Thursday, April 23, 2015

W. H. Auden Forges "The Shield of Achilles"

“And first Hephasestus makes a great and massive shield, blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface, raising a rim around it, glittering, triple-ply with a silver shield-strap run from edge to edge and five layers of metal to build the shield itself.” 
The Iliad, book XVIII

So begins Homer’s lyrical account of how the blacksmith god forged the famous Shield of Achilles. The god then hammers the shield into five sections and covers them with images of the earth, sky, sea, sun, moon, and stars. He then forges onto the shield pictures of two cities, a wedding celebration, a murder trial, an advancing army, domestic and wild beasts, a war, a field full of plowmen, a vineyard, a meadow, and dancing boys and girls. Homer’s description occurs in the 18th chapter of The Illiad, which I’ve been reading lately—as well as Alice Oswald’s “excavation” of it called Memorial. Homer’s is among the earliest examples of “ekphrasis”—a poetic rendering of a work of art.

In the aftermath of WWII, W. H. Auden reimagined Homer’s story in his poem "The Shield of Achilles," replacing the glorified images with apocalyptic ones: barbed wire and bare fields, rape and murder, bureaucrats and sentries. Listen to Auden reading his great anti-war poem here 
Frans Floris, Venus at Vulcan's Forge, 1560-64.
The goddess of love waits while 
her husband
 forges the armor for Achilles's Trojan conquest.

The Shield of Achilles

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles

Who would not live long.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Poet Phil Levine and Degas Give Us an Art Lesson

We are overdue for a tribute to poet Philip Levine, who died February 14.  He grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression and worked factory jobs for Cadillac and Chevrolet. Levine didn’t publish his first volume of verse until his mid-30s, but over time he became one of the country’s most honored poets. 

He won the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards before serving as poet laureate in 2011 and 2012. Levine never really left the world of blue-collar workers, writing about a world of sweat and muscle seldom seen in American poetry since Carl Sandburg. “I believed,” he said in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.”

After teaching for many years at California State University at Fresno, he became a visiting professor at Princeton, Brown, Columbia, New York University, and other prestigious schools. His worst students, he said, were Ivy Leaguers who were shocked to learn that their poems were no good. He preferred the working-class students of Fresno State, who seemed more receptive to the notion that a poem, like a car’s transmission, sometimes needed to be rebuilt.

About the following “imaginary art lesson” Levine explained that he placed it in 1942 because that was when, as a student at Detroit’s Durfee High School, he discovered poetry. To hear him read the poem aloud, click here

Messieur Degas Teaches Art and Science 
at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit, 1942
Cafe Concert at Les Ambassadeurs

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "what have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "you've broken a piece
of chalk." Messieur Degas did not smile.
"what have I done" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "Messieur Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
After the Bath, 1898
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this could go on for another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. Messieur Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I

knew this could go on forever.
Sunrise, 1896