Saturday, October 5, 2013

Thanks, Huck!


Cruising the Internet can sometimes bring great enjoyment. I don't remember how I came across a man named Hank Gutman, a professor of poetry at the University of Vermont, but he, very irregularly but faithfully, sends out an occasional email which wonderfully explicates some certain poem. He is clearly an excellent teacher, and I'm always happy to see "From: Huck.Gutman@UVM.EDU" in my mailbox. (I don't know why "Huck" instead of "Hank"in his address.)

I'm also sort of fond of Hank/Huck because he for several years took leave from the university to become a Washington D.C. assistant to my favorite Senator, Vermont's Bernie Sanders.

A. E. Housman

A. E. Housman, or poems don’t have to be hard to be deep

(Gutman's latest email)


Gerard Manley Hopkins,in one of his late sonnets,addresses his writer’s block.(No, I have not had writer’s block). His concluding lines contain one of my favorite phrases:

Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this;

I want the one rapture of an inspiration.

O then if in my lagging lines you miss

The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,

My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss

Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.


When her literary correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson visited Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts they had what, in my view (and perhaps in his?) was the richest conversation in history.  Among the other things she said that Higginson recorded in a letter to his wife, there was this: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

I’m not Emily Dickinson, and my criterion for poems is not hers, though I find hers stunning.  Tossing that out in a conversation in her living room?  Incredible. 

For my part, I look in poems for what Hopkins describes as “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” If in some fashion the roll and rise are not there, what I am reading is not a poem. If it is, then it is a poem. 

But I begin with Hopkins not of that marvelous line, but because that poem affords me the chance to explain my long silence, the long gap between this email and its predecessor. 

I had intended, on leaving Washington in January, to return to sending out a poem a month. Instead, I embarked on a self-indulgent and happy project. Having read many hundreds of mystery novels during my time working on Capitol Hill – my great escape from the pressures of dysfunctional government and from pushing a progressive agenda forward in the face of very strong headwinds – I decided to write one. So rather than write about poems, I spent day after day happily spinning out a story of murder and modest mayhem and the search for the murderer.

Then September came and I returned to teaching at the University of Vermont, to teaching courses in poetry. A wonderful pleasure.

Recently in my introductory poetry course we turned to Emily Dickinson, and I could feel some of my students thinking – without their articulating it – ‘Oh, some of these poems are so depressing.  She confronts such despair. I’m not sure I like these poems.”

As it happens, just last week a friend told me of a visit to the doctor – a most enlightened doctor, I think – who suggested an occasional evening beer as a way to modestly alleviate anxiety.  Almost without thinking, I cited A. E. Housman: 

“For malt does more than Milton can/
To justify God's ways to man.”  

(Turns out, the first word was wrong. Oh well. My friend had never read Housman, so I looked up the poem. 

I was wonderfully surprised by how the poem with the malt/Milton line directly addressed what I feared some of my students might be thinking about the poet they were reading. I read Housman’s poem again, and immediately sent it to my friend, and gave copies to three of my colleagues. What a wonderful poem, I thought. 

And so I send it to you. It is fairly long, but I think you will love it as much as I do. At least, I hope so. And it is not a heavy slog: it makes for (dare I say it) delightful reading. 

Terence, This is Stupid Stuff

A.E. HOUSMAN (1896)

"Terence, this is stupid stuff!
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache!
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head...
We poor lads, 'tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow!
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad!
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad!"

Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.



Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
--I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.



A.E. Housman taught classics at University College, London. His first and finest book, A Shropshire Lad, was published in 1896.  Scholars look back on it as a fine collection, an example of a dying tradition – modernism in painting, music and poetry was about to be born into the world – by a minor poet who was even in his own time out of synch with the rich vocabulary and syntax of the fin-de-si├Ęcle poets who were his contemporaries.

Hardly. Housman wrote in a throwback style – rhyme, meter, restraint – in a time when poetic language, rhythm and form were about to be revolutionized, but that does not mean, to me at least, that he can’t speak powerfully, or that in his lines I cannot find “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” Of all the poems I know, I probably recite to myself his “Loveliest of trees the cherry now”, more than any other as I move through my life and my world,. It speaks to me, deeply, even though it is rhymed and not elliptical, even though it tells more than it shows, even though it eschews ambiguity and symbolism and all that other good modern stuff. To my mind, Housman is either a great minor poet, or a wonderful but lesser major poet. Why the modest reservations? I think his canvas may not be broad enough, and his palette may be too modest. What he does, he does remarkably well, but then: does he do enough?

I promised you would like “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” and you have probably found that to be the case. If not, bear with me.

