Poetry Friday: Armistice Day 2016

The years roll on, and take their toll.  I come to this day a little wearier each time.  I have less to say, other than to trot out the familiar phrases—my unease with American jingoism on holidays like this one, where we pretend that the day is to honor the brave and not the fallen, to exult in the nobility of war rather than to lament its destructive wrath; then, more sadly, something pious and humble and mostly true about what the memory of those long dead, especially the dead from the Great War whose hallowed day this November 11th was from the very beginning (and will always be, to me), means to someone born many decades later.  You can click on the Veterans Day tag and see the rest, if you like.  I hope the collection of my reflections and each year’s poem or poems brings you solace, or solemnity, or anything fitting the occasion.

But that’s more than enough from me: as always, I yield the floor (and will not comment afterwards) to a poet who knew the horrors of war.  This is the final section of Alan Seeger’s “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France”, written in 1916.  It has been a century, Alan.  Young American volunteers still die—not for France, but for other nations the world over, for causes that (however they seem to us at our safe remove) must have seemed good to them.  May we honor their memories as you do.  May we end the wars and bring them home before next year, for their sake, and their families’.

“There, holding still, in frozen steadfastness,
Their bayonets toward the beckoning frontiers,
They lie—our comrades—lie among their peers,
Clad in the glory of fallen warriors,
Grim clustered under thorny trellises,
Dry, furthest foam upon disastrous shores,
Leaves that made last year beautiful, still strewn
Even as they fell, unchanged, beneath the changing moon;
And earth in her divine indifference
Rolls on, and many paltry things and mean
Prate to be heard and caper to be seen.
But they are silent, clam; their eloquence
Is that incomparable attitude;
No human presences their witness are,
But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued,
And showers and night winds and the northern star
Nay, even our salutations seem profane,
Opposed to their Elysian quietude;
Our salutations calling from afar,
From our ignobler plane
And undistinction of our lesser parts:
Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
Double your glory is who perished thus,
For you have died for France and vindicated us.”

Poetry Friday: May Day with Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The combination of May Day (with its many undertones of justice for the downtrodden—whether the moderate justice of the eight hour working day, which May 1 was intended to celebrate, or the more radical justice called for by socialists on this day for most of the last century and all of this present one) with the events in Baltimore (which, thankfully, are tending toward justice, now that we know that there will be serious judicial inquiry into the death of Freddie Gray) make it impossible not to post a poem.  Whether you like it or not, folks, it’s going to be a return to a poem I posted many years ago (with only a little commentary on my part and a response from one of you)—a return to the power and the uninimidated force of thought that was the incomparable Claude McKay, one of the most beautifully and unapologetically honest of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and he’s coming right at you (and me) with “If We Must Die”, which was written in 1919 and published in the also great James Weldon Johnson‘s anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1922.  Here it is:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

McKay pulls no punches in this sonnet, nor should he have to.  The injustices he addresses, while diminished meaningfully by the hard-won victories of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, are with us still—no fair reading of the treatment of minorities in our nation’s major cities can deny that completely (however much some may want to argue about how and to whom blame is to be apportioned).  McKay bolts out of the gate like a thoroughbred—“if we must die” is a brutal attention-getter, and to have the iambic bounce us right from that thought into “let it not be like hogs” is both genius and horrifying.  In the universe envisioned by McKay, death is inevitable, and unless we are careful, it will be an ignominious and panicked death, the death of beasts who have been cornered for the slaughter.  So, he commands, we must choose instead to go down swinging—not in some hip, casual, Tom Petty sense, but in the blood-and-bone sense of a man who knows the grave is in front of him and refuses to be the only one battered at day’s end.

This is unlike many of the sonnets I’ve spotlighted—McKay executes no unexpected turn at the end of the octet, no surprising connection blazing out of a final couplet.  The theme and the tone are sustained throughout.  He is too angry for artifice here—or rather I should say that he limits the sonnet’s grip on him to the mere boundaries of the form.  Inside it, rather than the artful musings and playful rhetoric of a poet in love with words, we see instead the passion of a wounded heart and the determination that words will mean something real.

