Poetry Friday: 1940, part 4

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (r...

Auden (on right) at about the time he wrote the poem; pictured with him is Christopher Isherwood, a writer with whom he had a close friendship/relationship at the time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have moved slowly with The Grapes of Wrath because I’m savoring it (as, some of you will remember, I did with The Age of Innocence back in 2009 when I “discovered” Edith Wharton), but the vat of poetry to draw from in 1940 is getting shallow, and I need to get moving.  As a fan of W. H. Auden, whose verse has appeared here on Poetry Friday several times by now, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I would take on what is now his most famous poem, thanks to its prominent role in a hit movie a couple of decades ago.  While he finished it and first published it in an anthology in 1938, it first appeared in a collection of Auden’s poetry in 1940—the book was called Another Time.  The poem’s name is a topic of much debate.  Some argue that Auden intended us to see it as a section of a larger poem called “Two Songs for Hedli Anderson” (or possibly “Song IX” in a poem called “Ten Songs”), while others feel the evidence is pretty strong that he meant it to be titled “Funeral Blues”.  In his collected poems published at the end of his life, when Auden was revising his past somewhat aggressively (cutting poems he no longer agreed with on a moral level, etc.), it appears simply under the heading of its first line.  Most of my generation, though, will know it simply as the poem Matthew reads for Gareth near the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

Auden’s mourning here is a little strange for me, emotionally—honestly, one reason I didn’t deal with this poem back when PF was in 1938 is that I’m not as profoundly touched by it as I know a lot of other people are.  It was much more resonant for me in the context of the film (and the relationship those characters had) than it does here, where it feels just a little disembodied on the page.  Let’s take one of the moments that for me works both beautifully and weirdly—the opening salvo against the mundane, against the notion that there can be life and normality in a world where this man is gone.  This is great conceptually, but personally I find the “juicy bone” very distracting, the sort of detail that would come up in a comic strip or a children’s book, but jarringly out of place here.  Is that Auden’s purpose, or a slip?  It’s hard for me to tell.  Certainly what surrounds it is genius…the stopped clocks, the muffles on the drums, the imperiousness of grief in the command that the mourners come forth.  There’s a distance there—the speaker, who is clearly almost paralyzed by grief, is separated from “the mourners” as though he doesn’t want to admit the fact, as though he will not be taking his place beside them.  I like that element: it feels honest to me.

The second stanza wobbles most for me—I understand how absurdity can surface in a poem about grief (see my take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s ballad, which is full of this), but to me the absurdity is too measured, too restrained.  Lorca lets fly: the grief twists the whole world and everything explodes and distorts like a Dali painting, and the absurdity of the imagery is a reflection of the brokenness of the world.  Auden, here, by contrast, is too tame for me—the image of the circling aeroplanes feels juvenile, adolescent in its melodrama without signifying much.  The crepe bows are almost comical….totally wrong in tone, if you ask me.  The gloved policemen are hardly better.  Is he mocking grief?

I might draw that conclusion, but then he snaps back into almost prime Auden form, since the beloved as compass, as center of gravity, is totally believable.  The simple cadence, the repetition, feels sobbed out, and the terrifying thud of the last line—”I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.”—is overwhelming to me.  In a few relatively simple phrases, suddenly it does feel like being inside someone who is collapsing on themselves, a person for whom grief is the straw that breaks.  I don’t have to know anything about the dead man to know what he meant.  And the fourth stanza works for me, despite its melodrama, because I can feel these images playing out in the darkness at the heart of this shattered human being: deep inside, where sorrow has driven them, the light cannot find them, and stone and wood, earth and water, are meaningless to them now.  The structure of the poem, weirdly, conveys the disastrous damage done to the structure of the speaker’s inner life.

So, here I am, the Auden fan who’s just fired a couple of shots into one of his most well-loved poems.  I wonder if I’m a bit too hard on the poem, or whether other people see what I do.  Given that a number of us have probably encountered the poem (either in the movie, or at a memorial service—since the film was released, this had a surge of popularity as a reading for such things), I’m hoping a few of you will speak up and say how the poem strikes you.  If I’ve missed out on the beauty of this work, and the way in which the whole thing really does work together, nothing would make me happier than having one of you help me see it.

