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.

Poetry Friday: The Great War begins

So it comes—a century ago, now, Germany, claiming that necessity and self-defense alone drove them to such a dire strait, invades neutral Belgium en route to the fields of northern France, and the nations of the earth are almost all drawn in with them to a worldwide conflict.  We might be tempted to think that, 100 years later, we are wiser somehow—that we would not be susceptible to the same mistakes and irresistible urges.  But there is always a new nation to claim its hand is forced—to see in the eyes of its neighbors only threat and not the possibility of peace—and a new population of innocents to be trampled by the machinery of war as one army races over them to find the foe beyond.  Much as I think the Germans can fairly be blamed for a lot of the factors that led to the Great War, France cannot be set aside as innocent in the coming of that conflict, or the rest of the Great Powers of Europe, for that matter.  But the people of Belgium, especially the folk of its little villages and fields whose only sin was a desire to remain in their home and to defend it against any who would try to harm them—their innocence is unchallengeable, I think, and so those who died in the Flemish fields deserve a special remembrance.

So this Poetry Friday, in their honor and in honor of all innocents who are killed when nations go to war with reckless hands, I offer a poem by a favorite author of mine who is not particularly well known as a poet, but who always wished to be one—one of the great figures of English literature in the Edwardian era, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  Here is G. K. Chesterton’s poem, “The Wife of Flanders”, written in the voice of a woman of Belgium addressing a German soldier standing before her:

“Low and brown barns, thatched and repatched and tattered,
Where I had seven sons until to-day,
A little hill of hay your spur has scattered. . . .
This is not Paris. You have lost the way.

You, staring at your sword to find it brittle,
Surprised at the surprise that was your plan,
Who, shaking and breaking barriers not a little,
Find never more the death-door of Sedan

Must I for more than carnage call you claimant,
Paying you a penny for each son you slay?
Man, the whole globe in gold were no repayment
For what you have lost. And how shall I repay?

What is the price of that red spark that caught me
From a kind farm that never had a name?
What is the price of that dead man they brought me?
For other dead men do not look the same.

How should I pay for one poor graven steeple
Whereon you shattered what you shall not know?
How should I pay you, miserable people?
How should I pay you everything you owe?

Unhappy, can I give you back your honour?
Though I forgave, would any man forget?
While all the great green land has trampled on her
The treason and terror of the night we met.

Not any more in vengeance or in pardon
An old wife bargains for a bean that’s hers.
You have no word to break: no heart to harden.
Ride on and prosper. You have lost your spurs.”

Chesterton is never a subtle writer, which can limit the effectiveness of much of his poetry, but here I think it works for him, both because the subject calls for bold strokes and because, under the circumstances, the blunt and direct voice of the speaker is perfectly consistent with how that woman in that moment might talk to someone else.  You can hear the crack in her voice from the beginning, the sad, wry observation that this army before her is a lost one—lost in the technical sense that her little Flemish town is not “on the way to Paris” by any real stretch of the map, and lost in the much more profound moral sense that, in seeking to do battle with their true foe, they have stained themselves with killing they can never wash clean.  The German before her, seemingly sent to seize property or gold or supplies from her farm as spoils of war, has some decency—he looks down at his sword, he is perhaps ashamed of himself, or at least embarrassed by this woman’s fearlessness in challenging him.  But decency is not enough to suit the occasion.

What, she asks, is Germany’s due in all this—what did she and her family, smaller today than it was not long ago, owe them?  Is Germany really going to plunder Belgium for materials and supplies, in addition to slaughtering her youth?  She reduces that vast scale of plunder to the personal and gut-wrenching, the notion that she is being forced to pay them a penny at swordpoint, as though she owes one coin for each murdered son.  And then she turns the tables again, since we expect her to say that nothing could ever repay HER for the loss of her sons, but instead she tells the German that nothing will ever be able to repay HIM for what he has lost by killing.  Chesterton lets her speak directly to the soldier’s inmost being, the soul that now carries a burden it cannot unload, the heart that will be heavier forever.  And she breaks that sentiment over him again and again, like the waves of a fathomless ocean, repeating incessantly that nothing she can give will free him from the chains he made for himself, that no amount of largesse will wipe out the memory of what these conquering boots have shattered.  Even her forgiveness—a gift so substantial and unlooked-for that we almost cannot imagine her extending it, and yet she raises it as a possibility—would not be enough to give the German soldier back what he threw away so heedlessly.

