Saturday, March 21, 2009
“The River Humber”
Believe it or not, I do get stumped sometimes about what poem to post for the Weekly Poem. Such was the case yesterday: nothing I could think of seemed quite right. So I asked Eberle: “What poem would you like to see?” & she said, “You said you were going to post more Stevie Smith.”
This is true. One of the first poems in the Weekly Poem series was “Not Waving But Drowning,” & in that post I promised to post poems by this unique &, I think, under-valued poet. For those of you who don’t know, Ms Smith was a British poet & novelist whose writing career began in the 1930s & continued until her death in 1971. Smith’s work is extremely hard to categorize—her poems have a deceptively simple surface, but a deep pattern of poetical thinking flows consistently below. For those unfamiliar with her work, it’s a bit like Ogden Nash meets Thomas Hardy, with some other very individual elements thrown in.
Today’s poem, “The River Humber,” seems like a piece of rhyming description on the surface. As is often the case with Smith’s poems, the lines are metrically irregular & the rhymes are “slant” or “off-rhymes.” But Smith’s poem is like a landscape painting that invites us in to meditate on the “why” of a natural setting. This subject is fascinating to me—I often like to meditate on poet W.D. Snodgrass’ line: “We need the landscape to repeat us.” Smith’s poem takes a “poetical” observation & examines the questions posed by that observation. In a certain way this reminds me of a very favorite poem of mine by Wallace Stevens, “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” Although Stevens’ poems registers high on the rhetoric scale & Smith’s poem is under-stated, both draw us in to a transformative watery landscape, & there’s a sonorousness in both poems that very much rises to the level of meaning in sound.
Speaking of meaning in sound, I learned yesterday that this poem, (along with several others, including “Not Waving, But Drowning”) has been set to music by composer Simon Rowland Jones. Smith herself used to sing her poems to old Anglican hymn settings—more grist for the “poetry & music” series, whenever I get around to writing same.
Hope you enjoy the poem, & that some of you may be inspired to seek out more work by this intriguing writer.
The River Humber
The river Humber
Lies in a silken slumber.
For it is dawn
And over the newly warm
Earth the mists turn,
Wrapping their gentle fringes
Upon the river where it hinges
Upon the perfect sleep of perfected images.
Quiet in the thought of its felicity
A graven monument of sufficiency
Beautiful in every line the river sleeps complacently.
And hardly the dawn distinguishes
Where a miasma languishes
Upon the waters’ farther reaches.
Lapped in the sleeping consciousness
Of its waves’ happiness
Upon the mudbanks of its approaches,
The river Humber
Turns again to deeper slumber,
Deeper than deeps in joys without number.