Poetry Friday: 1940, part 3

I return to the poems of 1940 to celebrate an American poet I haven’t taken much time for on the blog—the enigmatic and experimental E. E. Cummings.  (Yes, E. E. Cummings—modern scholarship has basically determined that he never meant to go by “e. e. cummings”, despite the orthographical choices of some of his editors.  Save that one for a bar bet, I guess.  A really unusual bar.)  Cummings’s work is always daring and weird, sometimes (for me) totally impenetrable, but sometimes breathtakingly lovely.  He has captured the minds (and pens) of a lot of young poets, I know, and I taught him almost every year I was a teacher, since I think he raises (and answers) a lot of questions about what poetry is, and what it can do.  Here, in 1940, he plays with meaning, syntax, and other conventions of writing in one of his more famous compositions—a poem entitled “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:

“anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain”

My appreciation for the poem has grown over the years, aided by a recording I’ve heard of Cummings reading it aloud in a very expressive and high-pitched voice, trembling just a little—the closest comparison I can make for the sound is the voice actor who played Winnie-the-Pooh in the Disney animated featurettes of the 1960s and 1970s.  The innocence and the optimism suddenly came through the poem in a way that it doesn’t quite on the page (for me).  But what is the poem really about?

Love isn’t a bad initial answer—Cummings slowly develops the story of anyone and no one, a simple man and the woman who loved him.  His choice of names, which is of course a distinctively him thing to do, allows him to get a lot of resonance out of very simple lines: take, for one example, the difference between “one day John died, I guess (and Mary stooped to kiss his face)” and “one day anyone died i guess (and no one stooped to kiss his face)”.  There’s something incredibly emotional and moving about the image he presents—my brain yaws wildly from the sadness of the initial meaning (no one mourns him?) to the sudden heart-breaking gladness of the real image (it’s her!  No one mourns him!).  There is a fragile beauty to their love, like a delicate flower or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: the way it grows “bird by snow and stir by still”, the way their wedding vows and honeymoon rush by us as “they said their nevers and slept their dream”.  Even the deep hope of their graves is powerfully connected to their love for each other, where they now “dream their sleep” in these fantastic phrases—”earth by april”, “wish by spirit” and “if by yes”.  What does that mean?  I know I understand, but I cannot shape that understanding into words.  There is a resurrection inside those phrases, of a form and purpose that not even Cummings, I reckon, fully realizes or could possibly describe.

Time is a good answer also, the way Cummings turns again and again the seasons “spring summer autumn winter” and the weather “sun moon stars rain” to give us a story unfolding on a large canvas (yet an intimate one).  His decisions at times to shift the phrasing are surely significant, but what do they mean?  When he says “stars rain sun moon” right after anyone and no one marry, and before he asides to us his marveling that the children are apt to “forget to remember”, what do we make of that?  Something about the poem wants to get its arms around time, but what?

And much of the poem is left to us to ponder—what does it mean to live in a “how town”?  Who are these children, and do they serve any purpose in the poem other than acting as a kind of Greek chorus?  What are these bells, these floating bells?  I can’t answer it all for myself, let alone for you.  What I do know is that this poem, which once baffled me and even alienated me a little, is now a source of hope.  There is something undying about it, something resilient and human, especially in the lines “little by little and was by was / all by all and deep by deep / and more by more” that lead to his contemplation of the dreaming sleep of the dead.  Cummings is easy to caricature or parody, but difficult to pin down—the man was wise, and I hope there’s some wisdom locked in this poem for you to unearth this weekend.

Poetry Friday: 1940, part 2

English: St. Michael's, East Coker, Somerset T...

St. Michael’s in East Coker, where Eliot’s family came from, and where his ashes are buried. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been four months since I began our intermittent look at one of the 20th Century’s greatest poems—T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In one of my posts on the poems of 1936, I devoted my attention to the opening stanzas of the first of the quartets, written in that year—”Burnt Norton” captured the imaginations of more than a few of you, and since then I’ve been anticipating “catching up” with Eliot’s poem and getting to dig into the next section.  Here we are in 1940, and it’s time to ponder the second of the quartets, which is entitled “East Coker”.  This time, rather than drawing from the first section of the quartet, I’ve skipped forward to Eliot’s summation in the end of the fifth section, since I think there’s a lot of meat on the bones there, and I’m hoping it will further inspire some of you to give the whole thing a read.  This is an excerpt from section V of “East Coker”:

