Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Poetry Wednesday

This Tuesday at Poetry Thursday, to which I have become addicted, Dr. Jim encouraged readers/poets to think about a few particular lines of poetry that have stuck with them, and to report them and their significance in his post comments.

This exercise threw me into an absolute tizzy. The lines popped right into my head. Not just "a few lines." Many, many lines. Which to choose? They came from all eras and shrieked at each other in determined voices and blinded me with a surreal mixture of images. The lines kept coming and coming, and started duking it out with each other. Finally I had to make another cup of coffee, sit down and close my eyes and catch the most resonant.

Three sets of clear winners emerged. Some come from Keats' "Eve of St. Agnes"; the second are from Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." I won't discuss those at this time.

The victors come from Tennyson's "Ulysses." I was kind of surprised that I settled on something so antiquated, and from a poet who often has such a thumpy metrical effect that it's almost comic, but the lines and I have a long history together:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
I first encountered this poem in high school. Not because I was required to read it in class, but because I was a curious kid always snooping into books. I would read anything I got my hands on. One day I was home sick with asthma (an all-too-frequent occurrence), and stationed myself as usual behind my parents' comfy living-room chairs, which were set close to a wall of built-in bookcases. On a low shelf I found some of my two grandmothers' old textbooks. I had just finished wondering why one of my reverent and ladylike grandmothers had defaced an illustration of Nathaniel Hawthorne when I flipped pages and came upon "Ulysses."

From the scratchy comfort of the living room carpet, I had an awesome ride with an idle king from the distant past who could not rest from travel. There could be no personal experience that contrasted more greatly with my own. By the time I read the poem, I had never been outside the boundaries of California. We never so much as went on a family vacation. The farthest we would travel was twenty minutes to my grandparents' house, but that was rare. We did have a decent-sized sailboat, which my parents would race to Catalina Island and to Ensenada, Mexico. But despite the fact that Dad considered me first mate and I was a skilled and avid sailor, I was not permitted to go on these "long" trips. I had to watch from the gangway as the others sailed out of sight.

As I got older, I didn't venture very far from home. But when I got my first job at a small local newspaper doing page layout and typesetting, one of my first learning experiments was making myself some stationery with Tennyson's lines set in a display font accompanied by one of my own nautical drawings.

I took some back with me when I moved into a UCLA dorm. Nightly I chipped away at English Literature, Latin and the classics, sitting at the same carrel in the University Research Library. I encountered my royal friend Ulysses again when I read Homer, and when, inevitably, I took a Victorian prose and poetry course. I reset the same lines for another set of stationery when I worked at The Daily Bruin. I studied the Pre-Raphaelite painters and, encountering Waterhouse, recognized the patient Penelope, her unwanted suitors insinuating themselves upon her as she wove.

In those days I would never have projected that my future would take me well outside California borders or other countries many times. In subsequent years, though not very willingly, I would relocate like a nomad, sometimes staying in a place only six months or a year at a stretch, hardly getting my bearings on the compass before it would all change again. As if Ulysses steered my course, "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world." Each time I pack the boxes, I encounter my 1899 illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poetical Works, and before shoving the book in among hordes of others, open it to the permanent bookmark in English Idylls.

It little profits that an idle king . . .
Each time I pack, I have to remind myself that I can take whatever upcoming adventure in a positive light. Inside I am still the girl on the carpet, safely hiding behind the chairs at home. I have to steel myself with Ulysses' overweening confidence in the promise of the next discovery on the horizon, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

For the time being, it seems that more than 20 years of moving around, which has been so very draining and made me feel so restless and unrooted and old before my time, is in a lull. Perhaps it has backed off and Ulysses is home with Penelope and Telemachus. Finally, I've been in one place for five years--unprecedented since I left college aeons ago. But I know that like Ulysses' fading "margin," this is but a looming illusion. As it has so often, it could end at any time, and the yet "untravell'd world" beckons unseen.

Labels: ,


At 5/30/2007 12:43 PM, Blogger chicklegirl said...

I've always been a fan of Homer (even after translating the Odyssey in Latin during high school!) and I loved this! I'm also a fan of Wordsworth's "Ode", an excerpt from which I put on my son's birth announcement. Thanks for sharing this, Dana!

At 5/30/2007 2:10 PM, Blogger jim said...

This oldie is still quite, quite golden. I do see the rather profound comfort these lines offer. My own travelling life was very much like yours, in that I was moored to Boise into my early adulthood, but once I left Boise, I never seemed to be able to stay in one place for very long, until the last few years.

At 6/04/2007 3:26 PM, Blogger Nance said...

I'm a huge Keats fan, esp. of "Eve of St. Agnes." The imagery is so voluptuous in that poem that I get lost in it.


Post a Comment

<< Home