Poetry Friday: 1941 (with a dash of humor)

It’s going to be a busy weekend for me—a good friend’s visit to town will not only get Betsy and I back out into this lovely city we live in, but will distract me from the incessant election news that has me almost paralyzed anytime I’m near a computer screen.  Given the fixation so many of us Americans have on the upcoming election, and yet simultaneously how overwhelmed everyone in the country seems to be (it’s not just 4 year olds that would like the news to start talking about ANYTHING else), I thought it would be nice to offer a little poem as a kickoff to the weekend that expresses both the sense of important doings in the world out there, and the sense that we’d really rather be done with it all.

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain t...

That’s right, Sammy boy, I honestly think you’re over-rated. Nice job on Huck Finn, though. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Into this area of need steps the incomparable Ogden Nash, America’s greatest poetic wit, and maybe our finest humorist (I know, I know, Mark Twain fans, but come on—word for word, Ogden packs way more wallop than Twain ever did).  In 1941, his collection of verse entitled The Face is Familiar is a cavalcade of his very best work—some of the best known short poems ever written by an American (“The Cow” is great—“The cow is of the bovine ilk; / one end is moo, the other, milk.“—and his “Reflections on Ice-Breaking” makes a cameo appearance in the classic 1970s film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory…the poem, in total, reads “Candy / is dandy / but liquor / is quicker.“).  The genius of Nash, though, is that the hits keep coming—2-6 line poems about animals like the camel, the rhinoceros, and the shrew are scattered throughout the volume, almost all of them brilliant little things, and they’re interspersed by a delightfully irascible series of grumpings and jabs at the upper middle class Americans who surrounded Nash and the trials and tribulations they take too seriously.  Maybe the very best of these poems is “A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man”—a riff on James Joyce’s title that says both funny and serious things about sin, of all topics—but I’ll let you discover that on your own.  Seriously, folks—if you don’t own a volume of Ogden Nash to pull off the shelf and cackle with at the end of a bad day, go unto a store this very weekend and remedy the deficiency.  You won’t be sorry.

So, for today, I’ll offer a poem (with abbreviated commentary following it) that comments, as I said, both on 1941 and on our current predicaments, which are alike and not alike.  Its closing sentiment, though, is the universal cry of humanity in the media’s modern age.  This, without any further ado, is Ogden Nash’s “Everybody Tells Me Everything”:

I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
The daily paper is so harrowing that it is costly even at the modest price of two cents;
It lands on your doorstep with a thud and you can’t bear to look at it but neither can you forbear, because it lies there with all the gruesome fascination of something that fell or jumped from the thirtieth floor and lit on a picket fence.
And you think that perhaps a leisurely perusal of some unsensational literary magazine will ease the stress,
And there you find an article presenting a foolproof plan for the defense of some small nation which unfortunately happened to get swallowed up by a nation not so small just as the article presenting the foolproof plan for its defense slid off the press.
And you furtively eye your radio which crouches in the corner like a hyena ready to spring,
And you know that what you want is Baby Snooks or Dr. I.Q. and you know that what you will get is Elmer Davis or a European roundup or Raymond Gram Swing.
Wherever you turn, whatever escapist stratagem you use,
All you get is news,
And just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like to get the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.