It may seem odd that I, a literary blogger who doesn’t drift into politics all that often, should offer up McKay and this particular poem of his today.  It might also seem unsettling (even unpleasant) to some of you that I’ve shared a poem that pretty explicitly calls for violence and death—this might even surprise those of you who remember how sensitively and positively I’ve explored pacifism in a beautiful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  To all of you, I’ll just say this: poetry addresses every aspect of our human condition.  It must speak to our anger as much as to our love; to our moments of violence as much as to our moments of mercy.  In sharing Millay or McKay with you, in neither case am I asking for unquestioning acceptance of what they say—to the contrary, I think poetry is valuable in part because it usually demands that we question what we’re reading.  What I do ask for, though, is that we consistently ask those questions—that we don’t shut out McKay but instead try to hear what he might be saying, and what kind of lived experience might bring him to this sonnet.  That we extend the same courtesy to Millay, and to Frost and Whitman and all the other poets who come our way over the years.

Today, though, let’s concentrate especially on McKay.  Let’s ask ourselves how much violence black Americans a century ago lived through to give this particular black man—an artist and (so far as I know) a man who never in his life struck another man in anger—this poem and these deeply felt passions.  Let’s ask ourselves what about our nation might still inspire that kind of passion: even as we deplore the use of violence by citizens in the streets, we must ask ourselves what kinds of violence (physical and otherwise) exerted by the institutions and authorities in this country might provoke such a response.  I personally want no one to die in the street as McKay envisions, but that desire demands of me not merely that I ask the riots to end, but that I reach behind my nation’s facade of equality and opportunity to wrestle to the ground also that side of America that oppresses the lives of the least fortunate so forcefully that a riot can seem to them like the only way out.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2015

As is my custom on two or three Christian holidays in the year, I share today a poem that I think has particular resonance for me in the context of an important day to my faith tradition.  I have tried, as usual, to select a poem that I think will speak to people from other traditions, or having no particular connection to faith at all—in fact, this Good Friday, my poem is not particularly Christian at all.  And in talking about it, I’ll try to say some things that I think might resonate with anyone, in addition to things that may make sense only to other people in my broadly-defined community of faith (and probably one or more things that make sense only to me).  For today’s poem, I’ve picked the work of a very well-regarded poet from the Pacific Northwest (my neck of the woods)—Tess Gallagher—specifically a short poem she wrote entitled “Wake”:

“Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.”

Gallagher’s poem is clearly referencing, on one level, the death of her husband, the famous author of short stories, Raymond Carver.  But I think the emphasis on three-ness, especially the three days dead, are adding an intentional layer of Christ imagery that I’ll talk about later on, which may explain why something about this poem catches hold of me today in particular.

There’s a loveliness to this poem on so many levels, despite the deeply sad setting and what I think are obviously very raw emotions for Gallagher even as she looks back at these days from a distance.  One of the things that draws me in is the ambiguity of the language: are the three nights “in the chill of the body” a reference to Carver’s three days lying in state?  Or is it Gallagher whose days are caught in the “chill” of this cold form, incapable of tearing herself away?  Is her proving she’s been “left behind” a reference to her keeping his body in the house, or is her climbing into bed a strangely inverted way of proving this, creating the most intimate of moments in order to prove to herself that intimacy has been lost?  Even the poem’s title is a cipher: a prosaic reference to this as a kind of “wake” like that practiced in many communities (often Catholic families, I think?), a shouted admonition to herself to snap out of the dark reverie she is in, a hopeless plea to her lost love to turn this eternal sleep into something more human and temporary?  The way we take these little moments certainly affects the way the poem delivers its message—and in some ways alters the message itself entirely.

For the non-religious—and for those people of faith whose beliefs about the world do not encompass the idea of a personal afterlife or resurrection—it seems to me the poem is mainly intended.  It offers a vision of death that is, however remote and in some ways unsettling, more a traveler’s passage than a snuffing-out, yet without giving in to any impulse to describe where the passage takes us or what that means.  Carver, lying there dead, can still for a time inhabit his house and his marriage-bed, cold but still bodily present.  Gallagher feels her life drawn out of her into something spare and far away—the icy beauty of that field of frost, and her voice going out via his body into some vast, echoing space.  But that drawing out is not terrifying to her: in a way, it comforts her, as she and Carver go those first few steps into death together.  Somehow grieving and dying become one in that placid image of them afloat and at peace, like lilies in a springtime pond, like cosmic bodies gently adrift in the universe.  The world sinks beneath them and yet simultaneously bears them up.  It is abandoned but not empty.  It is a strange place to which Carver no longer need accommodate himself, and to which Gallagher will return changed, once she rises from that cold embrace.  There are only a few non-religious or areligious poems that give me a sense of death’s inhuman loveliness, and this is one of them (Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” is another).  I hope that, whatever it means to you, it provides you with a sense of comfort about that ultimate frontier to which all of us are borne.

