Poetry Friday: My birthday and the Inferno

So another year has made its turn, and I come again to my birthday.  In recent years it hasn’t seemed much of a milestone—32 seems much like 33, which again is not so different from 34.  But facing 35 feels just a little different, as though I have to take age seriously now.  I don’t quite know why that is.  I joked earlier today that maybe it’s the implicit sense that I’ve lived out half of my “threescore years and ten”—the seventy year lifespan that the Psalmist (at least the author of Psalm 90) establishes as the norm for humanity.  But of course that’s silly in two senses—my demographics suggest a longer life than that (as do the long-lived ancestors I spring from), and then again no one is ever promised anything.  I’ve known too many people who never made it even this far to take any of the life ahead of me for granted.

It’s likely, I suppose, that fatherhood brings out at least some of this in me.  I see my little daughter grow and realize how much time truly is gone for me, how many leagues lie between the man I am now and the boy I was when I was her age.  And I can blame media, too—not the “mainstream media” we so often blame for our various -isms, ageism included, but a very specific collection of media usually called “the Up series“, a remarkable string of documentaries following a diverse array of Britons from the age of 7 (in “7 Up”), returning to them every 7 years for new interviews and to see how much they change or do not change.  The most recent film, out last year, I think, was “56 Up”.  Getting to know these people and then watching them age almost half a century over the course of eight films (all of which I watched for the first time over the course of the last month) has certainly brought me in touch with mortality and the part it plays in the human condition.  It’s been great, truthfully—very moving, very insightful, often inspiring and even funny.  But it also brings with it at least a tinge of melancholy, as well as spurring me to think about the passing of years in my own life.  35, as a multiple of 7, was one of their documentary years, and I find myself looking back at me at 7, 14, 21, and 28.  I wonder what I would say to a film-maker this year, and who I will be (and where, and why) in 7 more years.  It gives a person pause.

The last couple of years I’ve quoted from Dylan Thomas’s great “Poem on his Birthday“, a poem I dearly love, but it was for him at 34, and having reflected on it at 33 and at 34, I feel I am ready for the next poet-guide to take me onward a little farther into life.  Who wrote a great poem, then, about being 35?  One of the greatest poets, or so the ages have proclaimed, and so we’ll turn our attention to just the first 30 lines of his work.  That’s right, dear reader: it’s time for Dante’s Inferno.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.

But when I reached the foot of a hill,
there where the valley ended
that had pierced my heart with fear,

looking up, I saw its shoulders
arrayed in the first light of the planet
that leads men straight, no matter what their road.

Then the fear that had endured
in the lake of my heart, all the night
I spent in such distress, was calmed.

And as one who, with laboring breath,
has escaped from the deep to the shore
turns and looks back at the perilous waters,

so my mind, still in flight,
turned back to look once more upon the pass
no mortal being ever left alive.

After I rested my wearied flesh a while,
I took my way again along the desert slope,
my firm foot always lower than the other.

I’m using Robert Hollander’s translation of the Inferno, which is available online at the Princeton Dante Project, but I’ve read at least pieces of many other translators over the years; Longfellow, Ciardi, Mandelbaum, Dorothy Sayers.  They all harrow and haunt in their own ways.  In these opening lines, Dante begins where I am now—“midway in the journey of our life”, as I already alluded to in this post.  He doesn’t say “I’m 35. Holy crap.”  But we know from references in the poem that it is set in the year 1300, a year in which Dante turned 35, and that combined with the Psalms reference makes at least many critics comfortable with this as a literal statement of his age.  So I identify with him from the first, although almost immediately I’m struck by what a crisis he’s been in—a crisis that I, thankfully, can’t see in my own life right now.

Dante metaphorically (or actually—take it how you like) finds himself in the woods—not the gentle forest of sunlit groves and well-trodden paths, but the deep and shadowed forest where no path runs straight and where fear makes its home.  We know from nursery rhymes what a powerful, elemental thing the forest is to the medieval mind, a place outside of civilization and therefore beyond safety or reason.  It is a place full of threats and anxieties.  You may wander in it for many days without finding a gentle face or a shelter to call home.  Wherever Dante is sitting when he writes these words, down there at the root of his mind he is lost, his skin and clothes torn by thorns and whipped by branches, and he does not know how to get out.  Yet Dante knows that he cannot leave out this part of the story—to be able to relate to us the joy that he would later find, he must begin in this place of fear and confusion.  All our lives are just that complicated—the bad and the good come to us and if we don’t see how, in some ways, they fit together, we’ll never understand the whole tale.