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

Eliot’s fascination in the quartets with a few powerful images—time, love, the idea of home, etc.—continues here, and I love the phrases he turns.  In “Burnt Norton” he opens by inviting us into a garden of metaphor, into “our first world”, and here he seems to clarify what he’s interested in: for me, at least, the notion of home being “where we start from” identifies a little more clearly what he means by “our first world”.  Eliot likes to surprise, and I find it surprising (but also intriguing and maybe true) that as we age, the world grows, not more familiar, but more strange.  Time starts to burst open again here, as it did in “Burnt Norton”—each moment contains, not merely a moment, but a lifetime.  And not merely a lifetime, but an age of the Earth, something that happens on the scale of geology (the “old rocks”).  And then suddenly the poem is homely again; we are pulled from that kind of epic abstraction back to an evening with lamps on side tables and photo albums open in our laps.  What is he doing to us?  What is he doing to time and place?  I am confused but not letting go.

He shifts then to one of his other great themes—Love—and says something I feel sure is true: that love is (at least in some ways) most itself when we are detached from the here and now.  “East Coker” plays with love in many senses . . . in another famous passage from earlier in the quartet, he tells his soul to be still and “wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing.”  I don’t know what that means, other than that in all of these phrases I get the sense that the way to gain love is to lose it; the way to find it is to give up the chase.  Eliot tells us at one point that we “must go by the way of dispossession . . . what you own is what you do not own.”  There’s something powerful and real locked up in there, and I don’t know how much of it I can give words to, even though I feel I understand him.

The last portion of “East Coker” is reminiscent for me of another famous English poem—Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s “Ulysses”—where old men decide to explore on, and “smite the sounding furrows”.  I think that’s intentional, but unlike Tennyson’s Greek hero, Eliot isn’t restless and purposeless in this desire for adventure.  He’s not taking to the seas again to escape the “still hearth” and “barren crags”, like Ulysses—instead, he wants a deeper communion.  With whom?  With what?  We are not yet told.  Only we are told that he must pass (and we must pass, if we continue on with him) “through the dark cold and the empty desolation,” through, in that most evocative of phrases, “the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise.”  What waters are these?  The waters over which the Ruach brooded in Genesis, the formless and the void?  The waters at the edge of old maps, ribboned with sea serpents, pouring endlessly over all sides of the world?  He is imbuing this journey, and this sea, with something symbolic, but I’ll confess I can’t settle on a specific image.  I only know that it moves me.

There’s a lot more to “East Coker” that I can’t get into—there’s an enormously important series of allusions to Dante (Eliot describes himself as being “in the middle way”, and there are direct references to purgatory, etc.), for example—because it’s too big, and because I want you to read it.  Even the last line (“In my end is my beginning.”), which I want badly to try and unpack, is too much for the scope of a blog post.  Eliot is tying up all of “East Coker”, which begins with the line “In my beginning is my end,” and which plays more than once with the notion of ends and beginnings.  Eliot’s engaged in something really valuable.  We’ll be back with him and the last two quartets before long—probably before 2012 is out.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll ponder his words, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Poetry Friday: 1937, part 3

English: Giorgos Seferis

Giorgios (George) Seferis, our poet, whose career as a diplomat had taken him to Albania in the winter of 1937. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a lot of great poetry out there in the world, but I’ll admit it’s surprisingly hard to pin down poems from a particular year.  I had excessive good luck with 1936, but am straining a little to find poems I want to talk about that were published in 1937.  So I’m shifting back to a trick I used two weeks ago, which is to use a poem written about 1937—a poem by Giorgios Seferis, a noted (and Nobel Prize-winning) poet from Greece.  This is “Epiphany 1937″, or more precisely, the English translation of that poem by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon’s waning
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden; the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.

I’ve kept a rein on my life, kept a rein on my life, travelling
among yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.
I’ve kept a rein on my life; on your left hand a line
a scar at your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions nor does the woman
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.
I’ve kept a rein on my life whispering in a boundless silence
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
like the breathing of the cypress tree that night
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness’.

I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting-place of the waters
under the ice the sea’s smile, the closed wells
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.
I’ve kept a rein on my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings
living trees and your eyes riveted.

This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep, in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you’ve loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief; I’ve kept a rein on my life.

