Friday, August 22, 2014

The Living Dead

 Honouring our poetic ancestors

Lean Out of the Window
by James Joyce (1882-1941)

Lean out of the window, 
I hear you singing 
A merry air. 

My book was closed, 
I read no more, 
Watching the fire dance 
On the floor. 

I have left my book, 
I have left my room, 
For I heard you singing 
Through the gloom. 

Singing and singing 
A merry air, 
Lean out of the window, 

Would you have expected this charming little ditty to have come from the pen of James Joyce, the writer of Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, etc.?

The great novelist was "considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century" (Wikipedia) for his stream-of-consciousness prose. His poetry, by contrast, was usually delicate and romantic. Sometimes the language seems ornate, and even a trifle antiquated to our present perception, given that the poems were published in the 20th Century.

It's mostly love poetry — very different from the straightforwardness and vigour of Burns's love poetry, which I shared with you last time. It can sound contrived. It can feel merely sentimental. Poetically, I think some of it is frankly awful! (Perhaps it's just me. I have never been able to get past the third page of his celebrated novel, Ulysses.) 

At the time it was written, his poetry was highly regarded by many, including poets of the calibre of Pound and Yeats. Even now the "awful" ones are few. There are more which I enjoy.

I like this one's sweetness and relative simplicity. It conveys much, not only by what is said but also by what is left unsaid. (Often, in poetry, less is more.) And, in this and others, he uses rhyme and repetition beautifully. Seemingly slight, this piece lifts my spirits and stays with me, the way some songs do.

His poems can be found at PoemHunter. Incidentally, I always switch off the new audio feature at the PoemHunter site. I hate the metallic, robotic diction, devoid of expression, in which everyone's poems there are read; though I expect it's a useful service for the visually impaired. You can hear a better reading of Joyce's poems here. (It's a disconcertingly busy page at first glance. Find and click on the audio at top right.)

You can also download free — or read online — this pdf of his poems.

Both Amazon and Amazon UK have pages and pages of his books.  He was also a playwright, a critic, and a prolific letter writer. His "dirty letters" to his wife Nora — the great, passionate love of his life — are famous for just that, the "dirtiness". Apparently, when they were to be separated for some time, they made a pact to write each other erotic letters. She is also said to be the inspiration for his character in Ulysses, Molly Bloom. A number of his poems were written to her, though perhaps not this one as she is always shown with dark hair. This photo is of James and Nora.


  1. Perhaps he's talking to a sunbeam? Love. I enjoyed the links, too. I never read all of Ulysses, but it's great to hear it read aloud on Bloomsday. Here in Philly that happens yearly at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

  2. Rosemary, you always do such a great job of providing links and info for further exploration. Thank you for that. Interesting the difference between Joyce's poetry and prose. In this poem, I like the repeated stanza at the end to bring the poem full circle. Thanks, Rosemary, for another literary Friday!

    1. Yes, there's something very satisfying about this poem. Perhaps it's that "full circle" thing.

  3. His poem is delightful, though I never would have associated it with him. Thanks for the good write and the links.

  4. I really enjoyed this poem, Rosemary. Nice repetition and rhythm as well. Indeed hard to believe that the author of Ulysses would write such a poem. I found the background on James Joyce interesting as well. Interesting about the letters back and forth between him and his wife. You always include fascinating details, Rosemary, which make the poet and the poem come alive!

    1. Altogether an interesting character, Joyce, hard to categorise. Although a good poem can stand alone, I find the context fascinating too.

  5. You're right: it seems unlike his voice. Unexpectedly calm. You know what Virginia Woolf said about his Ulysses? Not very complimentary :-)


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