Perhaps the hardest part of the poem is getting oriented as we read the opening, and that is because we are accustomed to most non-narrative, non-dramatic, non-epic poems being about the poet himself. But this first stanza, which we notice is in quotation marks, is not Housman speaking, but some fellows in a bar, and they are not speaking to Alfred Edward Housman but to some guy named ‘Terence.’

"Terence, this is stupid stuff!
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.

The fellows are in a pub (they note how he drinks his beer: fast, and lots). A sunnier or less pompous beginning of a poem is hard to imagine. You write stupid stuff, and yet you seem like one of the guys, eating your supper pretty damn fast and guzzling your beer.

The “stupid stuff” is, as we learn, his poems. “Oh, good Lord, the verse you make/ It gives a chap the belly-ache!” And then the chaps mimic his poems, not taking at all seriously his efforts to address mortality and the long forgetfulness that is death. (Terence is not drinking with literary critics, professors, or any sort of intellectuals. These are regular blokes, drinking their beer. So they read his verses as drunken blokes might.)

The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head...

Such is the stuff of poems, to his companions in the pub, and they feel afflicted at having to listen to the kind of verses Terence writes. A good friend, they insist, would sing “a tune to dance to” rather than a poem about dying cows that will “rhyme/your friends to death before their time.”

Should I tell you the poem is in couplets, the predominant verse form of the eighteenth century (and not used too often after) and that using tetrameter --  four feet, eight syllables to the line – makes it sound a whole lot less serious than the pentameter used by such ‘greats’ as Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth? I guess I just told you, so let’s proceed to the second stanza, in which Terence responds.

The fun, and the lightness of the lines, continues. Terence reminds them that there is certainly a quicker route to dancing and happy feelings than poems. If you want to prance around, there’s always beer….

Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?

Hops, of course, are along with malt a key ingredient of beer.  And Burton upon Trent? Figuring what that refers to is, in our day, what Wikipedia can be good for: “Burton upon Trent, also known as Burton-on-Trent or simply Burton, is a town straddling the River Trent in the east of Staffordshire, England. Burton is best known for its brewing heritage, having been home to over a dozen breweries in its heyday.” 

Lots of noblemen brew better stuff, beer and ale, than poets (like Terence in this poem, or the great poet John Milton) ‘brew’ in writing their verses.  The reference to Milton comes in the next couplet, with its allusion to the opening of Paradise Lost, where Milton asserts that his aim is “to justify the ways of God to men.” As I wrote earlier, I love this line and quote it often – including the other day.

And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

Nobody has ever, ever, come up with a more trenchant and telling attack on poetry than these two lines. ‘Having trouble?  Have a drink. Poems are no great help. (As Auden says, with irony I  believe, “for poetry makes nothing happen.”)’   

Of course, as the poem proceeds, Housman will undermine these lines, argue against them, and build a stirring defense of poems.

But for now: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink.” (The claim destabilizes itself immediately instead it ends not with a period but a comma, and what follows is: “For fellows whom it hurts to think.” Only imbeciles, as he so decorously manages to say, really think alcohol is the way to go.)

Ah, Terence says, look into your tankard and you can “see the world as the world’s not.” Still, drinking is pretty as it happens, only: that happening is brief in compass. Time passes and drink wears off.

“And faith ‘tis pleasant till ‘tis past/ The mischief is it will not last.”

Hilarious, the example he gives of the pleasures of drink, its mindlessness, and the terrible psychological hangover after. 

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:

Losing his tie in a drunken stupor. The surge of exhilaration of being drunk, and pushing one’s doubts at bay in an alcohol-based surge of energy and good feelings. I love that lying down in the muck (“lovely muck”) and not caring, and the unstated shock of waking up in a muddy ditch.

But of course the alcohol-induced haze is just that, a haze. “Heigho, the tale was all a lie.” And then, amid all the bonhomie – “Ale man, ale…faith, ‘tis pleasant…pints and quarts of Ludlow beer…sterling lad…happy…heigho” come a line as deep and trenchant as any line a poet has ever written, bringing us readers to what I might call reality or truth: “The world, it was the old world yet.”  We do not, cannot, escape reality. Well, that’s me talking in a cumbersome and pretentiously assertive way, not Housman.  How much better he says it: “The world, it was the old world yet.”

But the bonhomie, or at least the lightness of the octosyllabic lines and the unstilted diction reasserts itself, banging home the truth but in the lightest of fashions:

The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,

Of course his clothes are wet.  He has, after all, lain down in the muck. 

And then, the great flaw in drink: it doesn’t last, and one has to get drunk all over again. “And nothing now remained to do/ But begin the game anew.”

