[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]
When I was first reading the canon of Western poetry in high school, some of my early favorites were Ozymandias, Kubla Khan, and The Tempest; I liked the rhyme, the carefully crafted turns of phrase that stuck in your mind. Later I became of a fan of The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and Bob Dylan lyrics; I enjoyed how their words’ meanings were elusive and how their elliptical style rewarded re-readings with fresh interpretations and revelations. My senior year final English paper was on visions of cosmology in The Divine Comedy, The Wasteland, and Paradise Lost (did you know that Milton met Galileo?)
Michael was my guide, of course. We talked about the poems I read and he gave his favorite interpretations of them.
He tried to get me to appreciate the virtues of unrhymed poetry. I was happy to embrace the rich blank verse of Milton and Shakespeare, but I found most modern poetry hard to access. I struggled with The Wasteland; even with Eliot’s extensive notes, the references were too obscure to have much meaning for me, and I lost interest in “difficult” poetry.
Michael once capitulated and wrote a poem in rhyme for me: I think it was called something like For Jason, Who Likes Rhyme, At Christmas but sadly I don’t know of any existing copies. Teenage me did not have the maturity and foresight to realize how it important it would be to keep that poem safe.
The twentieth poem in Cape Cod Light is Music Men. It has the elliptical quality I enjoy in poetry, and just enough concrete imagery to keep you grounded in a mental image of what’s going on. I imagine a low-budget public music performance at the beach, with the sea in front of them, the trees behind them, rain threatening, Michael and a friend attending but not really participating or paying much attention. Or perhaps it’s all indoors, and it’s the music that sweeps them into outdoor imagery? In the final stanza, the poem dissolves into haiku.
I love the line “brings to bear more honesty than facts can support”—it’s one of those turns of phrase you wish was famous so that you could drop it into a polemic to show off both your rhetorical skill and your erudition at the same time.
The singers and players arrive at last
As someone adjusts the lights, and the crowd
Drifts one-by-one into the hastily assembled chairs.
What sustained us today is lounging
On the fringes, where the occasion trails off
As someone with a tray walks by saying, rain.
The tuning of the instruments brings to bear
More honesty than facts can support,
Net after net floating to the water
Just when it appeared
We would hear the single note predicted
In all the charts.
Suddenly we have been fleeing
Downhill, by air. The musicians
Are suggesting how much west there is, and
Behind the banners, the domestic trees
Clump into pathless forest.
The next poem is here.