never even miss it;
Little it was to him: he's plenty left …
Little to him, but infinite to me!

XII

How quaint life's oddities are. How quaint! … until
They happen to yourself. Then humour dies
And laughter seems to grow a trifle shrill.
How comic lovers are, storming good-byes,
Unless you're one of them. With pained surprise
Men learn that poetry's not just the skill
Of words long dead; but actual You's and I's—
And if you have not learned that yet, you will.

Me is a touchy creature, chained near home:
Calm to observe the trespasses next door,
But, on his own estate, quick to take fright—
And hearing footsteps that too closely come
Shouts instant outraged clamour, like the roar
And honest anger of a dog at night.

XIII

And so I give you words to keep you fair:
Lovely words, older than I or you;
Experienced proud words, each one an heir,
Assembled here with such observance due
They'll feel a little lonely and askew
In any other poem anywhere.
I'd like to have them feel—well, not quite true
In other poems, if you were not there.

Yet we will not be selfish. Like the seeds
Of our Lunaria, these words we'll scatter
Hoping that in some distant May or June
Others will find them fragrant for their needs,
And walk among them, pondering the matter
As in a garden brightened by the moon.
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