Dante has this sense that his life had been on the right trajectory before, that there was a “true way”, THE true way, in fact, and yet he got drowsy and woke up here.  Getting out of the forest is job #1, of course, but he recognizes that job #2 is going to be finding that right path again.  First things first, though.  He reaches the foot of a hill and suddenly he can see the sun—yes, that “planet that leads men straight”, since unlike the other “planets” (or “wanderers”) in the sky, the sun can reliably indicate the compass directions.  And suddenly he is calm again, deep in his heart where the fear had him as choppy and unstable as a windswept lake.  There’s something really familiar about that moment, when you suddenly get perspective and the stress falls off you.  It’s not always sunlight, of course—sometimes it’s the realization that a critical date on the calendar has passed, or the arrival of a friendly face at your door just when you needed it.  Something gets through to us and gives us perspective on the things that were about to swallow us up, and suddenly we see how small they are, how easily navigated around.

Dante tells us he felt like someone who had barely made it back to shore without drowning; he looks around himself in disbelief that somehow the darkness didn’t get him.  He’s worn out, though, exhausted by all this striving.  He’s willing to work up the slope now, and see what’s on the other side, but he does it by inches: he plants his foot and reaches up the slope tenderly with the other, testing the stability of the footing.  Once he gets his planted foot up and firm under him, up his other foot goes again.  This is a man barely ready for the second half of his life, and yet also a survivor, someone you can see will not be counted out until the last punch is thrown.  He may be reserving his strength, and cautious about the terrain, but he’s also not going to try and make it home without seeing over the top of this ridge in front of him.

It’s been nice for me to think about this Dante—not just the man who will quickly become a chronicler of the damned, a man we can reduce (if we are not careful) into being a mere transcriber of allegory, a hollow shell through which we perceive the sin and judgment of others.  It’s this Dante who will embark on that journey, a man who has faced the most terrifying places inside himself and come out on the other side.  Having learned that there is a light shining beyond all those shadows, and having learned some caution with his feet (they led him astray when he was drowsy, but now they’re firm underneath him), he’s the kind of man who’s ready to face the worst truths about humanity, including his own society.  You can see what Virgil is about to see in him.  I like thinking about 35 in this way—an age where experience may have beat out innocence, but where Dante and I are still young enough to learn and to seek out opportunities to be taught.  Dante’s path is a wondrous one; mine, perhaps a bit more mundane.  But we both have faced down forests in our time, and we both know what it feels like to be in desperate need of a little rest and recovery.

As I said, it’s not that I identify with this opening to the Inferno right now in my life, necessarily.  But a variety of things have put the Inferno on my mind, and I see that I can gain a lot from pondering them.  Much of life is not epic or cosmic in the sense of the journey Dante is about to take.  Most of life is that interplay of shadow and light, of effort and rest, that Dante has felt inside himself and knows is where the story must begin.  I hope I have my own stories to embark on this weekend, or if not now, then soon enough.  Dante was cautiously ready for an adventure, and I think I am too.

Poetry Friday: Autumn 2014

The best time of year is back—I cannot speak for where you live, but here in Chicagoland it was a glorious day, sun and light breezes, warm in the light but never oppressive, a day that makes you feel like yourself and at ease in your own skin. Each autumn’s arrival leads me to dig for a poem that captures some aspect of this wonderfully changeable season, and there are so many sides to the fall, rain-drenched and sun-dappled, drearily stormy and boldly colorful, etc., that I will probably never run out of angles to take. For whatever reason, this afternoon I feel like revisiting Poetry Friday’s most frequent poet, a man who (judging from the reactions I got) I perhaps didn’t treat totally fairly last time out. That’s right, it’s time for the Irish bard, William Butler Yeats, to sing us into autumn with his famous poem from 1919, “The Wild Swans at Coole”:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Yeats knows his way around a poetic phrase—there are better opening lines, I’ll admit, than “The trees are in their autumn beauty”, but man, there aren’t many, are there?  In those first four lines, collectively, he captures something of the cold evening air and the loveliness of a woodland path at this time of year that is almost magical—I see and feel so much more than he literally says if I just grab onto the literal meaning of each word.  He knows how to weave a spell, or least for me, he does.  The specificity of his counting—59 swans, 19 autumns—is a little jarring for me, though.  Maybe he’s playing with numerology, or perhaps just being really literal and observant.  Either way, I guess I could do without it.

But the agonizing beauty of the swans is real, as Yeats captures that tug that C. S. Lewis describes feeling when he read Norse myths as a boy.  It’s the call of something numinous: Lewis capitalizes it as Joy, but of course Yeats may have called it something else.  I love his attention to the senses—the clamor of their wings, the “broken rings” of their wheeling flight—and his simultaneous attention inwardly to the condition of his own heart, and his sense that everything changed with that first “bell-beat of their wings”.  Just what it is that changes him, we don’t know.  Yeats himself, I think, could hardly say.  He only knows that sometimes you see something so wondrous, so soul-stirring and spell-binding, that you never get over it.  And nature, in all its slime and strangeness, all its “red in tooth and claw”, has the capacity to dazzle and delight us more than almost anything that’s human.