She will not bargain with him, not spend another word in castigating him for his sins or absolving him in impossible mercy.  There is no man left, she suggests, to deal with—“no word to break: no heart to harden”, she tells him, nothing to hurt or heal or help.  There is a bitter laugh in that last line, as she says “ride on and prosper”, because she’s already made it clear in every possible way that he will never find peace again.  Some violations cannot be undone; some cuts go too deep.

I don’t want to suggest that the Wife of Flanders (and/or Chesterton, if we assume he agrees with her) has the only way of looking at this situation.  I’m a great fan of mercy, myself, and forgiveness, and even in such terrible times I think they can hold immense power.  But she’s right to cast things as she does, I think—to argue that she has only lost the lives of those she loves, precious and priceless as they are.  The German soldier, standing before her, has lost something about himself that is even more terrible to lose, and more devastating to live with.  That poisonous effect of violence, working its way insidiously into everything about us, is what the 20th Century’s best minds grappled with.  There’s a reason men like Gandhi and Dr. King rejected violence even in the service of a good cause: they understood what it did to a person, how it malformed and scarred them, even under the best of circumstances.  As Joshua learns in WarGames, when it comes to war between the nations, the only winning move is not to play.

That’s not to say I think all soldiers naturally bear the scars the Wife of Flanders describes—obviously there are particular realities about Germany’s conduct in Belgium that made German soldiers particularly responsible for something particularly reprehensible.  But we cannot be too careful in what we choose to do, or endorse, as nations inch towards war—war leaves no one unharmed or unstained.  We have to remember the terrible price even the victor carries away from the field.  I’ll be looking at the works of some excellent Great War poet soldiers in the weeks ahead, because their perspective is key also, and tells us about a side of life the Wife of Flanders cannot give to us.  But I thought starting first with the civilian perspective was the right thing to do, and it’s her voice that I want with me as I look at war, both in the past and in this present hour, to ask what it costs, and who will pay that cost.

Poetry Friday: Simplicity, Summertime, and Li Bai

I wanted a nice poem about summertime—something lighter than a lot of the fare I’ve offered in recent weeks.  I’m gearing up for some WWI poetry in the weeks ahead, since we’re a few days from the centennial anniversaries of battles and death and such things, and I really thought I needed a little break myself (and perhaps you did too) before taking such a plunge.  When you need a reliably cheerful poet—not a humorous poet like Ogden Nash or a silly poet like Edward Lear, but a truly optimistic, look on the bright side, life is good poet—where do you turn?  I’m reminded of something Garrison Keillor once said (in a musical context) about the composer Johannes Brahms, one of Keillor’s favorites.  He contrasts Brahms to a lot of other composers by noting that he’s not a dark, tortured artist—instead, Keillor says (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing, since I can’t find the quote) that Brahms is the kind of guy who thinks life feels good, and he just wants you to feel good too.  For me, that kind of description could apply to a poet or two that I think of as reliable in their defense of the goodness of life, and probably chief among them is the classical Chinese poet, Li Bai (or Li Po), who more than twelve hundred years ago wrote the poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day” (this is the 1919 translation by Arthur Waley):

Li Bai keeping an eye on his poem still, after all these years...

Li Bai, still keeping an eye on his poem, after all these years…

“Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.”

Bai, at least in translation, isn’t too interested in clever turns of phrase, unexpected metaphors, that sort of thing.  He’s not out to plumb great depths or lay his soul bare.  He wants you to slow down and breath deep.  Here, he is in the mountains and that’s all he wants to capture for us.  The stillness of the air that would cling to him a little if not for his gentle fanning.  The very simple sense of surroundings—the wood is “green” but we see little else; the day must be warm enough for an open shirt and a removed cap but we feel little else—and of a man letting himself be for a while.  There is a wind that “trickles”, which is an odd turn of phrase that I assume is Bai’s but of course may be the translator…even so, it’s not all that bizarre an image and I know the feeling, that suddenly cold breeze that does feel almost like a drop of ice water crawling along you.  And that’s all.