The third stanza, obviously draws a conclusion since its first word is “therefore.” It begins with what happy drunks cannot acknowledge (nor can Terence’s drinking companions, who we remember are fellows “whom it hurts to think”). Life is often tough – a lot more often tough than fortunate – and we end up in suffering, and ultimately in decline and death. The sprightly octosyllabic verse hides the truth at the same time as the poet reveals it:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure.

This being the case, wisdom lies in preparation for the trouble that is sure to come, “I'd face it as a wise man would,/ And train for ill and not for good.”

Therefore…so… it may make more sense to write poems about trouble than to sing songs of cheer, or “pipe a tune to dance to.” Maybe poems are not beer, but they may have more enduring value. (That sentence sounds pompous; notice that Housman doesn’t sound at all pompous in his octosyllabic tetrameter lines.)

'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

That ‘stem that scored the hand?” The toughest line in this rather transparent poem, for me. I think it means the pen he writes with (what the poet William Blake called “a rural pen”), and that the writing comes from/with laceration and not delight. His verse is “wrung” from him, and it emanates from a place no one wants to vacation in, a “weary land.” Its taste is “sour,” but that taste is suitable for “the embittered hour.”  Not beer, no, but a tonic nonetheless that likely will “do good to heart and head” when the reader of his poems is in as dire straits as those in which Terence sometimes discovers himself, “when your soul is in my soul’s stead.” He will be our friend, and accompany us not to the pub or bar – we can find many putative friends there on our own – but on a “dark and cloudy day.”

The poem could end there. But it doesn’t. If the poem begins in drama – the fellows in the pub making fun of the poet who writes verse they see as, “The cow, the old cow, she is dead” — it ends in narrative.  For the final stanza tells a story about the mythic king based on an actual ruler of a region that today is in Turkey. 

In the first eight lines of the final section, the speaker provides the setting. Living in a treacherous land (not unanalagous to ours, we who live an existence where “trouble’s sure”) the king knows there is a danger that he will be poisoned.  In an apocryphal story that many kids hear when young, he takes small and then increasingly larger portions of poison, so that his body will grow accustomed the toxins and be able to withstand them without damage. (Kind of like vaccination, in our age.)  Having “sampled all her killing store,” the eastern potentate can sit easy on his throne.

And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.

Conspiring nobles or enemies can toast him with poisonous wine and he, “seasoned,” can quaff the liquid that would otherwise kill him. What wonderful lines – you can quite clearly see the enemies of the king respond, I think – follow:

They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:

Ah, the king knew. If you work to accommodate yourself to the dangers which face you, if you are inoculated, you will not die of what would otherwise destroy you. His putative poisoners, not the king, die from consuming poisoned meat and drink. (There is an echo here: Terence may outlive the happy unthinking fellows he drinks with in the opening.)

The final couplet shows Housman’s skill. It shocks me every time I read it. Not what it says, but how Housman has written it. The first of those two lines is iambic, almost too conventional in its meter: “I hear [stress] the tale [stress] that I [stress] heard told [stress].” What follows is that mouthful, “Mithridates,” also iambic but amazingly alien in this poem of “lads” and “cows” and “ale” and “my things were wet.”

And then. Well, a rarity in English verse is the spondee, two stressed syllables in one metrical foot. (A foot, a unit of the meter or rhythm, is almost always composed of stressed and unstressed syllables.) What do we have here? Three stressed syllables in a row.

“he [stress] died [stress] old [stress.]”   

Way beyond a spondee. You could look it up. (I did.) In Greek and Roman verse, where feet were comprised of long and short syllables, rather than stressed ones, there was something known as molossus. (I told you, I had to look it up.)  Three long syllables in a row. In English? Well, three stressed syllables in a row just doesn’t happen.

Except Housman does just that at the conclusion of “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff.” “Mithridates, he died old.”  Poems can help us through “the dark and cloudy day” that is always coming, can sustain us “in a weary land,” can “do good to heart and head. Death will come, but we can, like Mithridates, grow old, forewarned and forearmed by what we read.” Poetry can save your life. “Mithridates, he died old.”

Amazing, that Housman can start with beer and end with one of the deepest reasons to read poems. All in octosyllabic light verse. Ending with that – what was it called? –  molossus. 

What a poem. To me, a tour de force. And wise, as well.

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(About getting these email seminars from Gutman:

If you know a friend who wants to subscribe, just have them address  an email to  LISTSERV@list.uvm.edu and in the body of the email write:  sub poetry Your Name  then send the email, and you will be added to the list.  eg: sub  poetry Mary Miller  [Make sure there is nothing else in the body of the msg – no signature, for instance])

Huck Gutman (pictured maybe 20 years ago)









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