Nash’s poetry breaks all the rules—he ignores rhythm almost completely, and produces poems that are almost completely prose, except for his bizarre fixation with the rhyming couplet that imposes itself on every single line.  I find the effect almost giddily amusing every time—even when, as in this case, he’s using that humorous edge to aim at something a lot more serious—and wrote a poem imitating the style when I was in college that for a while made regular appearances whenever I was called upon to read my poems at a public event (which is to say, really almost never).  Nash captures, without seemingly even trying to, that beautiful balance between the way we ought to be and the way we really would rather be.  Is this poem a shameless defense of his desire to ignore serious news (remember, Davis and Swing are reporters from war-torn London—he’s an American whining about his jolly radio programs being interrupted by the inconvenient bulletins from war-torn Europe), or a biting satire aimed at people who sincerely complain about this?  Oddly, as much as I see the satire, I think there is a bit of both here.  One of Nash’s strengths is getting us to clamp down on the sarcasm and the joke while simultaneously recognizing ourselves in the starring role as the butt of it.  We indict ourselves while we laugh, recognizing our own weaknesses on the chopping block.  Nash is not a political poet, not an activist of really any kind, and his W. C. Fields routine doesn’t work for all occasions, but I don’t know anybody who couldn’t use a bit of this in their lives—a combination of whimsy (as in the poem about the cow, etc.) and sharp-eyed needling at the rough edges of the human race.  We are really very slightly changed by the 70+ years that separate us from any of the poems in The Face is Familiar.  I hope this one provides you with a bit of a (self-deprecatory?) laugh this weekend (especially if you are among the beleaguered survivors of a too-long election season), and provokes you to find a volume of Nash’s stuff and dig in.  I spent a happy hour settling on a poem for this Friday, and I’m sure one’s waiting for you too.

Poetry Friday: 1934, part 2

Since I’m closing in on a review of 1934’s Pulitzer winner, this is my second and probably last shot at the poetry of that year.  So of course I’m picking one of my favorites: Wystan Hugh Auden, the transplanted Englishman, whose 1934 revision of his 1930 publication, Poems, was quite a success.  I’ll be honest: I think his early work is really uneven—not quite adventurous enough to be a sort of word symphony (like Dylan Thomas or Gertrude Stein), but not narrative enough to really connect images powerfully in a more prosaic and logical fashion (like Robert Frost or Langston Hughes).  The best Auden, in my opinion, is his work in the late 1930s, and then again (here and there) later in life as he returned now and then to a more prosaic style.  But I think it’s always good to tangle with the work of a talented poet, even when it’s not necessarily my cup of tea: for today, I’m diving into the long first stanza of a poem he labels simply as “III” (the Roman numeral 3):

Since you are going to begin to-day
Let us consider what it is you do.
You are the one whose part it is to lean,
For whom it is not good to be alone.
Laugh warmly turning shyly in the hall
Or climb with bare knees the volcanic hill,
Acquire that flick of wrist and after strain
Relax in your darling’s arms like a stone
Remembering everything you can confess,
Making the most of firelight, of hours of fuss;
But joy is mine not yours—to have come so far,
Whose cleverest invention was lately fur;
Lizards my best once who took years to breed,
Could not control the temperature of blood.
To reach that shape for your face to assume,
Pleasure to many and despair to some,
I shifted ranges, lived epochs handicapped
By climate, wars, or what the young men kept,
Modified theories on the types of dross,
Altered desire and history of dress.

Perhaps the most interesting and challenging question for me is, who is the speaker in this poem? Seemingly not Auden, given the ranges shifted and epochs lived (unless we are to read them more symbolically than I am?). Is this the Earth personified—Gaia, presumably, or some equivalent? Is this God?  To whom does joy belong, if not to us (whoever we are that the poem addresses)?

Auden likes playing us in this poem—even the very opening is enigmatic.  What are “we” beginning today?  This poem, taken literally, I suppose.  Or a new stage in life.  The speaker can hardly be addressing a newborn, can they?  On some level it seems the poem is addressed to all humanity—we are the ones for whom, according to Genesis, it is not good to be alone (strictly speaking, this was said only of Adam, but I think we can at least extrapolate to all human males….to all humans, male and female?).  The comparison of us, the naked apes who cleverly fashioned garments of fur to survive the cold, with those foolish impractical dinosaurs who ruled the earth (but not their own body temperature) is curious and intriguing to me.  Just what is Auden driving at?

I’d suggest this is a sort of attempt to capture what it means to be human in a non-narrative series of images.  Our loneliness and our canny innovations certainly start a picture that makes sense.  Add to that our emotions (shyness, happiness, guilt), our obsession with light and fire, our willingness to kill and be killed in war.