There are probably dimensions we miss here either by not being able to read the original, or by not totally understanding the cultural context of life in eighth century China.  But truthfully I don’t expect we miss all that much.  Bai intends this to be a broadly identifiable human experience, I think, and certainly many of his other poems follow in that vein.  On a hot day in the mountains, he knows that we would be like him—overcome enough by heat to enjoy some rest, fan ourselves, loosen our clothing, hot enough that our attention and our consciousness doesn’t ever really reach too far beyond the boundaries of our bodies.  To read Li Bai is to become more mindful of everything there is on and in yourself, and less interested in the world too far out there.  Your gaze travels to your immediate surroundings and not a distant horizon.  If you’re in the wrong mood, he feels banal, naive, unambitious.  But read him in the right mood, and he has a way of centering you, making you glad about life’s smallest wonders, like the pleasure of a feather fan or the subtle scent of pine in the air.  Whether or not you need him this weekend, he’s here for you—and if you don’t need him today, he will be here for you tomorrow.  Li Bai knows the foundation of the simplest human joys, after all, and he will wait there quite happily until you return.

“So passed a pleasant period in the well-cushioned limousine in which Lanny Budd was rolling through life.”

That’s right, I’m back on the Pulitzer train!  After a very, very long delay, I’ve picked up Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and am charging through as fast as I can just to get it over with.  I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and thought I could share at least a few of my reflections, although truthfully Sinclair doesn’t give me much to talk about.

The reason for that is something I discussed last year when I began the novel—Sinclair’s more a propagandist than a prose stylist, and the novel is therefore more an opportunity for him to talk about politics and economics than it is a work of literature.  The Budds and Robins (our two principal families) are still doing their respective things as American and Jewish-German munitions dealers during the interwar period (specifically, 1930, at this point in the book), and it’s still giving Sinclair plenty of opportunity to talk about all the things he cared about in the aftermath of WWI and the slow rise of the conditions that created WWII.  I still don’t think these characters are very deep or interesting, and I still find that a shame, since there ought to be scope for some really artful psychological stuff here, especially for the Robin paterfamilias whose status as a rich, arms-dealing Jew in Berlin society as the National Socialists rise to power should give him a lot to chew over.  We just don’t see it.

What we do see, jarringly, is the first fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler I’ve ever read.  Oh, of course I’ve seen him on television and in film portrayed by actors, I’ve read non-fiction about him, and I’ve certainly seen some of the footage taken of his speeches in the 1930s.  It’s just odd to have him as a character in a novel I’m reading—a man Lanny Budd is invited to luncheon with, and with whom Budd then has a long, strained conversation.  In some ways I liked it—Hitler is so clearly one of the most important men in world history, and the notion that a novel might explore what he was like outside the carefully scripted world of speech-giving and military planning is kind of intriguing.  But of course I have Sinclair’s limitations as a writer of character, and unfortunately, with Hitler, even slightly wrong tones can start to feel really odd—you wonder if the novelist is being too sympathetic to a genocidal maniac, or too sloppy in caricaturing a complex man, or any number of other things.  In short, a good novelist should try this (and maybe they have), but this isn’t a good idea for Sinclair.

I do like that Upton allows us some complexity in the main characters, at least.  For instance, when they spend the summer of 1930 at their villa, Lanny and his wife have a real liberal argument about the poor.  Lanny sees them starving and wants to buy cheap food and distribute it to them.  His wife, Irma, thinks it’s better to buy their usual expensive food, which puts more money in the hands of locals who will use it in the local economy, and not to bother with charitable handouts, which she thinks will at best encourage laziness and at worst will make people feel disrespected and dependent.  As much as I feel more sympathy to one side of the argument, there’s undeniably a case on each side, and Upton, to his unexpected credit, lets both sides have their say.