                                                                           The snow
and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.

Seferis’s poem is image-laden to the point of being almost overloaded—a cornucopia of vivid moments, generally connected with the natural environment, that all seem to circle around an unnamed person and the feeling that he has “kept a rein on his life”.   But what does all this signify?

I’m fascinated by the poem because I feel tantalized by it…always on the verge of understanding it but never quite getting there.  For a while I was convinced that this was an expression of his closeted affection for a man—his hiding these feelings being the “rein” he’s kept on his life, but the effusion of lush imagery being an expression of this passion felt for the other person alluded to at times.  Except that I went searching for information about Seferis this week, and I didn’t turn up anything in the usual biographies that indicates any known gay or bisexual relationships with men.  Maybe I missed something, but it kind of looks like it’s back to the drawing board.

I really like the opening stanza because its structure suggests that it is a key—a list of images presented simply, with no analysis or explanation of their connections.  What do these things have to do with each other?  Simply a passionate night spent in that “closed bed”?  But the emphasis is all on the world outside and not the humans present—the sea aflower and the stone by the fig trees, the pairing of the Northern Cross (Cygnus, the Swan) and the giant red star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull.  It is a slightly weird world—I’m not sure how easy it would be to see both Cygnus and Aldebaran at the same time (they’re a good ways apart), and honestly I don’t know that Cygnus is ever visible in Greece in January.  But maybe I’m overthinking that kind of detail….if they weren’t actually there, though, it makes me wonder what the symbolism is of using those two celestial objects.

I like the sense of “about to happen” that pervades the poem, the feeling that whatever reins have been kept on life thus far, the steed is about to be given his head to gallop.  And there are some gorgeous lines—”under the ice the sea’s smile” is a doozy, and “that man / who walks blindly across the snows of silence”.  Shoot, half the poem is that beautiful.  So what is it about this snow and ice, other than being the surroundings Seferis would have seen on January 6, 1937—what does it represent in connection to that missing someone, who murmurs “happiness” in memories, whose scarred knee and golden hair haunt the poet?  Why does the poem end so starkly, not with the beloved and missed, but with the snow and the (ominous?) hoofmarks full of ice?

Why is the poet so isolated—beggars do not beg him any longer, faces do not question?  Who is on the road without relief—the poet on his journey, or the missing someone on theirs?  Or both?

I am bewitched by the poem, and think I need to read some more Seferis.  For now, I am hesitant to commit to a reading of the poem.  The one reading I have not yet suggested is that it is a farewell, that the rein on his life has been Seferis waiting for this missing someone, and that he is turning away and riding off now.  It feels as though the poet’s summer of his great content has been made desolate winter, and that in some ways he has made peace with that change.  I do not detect that another season is necessarily imminent—the changes seem to be inside him, and not pregnant in the world around him.  But maybe I’m missing something in the flurries of imagery.  I do love to read it, though, and I hope you did too.  If anybody thinks I’m misreading this one (or overthinking it), speak up, will you?

Poetry Friday: 1936, part 4

As I have been saying, 1936 is an excellent year for great poetry and great poets.  I’ll turn here to a great poet who is not yet on his game—Wystan Hugh Auden, whose Look, Stranger (a title he hated—he changed it to On This Island in the American edition) is published in 1936.  Much of the work is, in my opinion, Auden struggling to find his voice—some tentative love poetry, none of which yet manages the beauty of his “Funeral Blues” (perhaps most memorably recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral) which will be perfected in 1938, and some imitative stuff on time that seems obviously influenced by Eliot’s better work.  Auden’s keen eye for the humdrum and the here-and-now, which I think hits its stride in the late 1930s (and which I’m sure you’ll therefore see here on a Friday later this year), hasn’t yet fully developed, to my taste.  But I think there’s a spot or two in Look, Stranger where Auden latches on to something worth mulling over, and it’s to one such poem, then untitled but later titled “Who’s Who”, that I’d like to turn your attention:

