hard as nails
by Carol Ciavonne
(in response to the Anselm Hollo Challenge)
In my art studio/laundry room, a fly-specked postcard leans on the window sill. This is the poem printed on it:
hard as nails
hard as nails we are not
& there are no exceptions
but as fragile as “some strange melodious bird”
singing one continuous strain
in which one thought is expressed
deepening in intensity as it evolves in progress
“like a welcome already overshadowed
with the coming farewell”
I love this poem. It is in full view so I can re-read it often, and I do. It’s one of the first poems I ever saw that included quotations within the poem. In fact, the poem is mostly a quotation. I like them partly because of the way Hollo has made them sit in the poem so that they work without calling attention to themselves, but also the way they do call attention to themselves because they are in quotes, and are thus lifted and emphasized. He’s made them hold that balance. And of course the quotations themselves are lovely, quite lyrical. I had never thought of explicating the poem, which as a teacher and reviewer, I have often done, but I have very mixed feelings about those roles. On the one hand, it can be helpful and interesting to give context, but on the other hand it can beat any beauty or mystery right out of the poem. I vaguely thought that maybe the quotes were Keats, but I never felt a driving urge to look them up, nor to find out anything much about Hollo himself. The poem simply existed as a delight for me.
But then I began to truly wonder about the poem, so I googled the quotations. (It’s quite possible that many people have explicated this poem before and better than I will, but it’s become a labor of love.) I found the quotations were originally the work of Scottish writer George MacDonald, taken from Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, a fantasy novel published in London in 1858. From Wikipedia: “MacDonald (10 December 1824 – 18 September 1905) was a Scottish author, poet and Christian minister. He was a pioneering figure in the field of fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll. In addition to his fairy tales, MacDonald wrote several works on Christian apologetics. His writings have been cited as a major literary influence by many notable authors including W. H. Auden, J. M. Barrie, Lord Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, Robert E. Howard, L. Frank Baum, T.H. White, Lloyd Alexander, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Walter de la Mare, E. Nesbit, Peter S. Beagle, Neil Gaiman and Madeleine L’Engle.”
It so happens that I read quite a few of MacDonald’s children’s books, but not Phantastes, which is classified as adult fantasy, although obviously not with the connotation that “adult” literature has today. The Princess and the Goblin was one I devoured at age 9, and now I remember that seeing MacDonald’s name on a book would quicken my heart. So here is a mystery I would love to have asked Hollo. How did he come upon this piece? When did he read MacDonald, how much did he read, what appealed to him about this 19th century author? Was it simply the words, was it the philosophy?
And from another part of the web, here is the MacDonald quote from which Hollo chose phrases:
“…at that moment, some strange melodious bird took up its song, and sang, not an ordinary bird-song, with constant repetitions of the same melody, but what sounded like a continuous strain, in which one thought was expressed, deepening in intensity as it evolved in progress. It sounded like a welcome already overshadowed with the coming farewell. As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows. Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping and wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter. Almost we linger with Sorrow for very love.”
But Keats was still nagging at me (like a “sparrow… picking about the gravel”) so I looked up “To a Nightingale,” certainly a poem MacDonald knew.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
The heartache of joy, expressed by Keats “in some melodious plot of beechen green” And “shadows numberless” also gives the sense of MacDonald’s (and Hollo’s use of his phrase) “a welcome overshadowed by the coming farewell,” and further in MacDonald’s description (not used by Hollo), “Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows.” And still, in all three poems, the feeling of the bird “singest of summer in full-throated ease.”
