Poetry Friday: 1932 meets 2011 in a conversation about God

Two things caught my eye this week.  One is that 1932 was the date on which Thomas Hardy’s collected poems were published—I spent a whole quarter reading Hardy for a seminar as an English major, and this brought to mind many poems I recall.  The other is an exceptionally brief poem by my poet-friend, Katherine Grace Bond, whose work appeared on this blog several weeks ago—the poem is so brief, I think it might be the briefest I’ve ever included on these Friday posts (maybe even including the haiku Friday).  I am interested in the juxtaposition of these two brief poems, and will say more after you’ve seen them.  First, Hardy’s entry, a sonnet entitled “Hap”:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan…
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

And now the rejoinder, an untitled poem from Katherine:

That wolf is fierce
Is not a lapse in the conscience
Of God.

What interests me on both counts is that Hardy and Katherine take the apparent cruelty of the universe to be a comment on God, but they take it in remarkably different directions.  Hardy’s “Hap” (as in “chance”) is the bold, angry poem of a bold, angry young man—he wishes that the savagery and death of the world around him really was associated with God, chosen by that God specifically because it pleases God to harm someone like Hardy.  Then, he feels, he could get really righteously indignant at how unfair it is to be crushed by someone he is powerless to resist: heck, it would be a bit of a relief, actually, to realize that there’s a malevolent entity responsible for his pain.  He laments, then, that there is no such being.  That, instead, his pains are impersonal, foisted upon him mindlessly by chance and chaos and the laws of probability.  Because, he thinks, somewhere (according to probability) people should be having a fine time of it—it’s not clear to me if he thinks there are such fortunates (and he’s sad not to be one of them) or if all human beings seem to have drawn a bad hand.  Regardless, it’s a pretty depressing view of the world, though plenty of folks would call it “grimly realistic”.

Katherine, on the other hand, is showing us faith in about as pure a form as it can exist.  She acknowledges the existence of danger and potential harm, and notes serenely that it is within some larger plan—in effect, that pain is no argument against the goodness of God.  I call this “pure” faith, meaning that it is about as concentrated and direct a form as I can envision, because the poem gives no indication that there is an explanation about to be given.  The faithful might argue that this is because no such explanation is needed.  The cynical (Hardy among them) might claim it’s because the claim is indefensible.

I’m going to admit that I’m personally a bit disappointed by Katherine’s poem.  I like the idea that art can explore questions like this.  Poems can be particularly good for this—we can live with a level of philosophy and abstraction in verse that I think is really hard to sustain in prose without becoming dry.  I remember how strange and sad “Hap” was for me as a teenager…how I could understand Hardy’s sentiment that pain is easier to take when you can identify it with an enemy, but how I felt abandoned by the poet in the last stanza.  The sonnet accepts the void, but I couldn’t see why he did.  Why not, at least, believe in the angry God?  It’s a question to pose to any existentialist, I suppose.  Hardy certainly wasn’t the thinker that Kierkegaard or Sartre were, but I think he’s grappling with the same issues.

That’s why I wanted Katherine’s poem to take them on a bit more forcefully.  It’s too calm for me—the problem of pain is too large to be encapsulated in that abbreviated form.  I can understand (and even share) the confidence that pain and death do not, by themselves, constitute an  argument that God is not good.  But I think it’s so human a problem, and so difficult a topic, that a poet needs, like an algebra student, to “show her work”, and not just provide the answer.  I think the poem must have arisen from a larger context for Katherine—maybe it’s a response to other things she’s written, or to experiences she’s had, or to a question or a comment from a friend.  Wherever that context is, I want to see it peeping into the poem.  I’m glad she wrote this poem, since it sparked me to look at it and at Hardy, and to think on both a bit.  But I don’t think it did for me what Katherine wanted it to.  At the least, I can say that it didn’t do for me what I think I wanted it to.  Perhaps the audience is partly to blame for this, but what can he do, other than report his honest reaction?  Well, I hope this gives rise to some thoughts, and perhaps a comment or two from you all out there.  In the meantime, enjoy a wonderful autumn weekend—bundle up, it’s getting chilly out there.

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6 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1932 meets 2011 in a conversation about God

  1. Jacob P. says:

    My dad says you have to judge a piece of art in the context of the author’s other work, and that is valuable advice for Katherine’s poem. That said… For me her poem doesn’t give an answer, it poses the question. If Katherine is only saying, ‘I am perfectly faithful, the wolf doesn’t call that faith into question’, the poem isn’t interesting. What’s interesting is the tension – and you’ve got to assume the author knows what she is playing with. If she really wanted to tighten that tension she would use a word more pejorative than the word ‘fierce’ (which is actually reasonably neutral), or describe briefly something really scary that a wolf does – ‘just because wolf tears apart the baby bird, who wished to live, leaving sinew’ (if that is what a wolf does – I don’t know), for example. Anyhow, I liked her poem off the bat, and if I found it surrounded by poems with some physicality to them, I would accept it as a little challenge.

