Audio

His Dark Places

December 5, 2013

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, December 5th 2013. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, a short poem about an epic bout of depression. Poetry goes often into dark places, probably too often for most people’s taste, but in general poetry doesn’t wallow in human suffering. There is however at least one poem in the language that fully embraces it’s despair and offers little or no release. It’s one of Gerard Manely Hopkins’s so called “terrible sonnets”.


Mary Jo Bang: These poems are written at a time where he’s severely depressed.

 

Curtis Fox: That’s poet Mary Jo Bang who read and talked about one of the sonnets for The Poetry Foundation.

 

Mary Jo Bang: He’s exiled, he’s living in Ireland, and he’s teaching at a boy’s school where the boys ridicule him.

 

Curtis Fox: This was in 1885. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, and some of his greatest poems celebrate the glory of God.

 

Mary Jo Bang: And yeah, the degree of his pain has made him question his belief in God, and there is no greater anxiety and angst than having the very thing you relied on seem to abandon you in this moment of great pain.

 

Adrienne Su: It’s about despair.

 

Curtis Fox: Poet Adrienne Su also read the same Hopkins poem for another recording for The Poetry Foundation.

 

Adrienne Su: It’s about feeling miserable. It’s something that everyone can identify with at some point, but it says it in a way that no one else has ever said.


Curtis Fox: The Hopkins poem they’re talking about doesn’t have a title, but it’s generally called by it’s first line “No worst, there is none.”. Here again is Mary Jo Bang.

 

Mary Jo Bang: I’m in awe of Hopkins. I think it’s very difficult to write poems that actually show the depth of suffering, and he did it. He did it by creating a form and creating formal mechanisms that demonstrated that extravagance of feeling.

 

Adrienne Su: It’s this wonderfully tight sonnet with incredibly dense lines. You just feel that not only has everything extraneous been taken out, but somehow everything’s been concentrated. The imagery just leaps from one thing to another. It feels like you’re in a movie that’s movie at top speed from scene to scene. In the mean time, you’ve got these incredible sounds.

 

Mary Jo Bang: Part of that is this emphatic alliteration. You feel somehow that this is written by someone who’s about to explode.

 

Curtis Fox: Let’s hear the poem now. We’ll hear more about it after the reading from both poets. Here’s how Mary Jo Bang read it.

 

Mary Jo Bang:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —

Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-

ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief."'

 

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,

Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all

Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

 

Curtis Fox: So there’s the poem, which as you heard is very dense, very tightly packed. Since Adrienne Su also read the poem, let’s just hear the beginning of her reading before we start looking closely at it.

 

Adrienne Su:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

 

Curtis Fox: The poet’s cries “heave, herds-long; huddle in a main” as if his unspecified agonies are a frightened livestock in need of a shepherd. I asked Adrienne Su about that odd metaphor.

Adrienne Su: I think this is where it feels so cinematic. You get this flash of this herd of animals, and you don’t worry about what they are. You can see them, I think we can all see them. We don’t get close enough to really care what they are.

 

Curtis Fox: And then very cinematically the metaphor shifts into the realm of blacksmiths.

 

Adrienne Su: a chief

Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —

Then lull, then leave off.

 

Curtis Fox: I asked Mary Jo Bang about that passage.


Mary Jo Bang: Well, “on an age-old anvil”, that anvil that is always there where metal strikes metal and then it wince. When we wince we pull back, and the metal makes the hammer wince off of it and then pull back. It sings, it makes a noise. Then the singing goes on for a while, and it lulls, it leaves off. There’s this age old experience where something strikes, we hear it, finally it gets lessened, and then it leaves off.

 

Adrienne Su:

Fury had shrieked 'No ling-

ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”

 

Mary Jo Bang: I think there are two ways to look at fury. I think the furies, those things which torment us, the demons, but also the anger we feel. This idea of no lingering, let me be fell, let this be over, don’t let me linger and “force I must be brief”; this idea that it has to be said quickly and that it has to be experienced quickly or else there is no going on. What he does next is fascinating to me because he goes from the world back inside and describes the state of interiority about the mind.

 

Adrienne Su:   

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

 

Mary Jo Bang: So these cliffs that are so sheer that to fall off there would be terrifying, and this hyphenated new word “no-man-fathomed”. So there is no imagining and no fathoming how steep these cliffs are, how terrifying the fall from them would be. Of course all these cliffs are the mountains of the mind. “Hold them cheap  / May who ne'er hung there.” He does these kinds of grammatical inversions. What it really says is anyone whoever hung there would hold them cheap or less than they are, and the cost of falling off of them would not be appreciated.

 

Adrienne Su: Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep.

 

Mary Jo Bang: Our ability to endure things is so small that we can’t stand something like that for very long. We can’t stand a fall that is that steep or that deep. And then we have this glance at a Shakespearean drama, maybe King Lear, where the fool and Lear are out in the storm here.

 

Adrienne Su: Here! creep,

Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind:

 

Mary Jo Bang: So in this whirlwind, now of course it’s an emotional whirlwind, here’s a comfort that will serve in the whirlwind, and here creep under it, poor wrench. And what that comfort is? It’s this fact:

 

Adrienne Su: all

Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

 

Mary Jo Bang: We don’t have to endure this forever, death will put an end to it. Bu before then, at least we have the small relief where each day we have a small death which is the release of the pain in this little period of sleep.

 

Curtis Fox: Mary Jo Bang is the author of many books of poetry and her latest book is a translation of Donte’s Inferno. Adrienne Su’s latest book is Having None Of It and a poem of hers was included in the Best American Poetry 2013. You can read poems by both of them and Gerard Manley Hopkins on The Poetry Foundation website, and you can subscribe to this podcast and The Poetry Magazine podcast at the iTunes store, or you can stream them straight from our site, poetryfoundation.org. If you have any comments on this program, email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins's "terrible sonnets" explore the contours of his depression.

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