Which of course leads to that powerful, moving fourth stanza in which the swans take on unearthly and marvelous qualities—they are “unwearied still” as though they were angels circling in Heaven, they move in concert by water and air like dancers, like lovers, ageless in heart and so self-assured that to Yeats they seem like the earth’s conquerors, above all this mortal striving.  He cannot imagine where they will next go, or what they will accomplish while his back is turned.  He is caught by their loveliness like a fly in amber, and the poem leaves with him still there, transfixed and adoring, his eyes on the swans as they move to and fro.

Autumn will not do this to us at every turn; for this, we can be thankful, since we could hardly get to the grocery store if every pinecone caught us in its spell.  But I am grateful for Yeats’s exuberance and his honesty—this kind of beauty is there for us if we will look, and Yeats helps us look by attending so carefully and in such detail to the simplicity of a gathering of birds in a forest pool.  I hope the fall’s arrival brings such moments with it for each of us, and that, sometime between now and the day when frost strips the trees of their last leaves, we can each find a moment that enthralls and haunts us with its beauty as much as W. B. Yeats was haunted, for the rest of his days, by the wild swans of Coole Park.

Poetry Friday: Memories of Home

It is a cool, rainy day in Chicago—the kind of cool, rainy day that a Northwesterner like me responds to immediately, and gets the feeling of home and homeliness deep in his bones.  I’ve walked around today in the light misting rain too gentle for an umbrella (for the most part), the temperatures just chilly enough for a coat but not so cold that you zip it, and immersed myself in many old memories from similar days back in Seattle and the surrounding area, where I lived for my first three decades.  It’s been a while since I shared one of my own poems on Poetry Friday, and so perhaps on a day when I mull over thoughts of home, you can indulge me as I share another.  This is the poem I’ve read in public most often, in part because it’s maybe the oldest poem I have (or among the oldest, anyhow) that I would be willing to inflict on an unsuspecting audience.  For that reason, though, it’s a poem I have an increasingly strained relationship with—I still admire its strengths but am more and more attentive to its flaws, and furthermore it’s a poem that’s personal enough to feel like it’s saying “this is where James is at” but now that over a decade has passed it’s really not where I’m at, at all.  Or maybe it is, and that’s what rankles.  You will be able to speak to that better than I can, I suspect.

So here is a poem I wrote when I was a student teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Skagit County, Washington.  It comes late enough in the semester to be affected by the chaos imposed on that experience by my dreadful supervisor, but early enough that I have yet to experience that moment of triumph I wrote about last Halloween.  Since it’s me and not another poet, I won’t rush in afterwards to explain it or offer my thoughts—you’re getting enough of me in one dose already.  But if comments are left, I’ll happily respond to them and continue any conversation you want to have (positive, negative, or indifferent).  This is “Insomnia”, by James Rosenzweig:

Four in the morning, alone, on the
boardwalk above the flooding Skagit River, I
am pacing along the east bank
in the gusts that follow the storm,
watching the wind whiten the water in shivers,
as pieces of the national forest float
downstream faster than I can walk.
Sleepless, between careers, ears freezing, I
hear in the distance the whistle of the train.
Then louder, closer in, the whistle leans into
the air—three, four blasts. I think
there is a man wailing that sound, partly
out of habit, and partly out of the human desire
to wake the children of Mount Vernon
with the news that the steel rails and boxcars
are still America’s backbone,
or maybe he just wishes they were.
At the end of the boardwalk I turn back upstream,
the snags racing past me now, making
their driftwood way to the Pacific, where their
white forms will be children’s playgrounds
and lovers’ benches beneath the stars.
Halfway back I see a salmon fighting upstream,
shaking his body like a whip. He takes his swimming
sideways across the current, as though hoping
to overcome the torrents with geometry
and sheer force of heart. I do not tell him
he is gliding backwards three feet
with every swipe of his weary fins.
He will admit it to himself soon enough,
and rest,
and win the river later when he can.