This combination of bird, song, sorrow and joy is present in many poems over the centuries. In Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday”, “My heart is like a singing bird/Whose nest is in a water’d shoot” the joy of love is predominant, while in Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, the sorrow and longing:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
Then, in Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”, the longing is reiterated, but strengthening rage, not ease, is the motivation:
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom
The metonyms of bird and song for human emotion are a literary legacy. But in “hard as nails”, the lines “hard as nails we are not/ & there are no exceptions/ but as fragile as” are Hollo’s additions and the thought that shapes the poem. Hollo has picked out the words in MacDonald’s piece that make the poem poetry, and that give the feeling of sorrow, without using MacDonald’s further, more heavy-handed description. But I want to say that in Hollo’s poem, it’s not really sorrow, but a recognition of human fragility. The almost-irony of the certainty of fragility: we are breakable, breakable. There is something comforting in the phrase “hard as nails we are not,” using a common idiom and contradicting it so strongly. Who is “hard as nails”? No human. “… there are no exceptions”. This powerful rejection of anything more/less than human begins the poem. And in truth, we are “…as fragile” and perhaps as un-understandable and beautiful in our way as “some strange melodious bird.” Hollo begins the poem with a rejection, but it is also a tender affirmation of our perseverance in seeking beauty and meaning despite, or maybe because of, the knowledge that we will die.
Carol Ciavonne’s poems have appeared in Concis, Denver Quarterly, Boston Review, Colorado Review, New American Writing, among other journals. Essays and reviews can be found in Colorado Review, Rain Taxi, Entropy and Pleiades. She is the author of Birdhouse Dialogues (LaFi 2013) (with artist Susana Amundaraín) and a collection, Azimuth (Jaded Ibis Press 2014). Ciavonne is an associate editor of Posit.
The Parole Officer notes: The poem card was first published by Jeffrey C. Wright’s Hard Press in a series of poem cards numbering one hundred, this poem belonging to series 12. “Hard As Nails” was also include in the 1970 Cape Goliard Press selection of Hollo’s poems titled Maya, along with 4 other laid-in, period postcards, each issued by Hard Press. The poem appears again in a selection of poems published by Blue Wind Press titled Finite Continued (1980).
The New Black Bart Poetry Society Challenge: Anselm Hollo
In an effort to be more comprehensive in its overview of the art of poetry, the Society has tasked itself to reappraise the canon and point out what has been overlooked and what is in need of attention or review. Fitting for a society named after a stage coach robber, the focus will be on the outlaws, the marginalized, the ignored, the eccentric, and forgotten poets and their work.
Poets vital to the progress and renewal of contemporary poetry are being scratched off the guest list of the endless and inane poetry cocktail party (not that they would attend or have anything to wear) as a result of the gentrification, commodification, and corporatization of literature as well as the capitalization of mediocrity. To remedy this sad state of affairs, The New Black Bart Poetry Society is issuing a challenge to the membership in the form of a request for submissions of essays. Submission of an essay to the blog automatically confers membership (see Conditions of Parole).
The first challenge is for essays on the subject of Anselm Hollo and his Poetry. The essays should address the background, uniqueness, and impact of Anselm Hollo and his work on modern American poetry. Submissions should be in the range of 3K words or less and submitted as an attached word doc with the heading “Hollo Essay Challenge” to firstname.lastname@example.org The resulting essay or essays will be posted on the Society’s blog for hundreds of people to read and perhaps be informed, radicalized, or even outraged (one can only hope).
For those unfamiliar with the poet, below a basic bio and selected biblio. Anything else is searchable.
Anselm Hollo (12 April 1934 – 29 January 2013) was a Finnish poet and translator. He lived in the United States from 1967 until his death in January 2013. Hollo published more than forty titles of poetry in the United Kingdom and in the United States, with a style strongly influenced by the American beat poets.
Jazz poems, Vista Books, London, 1963
& (And) it is a song : poems, Migrant Press, Birmingham, 1965
Faces & Forms: Poems. Ambit, London, 1965
The claim, Cape Goliard Press, London, 1966
Maya, Cape Goliard Press, London, 1970
Alembic, Trigram Press, 1972
Sojourner Microcosms: New & Selected Poems 1959–1977, Blue Wind Press, 1977.
Finite Continued, Blue Wind Press, 1980
Corvus: poems, Coffee House Press, 1995. Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence: Selected Poems 1965–2000, Coffee House Press 2001.
The Tortoise of History, Coffee House Press, 2016