Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Digression on a Couple Stanzas from Stephen Spender's Rejoice in the Abyss

One of the books atop the stack next to my recliner is Stephen Spender's Collected Poems: 1928-1953. Few things compare to the aesthetic stimulation generated by poetry. I can hardly comprehend how the images generated by a handful of lines by Rilke or Spender can so engage the mind or lift one's spirit to elevated spheres, but it happens. 

This is not to suggest that all poetry has this effect, but a well-wrought poem really can have a mystical impact.

Over the years I've been surprised by how many people actually dislike poetry and avoid it. One of the reasons some people find poetry off-putting might be its complexity. Then again, crossword puzzles can be challenging, but that doesn't stop people from working very hard to solve them. Another reason might be that the concepts or images are abstract rather than concrete. Others have simply decided that they don't like poetry, for whatever reason. It may be the way they were introduced to it in school or maybe they see it as pretentious and elitist. 

All I know is that I really enjoy reading a good poem now and then.  Even when I don't "get it" I can be energized by the imagery and the ways language is employed.  

For most of my life I always though Stephen Spender was one of those poets who had been a British soldier in  World War One. Only recently did I learn that he was born in 1909 -- only five when the war began -- but that he lived to the mid-1990s. For the fun of it I fed the first two stanzas of this poem into ChatGPT and asked for further illumination.

Rejoice in the Abyss

The great pulsation passed. Glass lay around me
Resurrected from the end. I walked
Along streets of slate-jabbering houses,

Against an acrid cloud of dust, I saw
The houses kneel, revealed each in its abject
Prayer, my prayer as well: 'Oh God,
Spare me the lot that is my neighbour's.'

Then, in the upper sky, indifferent to our
Sulphurous nether hell, I saw
The dead of the bombed graveyard, a calm tide
Under the foam of stars above the town.

* * * 

Because nothing happens in a vacuum, including the reading of poetry, I must mention a couple events that are on my mind this week. One is the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. If you know the book, you will notice the thread that connects these images to McCarthy's nightmarish story. Second, there is the unfolding horror of Gaza which this poem seems to reflect in some lost manner.

Here is what ChatGPT had to say about the first two stanzas:

In these cryptic lines, the poet encapsulates a profound and transformative experience. The narrative unfolds with the declaration that "The great pulsation passed," suggesting a momentous and powerful event that has just occurred. The word "pulsation" invokes imagery of a universal rhythm, a heartbeat of existence itself.

Amid the aftermath of this enigmatic occurrence, the poet finds himself amidst shards of glass, a stark metaphor for the fragility of existence. It's a moment of rebirth, as he emerges "Resurrected from dust," echoing themes of renewal and transformation.

The subsequent journey takes place along streets filled with houses, each seemingly imbued with a life of its own, described as "slate-jabbering." This choice of words evokes a sense of a living, animated environment. The poet, now akin to a prophet, seeks something extraordinary, "tongues of flame." Here, the pursuit is not mere curiosity but a quest for enlightenment and revelation.

However, this mystical journey is set against a backdrop of adversity, symbolized by the "acrid cloud." It's a world tainted by hardship and suffering, where even the houses seem to "kneel" in a state of humble supplication. The poet's prayer, "O God, tonight, spare me from death that punishes my neighbor!" reveals a deep sense of compassion and empathy, a plea for protection not only for oneself but for all humanity.

In this brief but evocative verse, the poet delves into the human experience, weaving together elements of rebirth, spiritual seeking, and a poignant plea for collective salvation. It serves as a poetic reflection on the complexities of existence and the enduring desire for transcendence amid a world marked by suffering.

What do you think? Can an AI language model help poetry readers unlock deeper meanings from poetry and prose?

You can read the rest of Rejoice in the Abyss here.

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