But I ask again—who is this who is calling to us?  In part our guide, speaking to us calmly like a teacher on the first day of French class (“since you are going to begin to-day” let’s get some things straight), in part our servant (living for ages constrained by the “handicaps” we impose on him or her)?  Who is it standing apart from us, holding the joy we seek and do not find?

I’ve toyed with both Gaia and God, and find both answers unsatisfying in the poem’s context—they just don’t work often enough, unless we really alter our conceptions of what either character does and is capable of.  The best answer I can compose is that this is a dialogue between two sides of human nature, though I can neither categorize nor define what those two sides are.  The later stanzas of the poem (the ones I didn’t transcribe—I thought this chunk was enough to chew on) open up more avenues, but not in such a way as to helpfully outline the identity of the speaker.  Auden is being intentionally cagy with us, stepping into the shadows each time just as our head turns, drawing us into the poem by refusing to let truth peep out any of the windows unveiled.

This is why I think he’s a talent—even in this poem, which doesn’t speak to me as clearly as “Stop all the clocks” or his poem in memory of W. B. Yeats.  The longer I spend with this poem, the more I can see the architecture—it’s like stepping into a dark room and waiting for your eyes to adjust.  At first there is nothing….just a blob here and there, and then you slowly start to arrange the room in your mind.  Creatures and structures appear to be present, only to fade or reorganize themselves as you see more and more clearly, and can distinguish shapes and shadows.  You never get a glimpse of the room as it is in the light, and may not even see enough to navigate it without constantly bumping your knee.  But there’s this sense of growth, of feeling yourself stretch as the room opens up a little to your eyes, and it’s a really great feeling.

If any of you are patient with Auden this weekend, and sit in this stanza long enough to see anything, I hope you’ll share your thoughts.  There are a lot of little images that really appeal to me, but I’m still working on how they fit together.  Regardless, I wish you an excellent weekend, and hope to have a review before too many more days pass.

The Way I Read: Do novels ennoble the human condition?

Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to talk a little about books and what I love about them—and one specific book I love (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, about which I am happy to talk if you’re interested).  A classmate/colleague/friend is teaching an online course in which she wanted some recorded examples of regular ol’ library students talking about books, and I was asked to participate.  It was an enormous amount of fun, so much so that to talk excessively about it will seem like bragging, and blogging is already an exercise that makes me feel perilously close to Narcissus at times, so I’ll focus only on one moment that’s sticking with me.  Having spoken about Doomsday Book and why it resonates for me, another classmate/colleague/friend (Althea, who blogs with The Bookaneers—I need to add them to the blogroll in the right sidebar!) commented that the way I often talk about books emphasizes how they inspire optimism about human beings.  I tend to read for (and talk about) things like hope, and courage, and dignity.  I can read very sad or even disturbing books (Doomsday Book is often perilously sad, and another book I love, The Sparrow, is a really harrowing experience to read), but I seem to look for those things, and to savor them when I find them.

I mention this because I think it’s worth pondering as a key to why I’ve reacted to the Pulitzer winners thus far as I have.  His Family, the first novel I read on this quest, has been panned by some of my fellow travelers (the witty and wonderful ladies of Along With A Hammer, to be precise), and I get why they disliked it.  But I found it really comforting, and as I look back I think it’s because it emphasized that sunny-eyed hope of a better world that had not quite lost out to jaded cynicism yet in 1918.  I think my attachment to One of Ours, a Willa Cather novel that was also pretty darn idealistic, is another example of this kind of reading.  I like reading the way I do, but I wonder if it will make me miss out on really good books that do not quite brim with hope.  I don’t care for saccharine things, so I don’t fear that I’ll “overindulge” in some really excessively sentimental writing, but I worry that I can be too dismissive of the bleaker stuff.