Poetry Friday: Rupert Brooke

W. B. Yeats called Rupert "the handsomest young man in England"...and it's not hard to see why.

W. B. Yeats called Rupert “the handsomest young man in England”…and it’s not hard to see why.

Returning, as I am semi-regularly, to poetry in connection with the 100th anniversary of World War I—an anniversary that does not loom large enough in our popular culture right now (at least, I think we could learn a lot from reflecting on it, and we seem not to be)—coming to Rupert Brooke was more or less a necessity.  The first WWI poet I ever featured on the blog (a poem posted for Veterans Day 2009), Brooke is the archetype of the World War I poet—a bright young thing, sent off to war with glorious notions about valor and duty, writing a few beautiful poems that express some deep truths about his experience and then dying a tragic young death in some gas-filled trench.  Except that almost none of that is true of Rupert Brooke, who lives in the imagination (when he is remembered) a life he didn’t exactly live in real life.  Today I want to reflect on a lovely sonnet by Brooke but also to consider how myth and truth come together to form images that our society will accept.

First, then, a quick reality check about Brooke—he’s usually talked about as though he was one of the many teenagers rushing off to war, a perception made easier by the fact that his poetry (for all its charms) comes across as a bit naive, the sort of thing a man might write before his twentieth birthday.  But the Rupert Brooke who headed off to the Great War was in his mid-twenties, an associate of a very “adult” and artsy crowd in BloomsburyLytton Strachey was a romantic rival of his, at one point, and while at university Brooke once went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf; Brooke was a man of the world by the time the war came, possibly a father of a child born to a Tahitian woman who had known him during his travels in the South Seas.  The glory, valor, and duty part?  Oh yes, we can give him that.  But we can’t fill in the rest of the story—unlike many other famous poets of the war (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, etc.), Brooke does not become disenchanted with those starry-eyed ideals once he encounters the blood and darkness of combat in the trenches.  He will not, in fact, see any meaningful combat at all—no trench will color his writing about the war, and his death (untimely though it was, and tragic) occurs far from the battlefield, as Brooke perishes of a mosquito-borne infection in a hospital ship in the Greek islands.  He will be buried there in haste before his regiment moves on to the assault on Gallipoli: I wonder what the sweet, golden verse of Brooke would have made of that living nightmare.  We will never know.

So again, Brooke wasn’t the ideal “World War One poet” as far as his biography goes.  But the verse he left behind is more than worthy of remembering, and here at the beginning of September, with the trenches (for the most part) not yet dug in the fields of France in 1914, I think it’s time to give him the floor again.  This is one of the five poems in a series of sonnets he entitled “1914” and wrote sometime in the autumn of that year—two of the sonnets, oddly, have the same subtitle, “The Dead”.  This is the latter of them, the fourth sonnet in the cycle of five, and I think perhaps his best work.

“These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.”

Brooke composes a sonnet in praise of the war dead that, as I suggested earlier, is free of any of the realities of modern warfare.  But it is undeniably beautiful, and I think there are truths here to grapple with regardless.  Look at those almost effortless opening lines—presenting the dead to us as though carving them in monument.  The dead are strangely alive in Brooke’s hands—marvelous in sorrow, swift to laugh.  He comforts us by weaving an image of life that makes death bashful to show its face.  For who can dwell on the awfulness of death in the face of this joy?  Time itself is a kindness to all who have had the gift of life.  Each human shares in the possession of light and life that beams in on us from the sky and erupts around us from the fertile ground.  Each moment of their living is something to wonder at, for Brooke—that there should be music to hear, sleep to comfort ourselves with, friends to cheer us, somehow all of it is amazing to him, and therefore by extension to us.

He executes the turn then, with the last half of the eighth line, “all this is ended”, and it is so abrupt and unexpected, we think we see where the sestet will go—the sonnet is turning from life to death, we feel instinctively, and brace ourselves for it.  But there is a pause and a rush of air and we find something else.  The commotion of human life is ended, but Brooke seizes on that, not to lament, but to pull backwards and appreciate this immense, vibrant space in which this life took place.  Humans are entirely absent from this second half of the sonnet: instead, the light and laughter have moved on from human contexts and into the waters and winds.  The frost freezes them in appreciation of the magic of the dance, holding immobile, at least for the moment, water in the midst of the wind.  What else he does, as winter approaches, is to leave something else incredible “under the night”, some physical presence that Brooke sees as peaceful and glorious and overflowing with light.

Few soldiers could have written this even several months later; truthfully, Brooke could hardly have written it himself past mid-1915, given both the likelihood that he would have died at Gallipoli and the likelihood that a man who survived Gallipoli would be able to write something this impersonal and idealistic afterwards.  But there’s something I like about it—the sense that the immense splendor of the earth compensates us in ways we can hardly calculate for injustices that we may face along the way, the reality that no human death stops wind or wave and that therefore all life does go on, even when we do not.  This is a commonly anthologized poem and it’s not hard to see why.  To the extent that this obscures the grim reality of war, and makes it seem so noble and significant that it encourages our politicians to be cavalier about conflict, I’ll criticize the poem.  But tonight it’s more important for me to appreciate it—to step back and ask myself where I can draw joy from unexpected places in my life, and how moving out away from human cares can provide real clarity about how to care more effectively.  Whether it calls you to that or not, I hope it engages with you, on some level, and provides insight into our place in a lively and busy world.