Today, of course, for someone identifying as a Christian (as I do), contemplation of death is particularly important.  What it means to die, and what it might have meant for someone undying to, inexplicably, die.  What it means if death is no longer an end, but instead the opening of a doorway into some other place.  To me, there is more comfort in the poem than Gallagher herself may see or have intended.  She forces herself to recognize the death of a loved one by staying with him far past what a medical professional would deem “the end”.  She responds to death with love, and does not even deny the physical connection between her and her absent husband, wrapping her arms around him one last time.  I think of the cold form of a broken man being carried down from the hill of execution.  Based on the accounts we have, we think most of his friends were gone, but that some few still remained.  His mother was there.  Did they hold him close, any of them?  Did Mary wrap her arms around her dead son and wonder why the angel had lied to her, promised her a triumphant redeemer and yet delivered only a man condemned by his own people to die in ignominy?  Did John, the disciple he loved, wonder where love could go when the loved one passed into death’s arms?  When the enigmatic Joseph of Arimathea lifted the body to place him in a rich man’s tomb, did he remove his fine robes and rings first, to better feel the chill of a fallen Messiah’s stopped blood just once before rolling a stone between them?  I wonder.  Surely they felt, in their own ways, a grief as deep and profound as Gallagher’s.  That night, after lighting the Sabbath candles, I wonder if any of them lay quietly in bed, arms out and face upwards, envisioning themselves adrift and calm on death’s waves with the cold form of Jesus nearby.  I hope they did.

For resurrection to mean anything to a church founded on it, we have to confront death, I think.  Certainly, for me, if I don’t really engage with what it was like that Good Friday evening, that Holy Saturday morning and all that long afternoon, Easter morning feels superficial, excessively cheery.  Whatever it means to rise again, first we must fall into that cold, dark place, in order to feel the rising.  I am glad for poems like Gallagher’s that remind me how to look with both eyes at death and not rush past it into whatever comfort the ideas of new life and Heaven bring.  Christianity is often tarred with the brush of being too glib about death, too quick to see “oh, but Heaven will be wonderful” as an excuse for all Earth’s sorrows.  I think there can be truth in that, and I want to avoid it for myself, if I can: I am grateful to Gallagher, and all the other writers who have walked right up to the edge of death and peered into it, for helping me see humanity and mortality with clear eyes and a serious heart.

Poetry Friday: Olav Hauge

I’ve been investing time in my Pulitzer novel this week—remember that? Upton Sinclair and Dragon’s Teeth? well, if you don’t, never mind that; the blog’s leitmotif will return soon, is all you need know at present—and so this will be brief.  In keeping with that brevity, I turn to one of the best modern poets at getting something alive and enticing into a short verse, Norway’s Olav Hauge.  Here is his “Don’t Give Me the Whole Truth,” which appeared in a collection by that name in 1985:

“Don’t give me the whole truth,
don’t give me the sea for my thirst,
don’t give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.”

Hauge takes a strange tack in this poem, and one that, for that reason, intrigues and draws me in.  Unlike plenty of poems that are desperate for truth, Hauge—a little world-wearier, perhaps, a little wiser—asks for something short of revelation.  He just needs satisfaction, not excess; happiness, not ecstasy.  Not the ocean, but that grain of wind-borne salt.  Not a fortune, but the unexpected coin.  Not a forest, but the shade of a single slender tree.  Like a prayer, he offers it to us, like a whispered hope.  Do not ask for the whole world; just that corner of it where you can find a roof and a bed, a smile to return to and a simple meal on the table.  As winter gives way to spring, it sounds about right to me.