I share this just because I’m pondering it.  I’m wondering if The Age of Innocence shows anything noble about humans (if so, I’d love opinions as to why, and if not, I’m wondering why I fell in love with it).  I’m wondering if I’d have responded better to a novel like Arrowsmith or Alice Adams (sorry, Able McLaughlins, but no amount of reflection could salvage your reputation) if I was a little more open to that more cutting, sarcastic, cynical perspective that I think both Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington really thrived on.  And I’m wondering if in the long run this way of reading serves me well or not—whether it’s this kind of search for optimism that makes literature such a sustaining presence in my life, or if I risk becoming a 21st century Miss Prism, primly informing people from my pedestal that to be a good novel, the good must end happily and the wicked unhappily, for that is the meaning of fiction.  I threw down American Gods by Neil Gaiman after 50 pages of despair, after all: I make drastic decisions about books (even books beloved by people I respect), and I wonder what this is symptomatic of.  Comments are, as always, welcome, but if none appear, I’m sure I’ll muse on this again before too long, especially once I pick up Laughing Boy again.  Happy reading!

Poetry Friday: A Digression

I know I should post a poem from 1930, since A) that’s what I said I’d do, B) it’s been good to explore poetry through this weekly blog post, and C) it drives half the traffic to this site (welcome poetry people! I will not do your homework for you, but I’m happy you dropped by.  I hope you read some of the rest of the blog).  But I’ve been reading a book by a Classics professor called Homeric Moments in which she extols the virtues of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it’s reminded me how truly great those epic poems really are.  This blog may slowly morph into a broader literary blog as time passes: I know it hasn’t yet, but I figured a couple of reflections on Homer and the Greek epic would be suitable on a Friday.

The author of this book I’m reading (Eva Brann, by the way) focuses on several dozen “moments” from Homer’s two poems, though she’s using “moment” in an extremely broad way—and that’s certainly not a problem, in my opinion.  She loves Homer with a passion, she’s been reading and teaching these works for 50 years, and she wants more people to realize what they’re missing.  The five years I spent teaching the Iliad to sophomores were certainly among the best moments of my working life (if not my life as a whole), and I feel a real kinship to her.  Sometimes Brann is hard to follow—so academic and precise with terminology that it’s difficult to make sense of what she loves about the poems.  But then she opens up with some paragraphs that get at the core of why it is powerful that all of Western literature, including the novels that win Pulitzer Prizes, traces its lineage back to this blind singer and his demi-god heroes of the dimly lit past of ancient Greece…so ancient, in fact, that what we think of as “ancient Greece” (Socrates and Aristotle and togas and democracy) was probably farther removed from Homer and the fall of Troy than we are from Shakespeare.  Here’s a taste of what I mean: Brann is focused on the shield of Achilles—THE shield, the shield forged for him by the smith-god Hephaestos—a shield whose beauty and symbolism move me so powerfully that it served as the central image of the baccalaureate speech I gave to the class of 2008 at EHS.  If you don’t know the poem or the description of the shield, what follows may be hard to make sense of: as a quick reminder to those who knew once and have forgotten, the shield carries on it cities and sunbeams, singers and lovers, wars and feasts, trees and plowed fields, rivers and oceans.  Envision it, and see what Brann believes about it.

The Homeric world, the poet’s and artisan’s world, is in its visible surface indefeasibly beautiful, no matter what happens within it.  Dancing youths and devouring lions, wine-refreshed plowmen and brutal amushes are all equally golden.  This is, after all, the truth about the Iliad itself: a blood-and-guts poem of unfailing beauty which, through its similes and storied recollections draws all the ordained labors and graceful recreations of the peaceful world into itself.  It is this world, whole and hale and soberly glorified by the artist, that Achilles carries into the last battle.  He bears it; it shields him.  He exposes it; it covers him.  He exposes it to the thrust of spears under which it is punctured and staved in but never completely penetrated (as any world is reparable after war), while during battle it insulates the warrior—but barely—from totally berserk dissociation.  Achilles carries the shield into battle as a real enough defense against mortal wounding , but he also bears it about—earth, star-studded heaven, seas, cities, land—as if he were the power behind the cosmos.  I surmise, I imagine, that Homer thinks of swift-footed, swift-fated Achilles as the being who makes possible the poetry that makes the full world visible.