Poetry Friday: Entering the friend zone with W. B. Yeats

Because we approach a three-day weekend, and I am loath to burden your holiday relaxations with some somber poem about the Great War, you get one more week off from World War I, which by this time 100 years ago was about to become the horrifying, human-eating trench war that almost no one saw coming.  Instead, I offer another fling with one of Poetry Friday’s favorite guests, William Butler Yeats, whose stuff is always worth talking about (and, in my opinion, almost always really good).  A blog I read has been inviting reader submissions all week long of books and poems that have profoundly affected people, and “stuck with them” long term, and when one reader mentioned this poem, it reminded me of some thoughts I’ve always had about it.  I used to discuss this poem with high school sophomores, and I always enjoyed the chat, so it seemed to me it would be interesting to offer it this afternoon, and see what your various takes are.  This is a work of Yeats’ very early career—arguably his first famous poem—written by a man in his 20s and published in 1892: this is “When you are old”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Yeats employs the style that too many imitated in poor, sing-song fashion—iambic pentameter (with occasional tweaks), end-stopped couplet rhyme, reliance on simple turns of phrase and familiar words—and shows what a master he was of words, and how in the right hands an approach to poetry that might look “greeting card” on first blush will open up and reveal some real depth of feeling.  The approach is direct enough, since each of us as the reader is the second person, the “you” who will one day be old and grey.  Yeats is gentle from the very beginning, the softest of sounds and phrases, a cadence that wraps around us like a well-worn shawl, and rocks us to sleep by the fire.  The woman is asked to imagine herself at the end of her life, looking back on who she once was, and leafing through an old book of poems written by a man she once knew.

And not just any man—not a man like all the others, who “loved your moments of glad grace / and loved your beauty” (though it’s not clear to me that those are very similar bases for love, at all).  No, this was the one man who saw something else in her—a pilgrim soul, whatever that phrase conjures for us.  Perhaps an image of a heart never quite at rest.  A woman who, despite her calm outward appearance, inwardly was forever journeying in search of some meaning not near at hand.  And he “loves the sorrows of [her] changing face”—as I used to ask my sophomores, “what, does that mean he likes it when she cries?” But of course not; instead, it seems to me that the changes here are the weathers of age that take away the outward appearance she once prized.  They may be sad to her, or perhaps some frown lines and wrinkles will arise out of sad expressions, but they only increase his devotion to her.

And then, he envisions, seeming almost eager at the scene imagined, she will bend beside the fire, murmur to herself about how she lost that one true love, who (unmarked by her, it seems) set out for the wilderness to travel lonely there, or else lost himself in the urban chaos of faces, one more pedestrian blurring past her every day.  And I would always ask my class then, and I ask you now, what is this poem?  Is it a love poem?

It seems to me (and of course I tipped my hand early on, in the post’s title) that Yeats is writing on some level about the “Nice Guy problem” that men seem to complain about online these days, or at least there is a sudden awareness of what I think is a long-standing male complaint.  It’s sometimes colloquially called “getting friend-zoned”—the nice, timid, devoted male friend thinks he’s the only guy who REALLY gets how special this beautiful girl is who spends all her time surrounded by admirers, and he feels somehow unjustly treated by her, since she never takes him out of “the friend zone”, this conjectured mental space where lovely women apparently deposit their opinions of “nice”, timid, devoted male acquaintances.  This isn’t all that nice a poem, if my thesis is right—it begins and ends where it does because that’s what’s emotionally satisfying to him.  The image of her, old and alone, staring sadly into the fire and leafing through the poetry of the guy she never gave a fair chance (but now knows was probably a little too good for her—certainly miles better than those flashy guys she dated).  Talk about some serious emotional issues, eh?

But that’s not the only reading, of course!  Usually I could count on students to advance other possibilities, but I’ll just take the clearest one (and the reason this has been one of Yeats most-anthologized poems).  The poem is simple, direct, and sweetly phrased—there’s almost no hint of bitterness in the words chosen.  It’s wistful—the poet hoping that someday she realizes what she meant to him, not because he wants to twist the knife, but because his feelings meant so much to him (drove him into the mountains and the faceless crowd, ultimately) that he wants to believe that she will, at least once in her long life, recognize them and understand.  The poem shuts no doors, draws no lines in the sand, casts no judgments, and pronounces no decrees.  So why assume it’s the claws of an angry cat?