    As for Hardy… Did you know I read a bunch of him too? He was my focus when I was in that poetry workshop. I struggled, in general, to relate to him (part of it is how he writes), but did find some nice ones in the collection. I’ve forgotten them mostly now. Anyhow… I don’t understand the distinction Hardy is making. If a god more powerful than he were to cause his misfortune, he would have no say about it. But if his misfortune were the result of a random universe, he would have no say about it. Does he think the random system might yet give him happiness? And is he going to stay alive for that hope? And does he hate staying alive for that hope? Is that what this poem is about? Good lord!

    There is sadness in life. Some of it is inevitable – like thunderstorms. Some is a matter of mindset. Some is human made. The thunderstorms don’t get to me, there is something comforting and humbling about them. The human-made sufferings do get me. The mindset – well, I’m working on that. Hardy has a sadness that hangs around him like a cloud and I don’t think he ever found a strategy to shake it. Poor man.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Jacob! SO pleased you decided to comment, especially because you disagree with me, which makes for better conversation. I am intrigued by the notion that Katherine is asking, and not telling, in her brief poem—what is she asking? The phrasing doesn’t (to me) leave open the possibility that the wolf’s fierceness can be used to challenge God’s goodness, and I don’t know what else can be asked. I agree that, as I consider it, “fierce” is much less vicious a word than…well, “vicious”, for one, or “savage” I suppose. Maybe you’re right to note the poem’s use of it—does it mean something other than I supposed it to mean? But what? This little poem caught my eye for a reason, and maybe you’re closer to understanding why than I am…but if so, help clue me in, my friend. 🙂

      Hardy is definitely depressing (and was, I think, definitely depressed). I am interested in his poetry but usually not moved to agree with him. I think for that reason I find him interesting. Anyway, my sense is that Hardy would prefer an enemy to blind chance because it allows him to enjoy being angry. Envision two scenarios—in one, I trip over a stick and skin my knee. In another, someone intentionally trips me, and I skin my knee. In the one, I am just helpless: it would be pointless to be mad at the stick. But in the other, even if I can’t do anything about/to the person who tripped me, I have the freedom to be angry at them. Now, Jacob, you’re about the least angry person I know, so maybe the joys of a really good anger aren’t something you’re accustomed to—or maybe they are? The best description I’ve ever read of how anger feels is from a book called Wishful Thinking, by Frederick Buechner (a personal fave): in it, he says “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

      Hardy knows (and savors) the first part of what Buechner is talking about. And I guess he just never paid attention to how much of himself he was eating up. I think that’s why you and I both find his work so sad—it’s because he consumed himself in a way we don’t, and wouldn’t want to. Anyway, tell me more about Katherine’s poem, if you would, since I’d like to get where you’re coming from. 🙂 Who knows? You may win me over!

  2. Jacob P. says:

    Katherine’s poem is a question because it is neither obviously right or wrong, nor does it try to explain itself. If Katherine were to try to explain why she understands god the way she does, we could accept it or reject it. But she doesn’t explain, and, so, she demands we address two questions.

    But before we get to those questions, a quick note on audience.
    ** This poem isn’t for anyone who finds it obvious. If someone of ‘faith’ is really unchallenged by the wolf, they won’t find this poem interesting. Neither will, I’ll note, atheists who have rejected god for reasons other than the ‘wolf’. The poem is for people of ‘faith’ who struggle to reconcile god and a violent world. Or it is for atheists who have rejected god because of a violent world. Or it is for people who divide up reality into the work of god and the work of the devil (or ‘mara’, or illusion, etc.) **

    Anyhow…

    The poem asks two questions. The first is, “but isn’t it, though?”

    Katherine says:

    “That wolf is fierce
    Is not a lapse in the conscience
    Of God.”

    and for many the obvious question is:

    “But isn’t it, though?”

    But since we are reading along with the author, we’re obligated to explore her assumptions. She asks to assume that there is a god, not to dismiss the wolf, and then claims that system they both exist in is internally consistent. Since we can’t dismiss the wolf, nor make claim that it isn’t fierce, nor dismiss god, nor make claim that wolf isn’t the work of god, we’re left only to ask,

    “so what is god like, then, with all of this in mind?”

    That’s the inevitable question, and the one that Katherine is asking. The poetry is getting you to ask that and think about it.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Dang, Jacob. I was geared up to read your reply, and then come up with a really interesting counterpoint so that the conversation continued to move forward. But your above statement is A) really elegantly put, B ) incredibly convincing, and C) frankly, a little embarrassing, since the moment I read it I thought “now, why didn’t I reach that conclusion on my own three days ago?” You’re right: Katherine doesn’t need to show her work. I need to show my own, to me. I doff my cap—and, honestly, I hope you comment on the poems here more often. You make me think, Jacob Perlman, and I like it!

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