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

In this sonnet, Auden takes advantage of the form by executing the “turn” at the ninth line beautifully—the octet establishes the “important” figure, only to have the sestet undercut that importance by acknowledging the person who is simultaneously unremarkable and vitally central to both the poem and the “important” man.  This isn’t the kind of poetry that really elevates me out of my chair, whooping at the beauty of it or kicking myself for never having conceived of such a brilliantly obvious idea.  It’s like the compulsory program in figure-skating—the goal is not to surprise the judges, but rather to show them how flawlessly a double axel can be executed by someone in whose DNA the axel has been helixing since birth.  Auden, still a young poet (in his mid-20s, or thereabouts), shapes an almost ideal sonnet, and totally independent of any of its content, I think it’s really beautiful for that reason.  It’s like looking at a painting and realizing how exactly the painter has captured the color of the sky at dusk—the rest of the painting may be emotionally powerful or fairly cliche, but the perfection of that one color might be enough to take you through the day.

To turn, though, to the content of the poem, I’m struck by what Auden does and doesn’t say.  We are given two characters—the first, a man of importance, and the second, a person (whose gender is not specified—important to note since Auden was gay, and increasingly openly so in the 1930s) of no particular importance.  The sonnet’s structure and our fairy tale notions may lead us to a very simple conclusion about the poem: “Ah,” we say, “Auden’s pointing out that the people we think are important usually aren’t.  It’s the simple folk who count.”  But is the poem all that clear on the point?  The public figure has achieved real things—he has survived a violent childhood, struggled to make his impact on the world, done things of note (generally feats involving some kind of courage or adventure), and remained human and reachable despite it all.  The private figure is a person of no real talent: he or she can manage basic household tasks, whistles, and is apparently content in the most simple of circumstances.  When this private individual receives “long marvellous letters” from the famous man, on occasion an answer will be penned, but the letters are little thought of.  None survive the dustbin.  Who are we really being asked to sympathize with?

I wonder.  I wonder in part because Auden by the mid-1930s is becoming a figure of some note—a political poet whose left-wing idealism is drawing a lot of young people to his art.  By the mid-1930s, he’s starting to become disenchanted with all of this.  Is he in this poem?  If so, I think he must be the famous man in the octet, lamenting the distance that separates him from the private fellow who won’t answer many of his letters, who doesn’t understand how much he means to Auden.  But I’m not sure of this interpretation at all—the sonnet is so formal, so carefully structured that I’d be a little surprised if it was a welling-up of some private pain of Auden’s.  Art can mask pain, of course, but I’d like to think I could feel it just a bit more than I do, if it really is there.

But what are we left with, as a response to the poem?  I may be jumping too far, by expecting that I’m asked to take a side—to see one or the other of these figures as in the right and therefore admirable (or at least pitiable).  I wonder, though, if Auden really intends us to sympathize with the private person in the sestet.  The language there, to me, suggests a person so withdrawn from the world that their lot is not really enviable.  And I can’t help but feel that there is something significant in the twin details of only responding to some letters, and keeping none—not just that the love is not reciprocated, but that somehow there’s something emotionally stunted about the quieter half of this star-crossed pair.  To respond to the poem’s eventual title, Who is Who, really, in this poem?  Does even Auden know the answer?  He takes a somewhat obvious jab at the “astonished critics”, but can this really just be a poem about the fact that “some people might not believe it, but famous people don’t always find true love”?  I kind of doubt it.  Anyway, I may be reading this entirely wrong, and I’m hopeful some of you will chip in with your own thoughts or reactions to the piece.

Poetry Friday: 1935 and Countee Cullen

I know it’s been a slow week here at FP, but it’s been a busy one in my world, as my mother’s visit has been a lot of fun—family history research at the Newberry Library, poking around a few new neighborhoods (and some old favorites) to show her the city, etc.  Anyway, to kick off our return to more normally-scheduled programming, who better than one of my favorites, the beautifully structured and emotionally precise Countee Cullen, whose The Medea and Some Poems was published in 1935, the year of my current Pulitzer novel.  For our collective consideration, I present his work, “Every Lover”:

There were no lovers bowed before my time;
Before this treachery was none betrayed;
No blown heart pricked and thinned; drained as a lime;
Interred beyond the skill of pick or spade.
Mine is the first that like an egg Love sucks,—
Sly Love the weasel, Love the fox, the asp,
Love wearing any guise that rends or plucks,
Slits with hid fang, binds with a golden clasp.
This pain is my sore heart’s unique distress,
An alien humour to thy common brood,
Invading once in time our littleness,
Mingling a god’s disease with mortal blood.
Surely this visitation is divine;
No breast has fed a malady like mine.