And I turn it over to you—what kind of poem is this?  Why did Yeats write it, and what are we to make of it?  Is it a bitter “friend-zoned” poet soaking luxuriously in the thought that the woman who spurned him will one day ache with sorrow over it?  Or a nostalgic wish from a man who will always remember that girl with the haunted look and wish her well, wherever she is?  Or something else entirely?  Perhaps the Labor Day weekend will afford us all time to mull it over, and to offer a comment or two here on this post, if you like—thanks, as always, for your attention to this humble space and the poems that fill it!

Poetry Friday: Dorothy Parker

In my ongoing mission to weave back and forth between the somber poems of death, war, and loss and the cheerful poems of life, love, and satisfaction, today is slated to be a more fun week, in the wake of G. M. Hopkins’ sonnet of depression seven days ago.  And so it commends to our attention a poet who, whether or not she was as happy as she led us to believe, always had a spark in her sentences and a quick jab at the end of every poem to turn a grimace into a knowing grin.  I speak of today’s birthday girl, Dorothy Parker, who would be 121 today if she was alive (and yet I’m sure she wouldn’t look a day over 107).

Happy birthday, Dorothy!

There’s an earnestness to those eyes, I’ll admit, but it’s the firm set line of that jaw that tells me she was no one to trifle with.

You know her work even if you don’t immediately recognize her name—her witty barbs were the centerpiece of the famous Algonquin Round Table, and her talents as a screenwriter earned her two Academy Award nominations, most famously for A Star is Born.  She had her dark side—a lifelong battle with depression, which culminated, like Robin Williams’, in suicide late in life (in Dorothy’s case, well into her 70s)—but the face she showed the world in her poetry was normally a brave one, tough enough to take the hardest life offered, and keen-eyed enough to see through society’s little games.  And so I offer, in her memory and as a birthday salute to her, Dorothy Parker’s poem “Interview”:

“The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints…
So far, I’ve had no complaints.”

Parker never clarifies how this is an “interview”—is this a set of remarks she envisions making to some fictional journalist, or is she casting heterosexual romance in the setting of a job interview (where what’s described and what’s expected are often two different things)?  Or something else entirely?  It’s hard to say.  What’s easy is to grab right away the poem’s key thesis, the casual way Parker describes the sheltered life of the supposedly desirable woman and how her eyes must gleam as she remarks to us, finally and so coolly, “so far, I’ve had no complaints”.  It makes me laugh every time—Parker’s ease in branding herself as a wild, untamed, painted woman, and her obvious amusement at the idea, proponed by goodness-knows-who, that men would find a woman like her anything but fascinating and desirable.  You feel it right away in all her phrases, which are almost condescending as she imagines the kind of person who would be scandalized by a “wicked word” (I think “wicked” is very intentional there) and are so innocent that they cannot even recognize when the man in front of them is suggesting a dalliance.  There’s a power to the poem, beneath (and intricately involved in) its humor: the strangeness of our society’s double standards for women seeking relationships with men, which suggest a norm of purity that few can live up to, and yet confront women simultaneously with the reality that impurity is encouraged rather than frowned upon by the other side of the equation.

It’s not subtle, despite how sly it is—you’ll note that Parker never actually admits to anything, herself, instead allowing us to infer whatever we will from the simple admission that she’s “had no complaints”—because Parker knows how easily she’ll win us over.  Even the most conservative among us, folks who well might see themselves as pure and who would in fact never read an erotic poem, would (I think) have to acknowledge that the saucy smile Dorothy beams at us in that last line is a winning one.  If she entered the room you were in, whether you wanted to imitate her or not, it’s hard to imagine you could take your eyes off of her.  Her poetry certainly has that fixating effect, for me, and for many others.  So I hope it brings a little smile to your Friday, and that those who like what they saw here will nose around a little to find some of Parker’s other stuff—not all of it is quite this level of genius, but most of it is just as cheekily irreverent (and therefore captivating).

Poetry Friday: Depression

I promise, this isn’t going to be a full blog post about a celebrity death you’ve probably read and seen enough about already this week, no matter whether you were grieving or indifferent to the news.  But Robin Williams filled the news feed on my social media platter, and probably yours too; and in the wake of the news of his suicide came an echoing rush of posts about depression, suicide prevention, and people generally reaching their hands out into the void to reassure whoever was listening that they were not alone, that someone cares and is ready to help them.  It certainly put those topics on my mind—my own experiences with depression and those of people I love, and what I’ve heard and read from people who went to the brink of suicide, even attempted it, and what that experience felt like.  So today, even though I’ve put aside WWI for now, it won’t really be a sunshine-and-puppies poem.  But it will, I assure you, be a good poem.