The point of relating all of this is not to convince those few of you who read this and care that Brann is right in her analysis.  I’m not convinced she is (though she certainly makes a compelling case).  It’s that these epic poems at the dawn of human literature (not story—story being older, far older, than Homer—but literature) still have the power to make us feel this way.  It’s a power I have yet to find in the American novel, even at its best.  Maybe that’s a bias of mine, and an unworthy one: I don’t know.

Paul Goodman, a now-nearly-forgotten poet of the 20th Century, wrote a brief little poem entitled “Wonders of the Iliad” in which he relates moments that move him powerfully, and concludes by saying that, to the extent that the people he meets in life resemble these moments in the Iliad, he regards those people as human.  The Iliad as more human than humanity itself.  A high mark to set: too high, I suppose.  But today I found that letting thoughts dwell on the Iliad was very “humanizing” in all the senses that make the word “humanities” a bit magical for me still.  I sank into memories, memories of people.  Brian, a wise counselor and colleague, convincing me to go ahead and teach Homer—that the kids would get it, after all.  The voice of Olga as she declaimed Athena’s rebuke of Achilles in Book 1 with such force that the whole classroom caught its breath.  Daniel sneaking a copy of the Iliad into class and reading it every chance he got (correcting me at class breaks, if I was fortunate: in the middle of class if I was not).  Whatever combination of humans it took to convince me to play the role of Zeus on camera (“You just have one line, Shwag—just ‘I am Zeus’.  Okay, cool.  Can you say it and do a little dance step or something?  Awesome.”): the part may have been small, but somehow I didn’t manage to live it down very successfully.  There are many, many other names and moments I keep as treasures that I don’t have space to delve into now.  I taught a lot of good literature: stories that are as epic and gripping as Western culture has produced.  Somehow, none of it lingers with me (or, if I can take their comments and emails as any indication, with my former students) quite as deeply or in quite so resonant a fashion as Homer’s poetry does.

It leaves me wondering, as it always does.  Wondering how that blind old man who had likely never seen a battle, who had no way of even conceiving of the centuries of audiences waiting for his words, accomplished these remarkable poems—spoke to something in the human spirit that remains even now.  Wondering whether America has ever produced such art (and, if it has, if I will ever find it): art that will remain somehow new and classic, timeless and relevant, over the next three thousand years.  If you think I’m overselling the Iliad and the Odyssey, I suggest you sit down with them.  You may think you know “all about the wooden horse”…and maybe you do.  Get a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation (of either poem), find a spot with just the right sort of evening light and read it (aloud if you possibly can, especially if you can do so without feeling self-conscious).  Skip over parts if you must—get the story of it first.  Return to it when you are older.  It grows with you.  I’ll probably write about it here again…maybe more than most of you will want to read.  Thank you, at least, for hearing me out this time.  I’ll be back soon with more from the latest Pulitzer novel—for now, I’m off across the wine-dark sea to the shores of windy Troy.

“Nobody ever had built above Fortieth Street—no, says I, nor above the Battery either, before Christopher Columbus discovered America.”

Mrs. Manson Mingott, in her great wisdom, offers a reflection on New York society’s resistance to being unconventional, but of course in many ways it’s the mildest example of this in the book, right now.  As “Book One” finishes, Newland is about to throw himself into the arms of Countess Olenska (if she’ll have him) and is horrified that his advice about “society’s expectations” may have trapped the Countess by convincing her to reject divorce as an escape from her marriage to a cruel man.  May Welland, his fiancee, suspects something is up, and insists on lengthening the engagement so that Newland has time to consider his feelings, time even to abandon her and love someone else, if he wishes.

At first it may seem a little hard to believe that these people, raised in a rigid society, would have the strength to try and cast it off.  But they seem entirely believable.  They know what life is really like—Newland knows that trapping the Countess in a loveless separation (but without divorce) simply means affairs with unscrupulous men, rather than a second marriage to a man of quality.  May knows that, despite all the talk that marriage cements two people together, it can be the thing that wedges two people apart who are not made for it.  They know the truth that is present in every tree root that buckles and bursts through the pavement, the reality that the poet Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.  Life, real aggressive energetic life, cannot be contained, perhaps least of all by the mere expectations of others.  They can hide who they are—they cannot cease to be who they are.