Look how smoothly Countee captures the gross egotism of heartbreak, the way we immerse ourselves in the emotions and almost deign to pity those stone-hearted others who will never feel the agony we feel.  The epic grandeur of his pain is almost funny, but not really funny (is it), because we all know how easily we fall into these moods ourselves.  Even if we know as we think these thoughts that they are not accurate, we cannot help relishing them—why, I cannot say.  Is it because it allows us to live out the pain as if on stage, somehow remote from our mundane lives?  Or because it makes us feel special at a time when we feel very un-?  There’s something in us that wants that feeling of being the lone Dido on the burning pyre, the one scorned like unto whom Hell hath no fury.  Something that I think we dare not feed too often, lest it outgrow its cage.

And Countee is such a sly one, isn’t he, with these phrases that just make your mouth drop open.  “Sly Love the weasel, Love the fox, the asp”—it’s like reading Sophocles in translation, some kind of antique wisdom, because for all our technology and modernity we are still the soft-skinned primates, weak to fang and claw and the bite of love.  His little allusions to the “god’s disease” I think must arise from his translation work on Euripides’ Medea, which fills the first half of this book of his, and I like the way he plays with myth here because that’s really what we do in these moments.  We cast ourselves as something more (and less) than human, like one of the demigods who live somewhere between the humdrum world of the Greek peasant and the mercurial angers and passions of the Olympian immortals.

Okay, okay, I dig Cullen too much, but not many 20th Century pens had his way with a sonnet (did you catch that? 14 lines, people.  The Muse is strong with this one) and Cullen can make even our pettiest feelings and thoughts seem just slightly important because he knows what really goes on in our hearts—what we are proud of, and what we would rather deny.  More from Now in November, my current (and promising) novel on this crazy journey, coming up in a day or two: until then, enjoy the weekend.

September 11: A Decade Later

I don’t know if it’s obligatory for all bloggers to post a reflection today, a decade after September 11, 2001—to dig up memories of the unforgettable morning, the emotions that surrounded all of us that day.  It feels obligatory for me, given my blog’s exploration particularly of America and Americans, to confront in some sense that day on which I felt most American: American in a way I will probably never fully feel again.

I have a lot of memories of that day.  Waking to find one of the towers gone (the West Coast time difference really mattered that day) and watching in silence with my mother in the living room as the second tower fell.  Driving to work, realizing upon arrival that I could not last the day not knowing what was happening, then running out to buy a cheap FM radio and headphones at the nearest drugstore at 9 in the morning.  Relaying reports to co-workers all day: “they say that 30,000 might be dead”, “they say there may be several other planes hijacked”, “they say Saddam Hussein might be connected with this”.  After the workday, a meeting of YMCA Youth and Government advisors (I have no idea how we conducted a meeting that evening) and then dinner with Graham and Josh at a local Subway where we struggled as 20-something guys to articulate feelings we couldn’t get ironic distance from.  Driving over to Betsy’s to find her crying, since her father had told her we’d probably go to war and I’d get drafted (thanks again to my father-in-law for that, by the way), and attempting to console her without really knowing how, without really knowing if her father was wrong.  These fragments don’t quite fit together—I return to the jigsaw puzzle that is my memory of that day to find half the pieces missing.  There are things I saw and felt that day I cannot retrieve, and perhaps it is better that way.

I have a lot of other memories that surface today.  The 1st anniversary, when my boss gave us the morning off to do whatever we thought we needed to do, so I went to St. Mark’s and was one of a handful there for Morning Prayer.  Afterwards I walked around memorials in the nave, and stopped at the book to write remembrances and prayers for the dead.  I wrote down Jason and Alina’s names, because, although their deaths had nothing to do with 9/11, somehow the personal tragedy of March 2002 was inextricably wrapped up for me with the communal tragedy of that day—in a year, so many good things were unexpectedly gone.  And then the wars, both of which I supported at the outset—I’ll admit it, I believed Colin Powell and the President and the rest when they told us we had to stop Iraq or there would be another day of death and sorrow.  And since then, the long years of death and sorrow.  The names of the military dead read aloud every week at St. Margaret’s, each of them a man or woman who will not return to family and friends, each of them a life irrevocably altered by that day, ten years ago.  And the names we do not read, but which every week I contemplate in my silent praying along—the names of the innocent dead, collaterally damaged, thousands of them, Iraqis and Afghanis, whose fates are bound up in this as well.  We do not learn their names; we do not display them on monuments or read them solemnly at the end of our newscasts.  As much as possible, we forget them entirely, not because we are inhuman, but because we are human.  We don’t know what to do with all of this.