You see, I had a long L ride today to the doctor’s office—the cold that knocked me out last Friday (hence no PF post a week ago: my apologies) hung around this week until I had to see if I had strep or something—and I took along for the ride a book I haven’t read in many years.  It’s a title I picked off the remainder table in the basement of Village Books in Fairhaven, probably in about 2002, and it was my introduction to one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner.  Buechner is one of the nation’s greatest memoirists and essayists, in addition to a very fine novelist, but I haven’t had much call to mention him here.  He wrote (as far as I know) no poetry, and his greatest novel, Godric, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize but failed to win (losing to A Confederacy of Dunces, which, when I get there, had better be amazing, because Godric is one of the most moving and wise books I’ve ever read), so I have no real way to mention him here, except by horning him in to this post right now, which I hope you will forgive. In any case, I picked up Buechner’s Speak What We Feel; Not What We Ought To Say, in which he explores, sensitively and with the care of a man who loves words with a passion only exceeded by how much he loves those who write the words, four authors who wrote their way through some of the darkest feelings in their lives.  And the four authors he chooses are incomparably talented: G. K. Chesterton (featured on Poetry Friday only a couple of weeks ago), Mark Twain (who needs no introduction), William Shakespeare (ditto), and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hopkins is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps my favorite poet ever, but I haven’t brought him in here very often—only twice, in fact, in five years of Poetry Fridays (can you believe it’s been five years?).  In part that’s because he’s not American and we are America-obsessed here at FP, perhaps too much so.  And in part that’s because so much of his work deals with faith and the divine, and while that speaks to me I know it doesn’t to many of you, and I haven’t wanted to push that between us too much since the purpose of these posts is really just to make you love poetry and think about it more often.  But I’m going to risk it today, because I think the despair Hopkins wrestled with near the end of his life is universal enough to reach us all, and even when he is expressing himself in terms of his Catholic faith I think he says things that can mean something to anyone, and move them, if they listen.  So today we take on one of the “terrible sonnets”, named not because they are poorly written, but because they were birthed amid terror, and there is something terrible and awe-inspiring about how raw and real Hopkins is as he opens up his soul to our eyes.  None of them were ever given titles, and I think in some ways it’s because Hopkins was reluctant to give any name to poems, however brief, that spoke such real and fearful truths.  This is, then, just a sonnet written in the mid-1880s by a middle-aged Catholic priest who, unknown to him, is only a few years away from dying of typhoid fever:

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

Hopkins has his old demon by the throat, here—too close to be at ease but also strangely in command of himself.  Despair, he says, I’m not going to give in to you, not swallow you down like spoiled meat, dead flesh that will rot inside me.  I love the repetition of “not” in that first line, three times as though he’s having to shout back an advancing beast, and then even a fourth time to begin the next line as he holds depression at bay.  He pushes back against the suicidal impulse to “untwist…these last strands of man”, even referencing a Shakespearean figure by saying he’ll not “cry I can no more” which was the last line of Mark Antony before he commits suicide in Antony and Cleopatra.  Hopkins can, he tells despair, but he can do what?

Something, he says, knowing that it’s a near thing here, depression will have him if he can’t stay on his feet, stay agile and avoid the shadows; something, he says, like hope, or wish that dawn would break, or even (here comes that NOT like a swordpoint again) not choose not to be, as though he can turn the “no, not, never” voice of depression in his head, the voice that tells him to give up and give in, somehow against itself, that negativity suddenly negative about the notion of suicide.  He is grasping at straws, we know, but we are in his corner, aren’t we, cheering him on because we can see what he sees—that he has the fight in him and despair is starting to show its weak points, the soft hollow in its underbelly where, like Smaug the Magnificent, a keen-eyed blow might bring the monster down.

And then Hopkins wheels, shouting to the heavens now at “thou terrible” because it is God, really, who angers him, God who seems to have bet the house on Despair just when Hopkins thought he stood a chance.  Why, he implores to Heaven, would a God who made the Earth his footstool hold a man down when he’s at his lowest, why would the famed “Lion of Judah” slash out with a fierce paw, why do his bones creak and crack as though they are being prepared for a butcher to tear them open and why does the cold wind turn and toss him, fling him from his feet when he would be most ready to run away?  Hopkins, a devout man who had profoundly disappointed his family with his conversion to the Catholic Church and his choice of the priesthood, a poet who once burned all the verse he had (up to that point) written because he worried his pride in writing took too much of his attention from God, is saying some of the most awful and true things he can think of about someone he once (in an earlier poem) called his “first, last, friend”.  He has been in the den of a predator, deep in the darkness, for who knows how long, and he knows the pad of depression’s clawed feet and the stink of its breath, fresh from some other kill.  How, he asks, can he have been so abandoned?