One complaint, and a common one for me: if you can’t, as an author, get the little details of your setting right, don’t bother writing at all, because it wrecks my concentration to see badly misrepresented reality.  For instance, Sinclair in a passage I just read notes that Lanny’s infant, which is a few months old, just said her first word and is now trying to learn to stand.  But the timing of these events is weirdly backwards, as I know now (as a parent of an infant).  It’s a small thing, Upton, but because it’s small, can’t we fix it?

I will keep plodding—there are much better books ahead, and I want to get to them!  But the above is all I have for now.

Poetry Friday: Poem of the End

I’m immersing myself in the violent world of a century ago—reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the summer of 1914 when the world sped headlong into war, reading Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth (Yes, gentle reader! There will be a Pulitzer novel update post soon!) which, despite its setting in 1930, is very much consumed with the question of what led to the Great War of 1914-1918 and what it meant—and then of course at the same time, because I am alive and human and I want to learn about what it means to be those things, I am reading news online about the violent world around me, both close to home and far from it.  The death of passengers in a Malaysian airplane, the death of so many, including so many innocents, in the Middle East as Gaza erupts in blood, and the deaths of young people on the streets of Chicago in the violence that each summer brings and we seem unable to diminish, despite our efforts (I will not call them “best”: I don’t think we’ve given an effort worthy of that adjective yet).  And Friday comes and I’m supposed to select a poem that says something about something.

I’ve been looking at the poetry of 1914.  A lot of it is from August and later, the world changed by war, and I’ll get to them.  Many of them are exquisitely moving.  But for now I’m thinking of exactly a century ago, as the peoples of Europe held their breath in the long July that stretched between Ferdinand’s death in Sarajevo and the German army’s assault through the Low Countries.  So I don’t want to use the poems of war yet, and then on the other hand all these things on my mind make it hard for me to take the easy way out and pick up a short poem from one of Robert Frost’s collections, say, that appeared in 1914.  So you get “Poem of the End”.

“Poem of the End” appeared in 1914, or so my sources claim—some say it came out in 1913, but in either case I think it captures the mood I’m grappling with, and the tension of that Europe just before the war began.  It’s the work of a Russian poet named Vasilisk Gnedov, a futurist and experimental poet who pushed a lot of boundaries.  He published a collection entitled Death to Art, a series of poems that get progressively shorter and shorter.  You’re probably wondering by now why I’m blathering on about this when I normally just give you the text of the poem.  Well, the last poem in Death to Art is simply the title, “Poem of the End”, and a blank page.

If this reminds you of other famous works—maybe music lovers will especially think of John Cage’s 4’33”—I think that’s fair.  But I think there’s also something distinctive about this work.  When Gnedov performed it, supposedly he would simply walk on stage, announce the title, make a gesture with his hand, pause for some length of time, and then sit down.  Different observers recorded the gesture differently, so it’s not clear to me if the gesture was intended to be difficult to interpret, or if Gnedov simply changed it for different performances.  Each description makes it sound somewhat violent—a hand thrust suddenly up over the face and then dashed away from it, or a hand making a slashing motion first one way and then another, etc.—and deliberate.

This may be silly poetic posturing, of course, the kind of performance art that gets mocked more than it ever actually gets undertaken by a performance artist.  You may think it very silly for me to offer it to you today, and I may be.  But something about “Poem of the End” spoke to me tonight.  If I may attempt to interpret Gnedov, or at least to make him speak to how I feel today and how the world looks, both in his time of 1914 and ours of 2014, here’s what I see.  I see a poet acknowledging that there is a boundary to what our words can encompass and address.  There is a threshold beyond which it’s hard to see what art can do, other than to stand before us in silence and ask us to examine what is left when the words fall away.  A quiet man, poised on a stage, moves with suddenness and then nothing follows—we expect to be given some meaning to engage with, and instead find ourselves left with only our thoughts and the context around us that we’ve been ignoring in order to attend to our art.  Is it cheeky to print a blank “Poem of the End”?  Of course it is.  But what other poem will suffice to show us what an ending means?

I hope that the world is full of more beginnings tonight than endings, of more hope than despair.  But there is no denying that these past days and weeks have seen too many voices silenced forever, unfairly and before their time.  Gnedov offers us this gift tonight—a space without words into which perhaps those voices can speak.  May we listen well.