I don’t know what to do with all of this.  We live in a nation that will be shadowed by 9/11 for as long as my generation lives, in the same way that Britain and France lived out a generation in the shadow of Verdun and Ypres and Passchendale and all the other trenches that claimed millions of young men, in the same way that I see the shadow of Hiroshima falling over every film that Miyazaki has ever made (and doubtless the art of many other Japanese writers and painters and film-makers, if I was only well-read and widely traveled enough to know them).  I am not convinced that the presence of this powerful memory has worked to our benefit more often than to our harm.  I find that when I am most haunted by 9/11, when the emotions of that day come back to me most vividly, I am not the man my country deserves.  I become frightened, defensive, and filled with vengeful anger at men who could have done such horrifying things.  My vision fills so fully with the smoke of the collapsing towers that I cannot see anything else.  And it is no disrespect to the memory of the lives lost that day, over three thousand of them, to say that seeing only that day blinds me to America, and blinds me to who we need to become.

I think the real trouble with 9/11 is that we cannot find the right emotion for the day.  Anger led us into conflicts which have not quenched that rage.  Fear continues to maim us as a country, restricting what we feel we can say or do, restricting most of all those among us who look or sound or act in ways that we associate with our fears—I talk about living in the shadow of 9/11, but who among us is more gravely affected by that day than American Muslims, whose love of country and whose commitment to peace are under constant scrutiny, and whose motives are always suspected by a vocal group that I pray is a minority, not a majority, of my countrymen.  And talking of nobler and better sentiments can seem strangely inappropriate—I personally believe in the power of love and forgiveness to transform human hearts, but in using those words in this context, will I offend you?  Will you tell me that I have no right to talk of forgiving murderers since I lost no one I loved that day?  That I have no right to talk of loving people who acted with such hatred for their fellow human beings?  Maybe you would be gentler than that with me…but not everyone would.  And it is hard for me to know how to deal with all of this: to know how I really expect love and forgiveness to act on something of this magnitude.

I am paralyzed by today, not because of the depth of my feelings (though they are present again, and real), but because I do not know how to navigate waters that are so painful for so many.  I think this is the paralysis present in the whole nation.  We do not know how to confront something like this—to say “move on” can sound like “we don’t care about the people who died”.  To say “never forget” can sound like “never leave behind the feelings of anger and fear”.  I have written and discarded at least three different endings to this post today, and I can’t say if I should have written or discarded any of them.  All I know is that I feel compassion and sorrow for too many people today.  For those I know who lost someone on 9/11 and still feel the searing pain of it, and for those I know whose countries and cultures and religion have been demonized and abused because of America’s attempts to take away that pain.  I can’t compartmentalize it today—can’t “just” remember those who died on 9/11 or the heroes of that day, and ignore all I feel about what’s happened since, both good and bad.  And I can’t oversimplify it today, either, and say that I know exactly what we should have done in Afghanistan, or Iraq—that I know exactly what would have been the right thing to do at the time.  I know how I feel today, but I know how I felt on 9/12, and how I felt in the spring of 2003 when we were headed for war with Iraq.  Feelings are hard to trust.  And increasingly I live in a world where it is hard to say what I “know”.

I know this.  I want to live in a more loving nation.  A more forgiving nation.  I want to live in a nation where 9/11 is not a day to remember our anger and fear and sense of powerlessness, but rather a day to celebrate the lives of those we love and how we have been inspired by the examples of heroic and selfless sacrifice exhibited by so many, not only that day, but every single day and all across the world.  I want to live in a nation that can distinguish between revenge and justice, between hatred and honest criticism, between those who want to destroy us and those who, having been hurt by us, want that pain made right somehow.  Frankly, I want all of the above, not only for my nation, but for my planet.  I don’t know if the kind of reflection and conversation happening today can get us closer.  But I think it’s worth a shot.  In the meantime, wherever you are today and however today touches you, may peace be with you.