This force, though, is destructive; it threatens to consume them, particularly Newland, caught between the woman he wants to love but can’t quite commit himself to loving, and the woman he knows he shouldn’t love but cannot help loving.  It’s not clear if he loves Ellen Olenska or the idea of her, but it will matter very little to May Welland, in the end.  It matters to Ellen, though, who will not destroy Newland and May, even in response to Newland’s fervent pleas.  There is something substantial about her—she came to New York for a reason, and not merely to flout convention.  There’s a depth to her: she’s seen the real world, seen the real folly and catastrophe that can follow passion in its wake.  She doesn’t want to throw herself from that cliff again…or maybe she’s just stalling (there’s a bit of book still ahead of me, after all).

This is a powerful novel, despite Wharton’s continued care to avoid preaching or obvious moralizing.  I have no idea what its “message” will prove to be, other than that nothing is more certain, or more deadly, than the truth that the human heart will not be ruled by any order or intellect that attempt to impose upon it.  I only wonder this (and hope even those of you not reading the book can chime in on this)—what’s the solution?  If societal norms and rules are simply going to be broken, do we give them all up?  Don’t things like engagements, manners, and propriety (hey, even marriage is a social construct, in a sense) serve a useful purpose?  Maybe Newland is just quick to “see through” them because it serves his purposes….then again, maybe there really is something that harms us at the heart of all that convention.

“Mankind had suddenly unmasked and shown itself for what it was–still only a precocious child…”

“…And the picture rose in his mind of a child, standing there of giant’s size with dangerous playthings in its hands, and boastfully declaring, ‘I can thunder over the earth, dive in the ocean, soar on the clouds!  I can shiver to atoms a mountain, I can drench whole lands with blood!  I can look up and laugh at God!'”

The Great War has come.  I’d thought it was a non-factor in the book (which thus far made no mention of what year it was) because it didn’t concern these people in their private lives, far away from the battle…but no, Roger picked up the paper, July 30, 1914, and now everything has changed.  The petty childishness of the family (commented on before) is now dwarfed, in Roger’s eyes, by the childishness of the human race.  Seeing, as I do, from the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is hard not to read a phrase like “I can shiver to atoms a mountain” and not feel Roger (and Ernest Poole, who conceived of him) eerily looking through time to the horrors of the mushroom cloud.

The war and private tragedy are combining to crush this little family that I have come to care about (even though their weaknesses are on full display…perhaps never more so than now in the first months of the war).  It’s hard to read this book in context–I look at a passage like Roger’s watching his young grandchildren and asking himself what kind of world will be left, asking himself if they can escape war and poverty.  And I cannot help but think that George and Elizabeth will be young and married when the market crashes.  They will raise children in the Great Depression only to see their sons go off to Normandy’s beaches or fly to their deaths in the Coral Sea, to see their daughters tend Victory Gardens and dance at the USO and pray their loved one returns safely home.  The century ahead, which Roger looks to with hope–hope that it will prove to be all that the dreams of progress promise it will be–is hard to see in that light.  But maybe I’m making the 20th Century out to be more grim than it truly was–Roger was too early to understand it, and I was too late.

As the family pulls together (and not easily) to survive the winter of 1914-1915, Deborah (the idealist school principal) turns to her father and says “Every nation at war is doing it, Dad–become like one big family–with everyone helping, doing his share.  Must a nation be at war to do that?  Can’t we be brothers without the guns?”

Can’t we, indeed.  I wonder.  It seems like fear is all that speaks to our hearts in a voice loud enough to bring us together.  Is Deborah too idealistic…can anyone point to a time where people pulled together without the threat of violence (if not war)?  And if not, what does that say about humanity?  I’m near the end, now: the next post will probably be my review of His Family.  Whether or not I can find an answer that satisfies me, I hope I can find Ernest Poole’s–he wrote this before the war had ended.  What did he see in their future?