And then the poem turns, even as we wonder how it possibly can, as we ask ourselves what words could come out of that tempest to give Hopkins a fair answer.  He looks at his life and sees that the winds have blown clear from him the things that do not matter and never did (this “chaff”), leaving him in possession of the only things he would have wanted to keep.  Something turned for him, we realize—out of all that crying into the wind, all those accusations levied against the monstrous figure of a silent and uncaring God, his hand found another hand in the darkness.  It was a kingly hand, to be sure—a hand to be kissed, holding a scepter to be kissed as well—but it moved something in him.  His heart began to take strength like an animal drinking from a calm pool, and from some unknown storehouse he came away bearing joy with him like a thief, because it can feel that way to find joy after the despair lifts, as though all the happinesses in your life couldn’t possibly have been earned, couldn’t be yours by right, and yet they are there and real and cheerful.

But this is no easy poem, no Precious Moments depiction of depression and Hopkins’ anger at God.  Because even as the cheer lifts from his throat, he asks himself who he is cheering for.  Is it this strangely doubled divine figure, the heroic hand that both saved him and flung him into the storm?  Or is it Hopkins himself, the man who in anger addressed the terrors he knew, despair and divinity both, and called them to account?  He wonders if somehow it can be both of them (or if not, which one it could possibly be).  He looks back now—and it is back, although we may not have understood it until this very moment—into a year of “now done darkness”, a fight he somehow survived, perhaps even won, and recognizes that in grappling with despair he wrestled also with God, as though he were some Old Testament patriarch.  And it shocks him (“my God!”) even as he affirms that it simply was the case (“my God.”)  And there the poet ends.

I think it’s one of the more convincing portrayals of depression I’ve read—it rings true for me, anyway.  Despair doesn’t lend itself to neat and tidy outcomes, to the “happily ever after” we seek in fairy tales or to the guns-blazing take-out-the-big-bad-guy finish of a big action film.  Coming out on the other side is always a struggle, and it leaves its mark—in the case of Hopkins, leaves him still fencing with Despair after the year of darkness ends, leaves him angry with God (while acknowledging God’s critical role in his escape), leaves him uncertain even how he feels about all that’s transpired and whether he should be thrilled by this tough, loud, litigious voice he hears himself flinging back at Heaven.  It’s also, I should note, a very convincing portrayal of what faith feels like to those of us inside it—not the cheesy, saccharine anecdotes of some twinkly-eyed minister who claims faith is all about happiness and the easy life (I’m sorry, Joel Osteen, but if you know anything about faith, it sure doesn’t come out anytime you’re on television), but the real battle of contending with an often cruel universe and a God who is certainly not present at all times and in all ways exactly as we would expect God to be.  Hopkins’ ambivalence—both about God’s role in his depression and his reclaiming his joy, and more generally about whether or not he sees himself or God as the hero of the piece—is what people who work at faith really experience.  He joins a long list of criers into the darkness and the storm, from Job of Uz to Elijah to a Nazarene carpenter and itinerant preacher who cried famously (and desperately) into the darkness from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I know this won’t all work for all of you.  Some of you—and I’m thankful for this—don’t know what it’s like to stare down Depression….not “depression” with a little d, which hits anybody who feels a bit down now and then, but Depression the serious, long-term, often crippling psychological condition.  And others of you don’t know what to make of my occasional words about faith, either because you use that word to mean something very different, or you really don’t use it for much at all because it doesn’t mean much to you.  I appreciate your reading this far anyway, and listening to Hopkins (and me) ramble on a little about these things that have made us who we became.  And for those of you who know one or both of these topics up close and personal, I hope something resonates here, whether it’s a sense of kinship with an experience you recognize, or else perhaps a sudden insight into a side of the experience that you hadn’t considered before.  What means most to me about the terrible sonnets, and this one in particular, is that, bleak as they are (another is, I think, much worse than this one, as it’s written before the despair had yet lifted), they helped me see a path out, and understand how to walk it.  I discovered Hopkins before Depression found me, and reading him was one of my ways through my year-plus of “now done darkness”.  He and I had different experiences in many ways, of course, and expressed it differently, but it was good to have him as a fellow on the journey.  I hope Robin Williams had someone like Hopkins for his 63 years, as I expect Depression was an old foe of his and not a recent discovery—I hope you, too, if you face the same enemy, have some good friends at your side.  And if you feel you don’t, I hope you know to reach out for hands beside you in the dark, or to call into that wind that seems to blow only in opposition to you: whether it’s me or someone else, I know there’s someone who could take your hand, or call back through the storm, and though that doesn’t complete your journey out it’s the only way I know of to get started.