Poem for Ash Wednesday: Denise Levertov

As is my custom on these Christian holidays of significance to me (and others), I try to find a poem to share and reflect on that will resonate in some particular way with folks who share at least some of my beliefs, but that will also speak to people of other faiths, or no faith.  I don’t know if I always succeed, but I always find the trying worth the effort for me, at least.  I hope it works for you, as well.  Today is Ash Wednesday, a day for reflecting on a lot of things: the frailty of being human, and its weakness.  Human resolve, that somehow will push back against these things in search of some more significant destiny.  Our need, both collective and individual, for mercy, for kindness, for forgiveness and grace, if these terms are not too loaded with theology to speak to us all in our simple humanity.  One of the poets who speaks to all these things most successfully for me is Denise Levertov, who I found this morning I had not gone to in almost three years for the blog—today I’ll rectify that, observing Ash Wednesday (or “Wednesday”, for those of you who don’t care a fig for all this Lent business) with a poem called “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velasquez)”, from her collection The Stream & the Sapphire.  Since it is based, as the title suggests, on a work of art, I’ll share that image next to it here so that you can consider it as you consider the poem:

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
was his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

I won’t delve into the history of the painting, which you can read about on Wikipedia and other places, too, I’m sure.  Levertov clearly isn’t concerned with Velasquez, great as he is, but instead with what the painting allows us to glimpse.  The image and story come from the Gospel of Luke’s 24th chapter, although the story may also appear (without a lot of identifying detail) in the Gospel of Mark.  The basics are quite simple—after the death of Jesus and the discovery that his tomb was empty, two of his disciples (one gets a name, but it never appears again in the New Testament; the other remains anonymous to us) are walking down the road to a small town called Emmaus talking about all that’s happened.  They meet a stranger on the road who apparently doesn’t know about any of these events, and they fill him in.  He then suggests that all of this is in accord with prophecies from the Tanakh (or Old Testament), and amazes them with his deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures.  They talk a long time on the road, and then they invite him to dinner once Emmaus is reached: at some point during the meal (maybe the beginning, maybe not; scholars disagree on how to interpret certain phrases) they suddenly recognize the stranger as a resurrected Jesus, whereupon he vanishes.

It’s a pretty good story, truth be told, even if for you that’s all it is—some fiction about people who either never lived, or who, if they did, didn’t have this literal experience.  The two travelers, sorrowful but also perplexed.  One of them has a name that we don’t recognize; the other is nameless.  A third person joins them and, despite seeming to be unfamiliar with the details of their lived experiences, amazes them by putting together ideas and events they already knew about in a way that fascinates and intrigues them.  They react with gratitude, and are rewarded with a sudden (and shockingly brief) glimpse of a friend they thought was lost forever.  And then he was gone, again.  Into this little tale Levertov (by way of Velasquez) inserts the figure of this young black girl, who gets the drop on our two travelers—before they quite recognize the man in front of them (since, once they do, he will disappear), she sees out of the corner of her eye something that immediately clarifies all of this for her.

What’s here for all of us, I think, including people of any faith tradition (or none), is the recognition of that kind of Emmaus moment in our own lives.  We know the breathless moment when suddenly something we hadn’t looked for appears to us.  We feel in our bones what it’s like to have your lived experiences—for this girl, something in the voice or hands that calls to mind almost-forgotten memories—call you to focus on something others will overlook, and to have our rapt attention pay off with a sudden glimpse of something true and important.  I love those last three lines, the suddenness of her turn (which Velasquez only anticipates, rather than depicting) and the light falling into her eyes, and with it, knowledge.  Especially powerful, then, is Velasquez’s choice (which Levertov reinforces) of an ethnic minority, a young person, and a woman, to be the one who sees before these older men (we can’t say “white” since no native of Palestine then really fits that admittedly weird and arbitrary racial category from modern America, but of a different race than the girl, and theirs is the majority race in that part of the world).  Maybe it can serve as a reminder to all of us that Emmaus moments are not just ours to receive individually—that, to learn all we should, we need to be attentive to how other people’s experiences, especially those different from ours, especially those marginalized by our society, may open up truths for them that we need also.  Truths that we, once we possess them, will carry in our hearts forever, even from just that one brief glimpse.  I think the poem and the painting, together, hit that message home for me, and it’s one I’m grateful for no matter what Wednesday it is.

But to add just briefly for others who may share some of my faith experiences, and for whom Ash Wednesday is a special day of reflection, I’ll say that the Emmaus tale is a powerful one for Lent, I think.  I love the namelessness of the second disciple because I think that disciple is each of us, all of us—whoever he (or she) may have been on the road that day.  I love the metaphor for Lent as a road—one we walk for a long ways while pondering the stories written in the New Testament, sharing with each other insights we may have—and one that may end in a startling and meaningful glimpse of the divine during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.  And so, for that reason, all I said in the last paragraph is magnified—the important of recognizing how people not like me, especially the marginalized and the ignored in my community, may have much more to draw on when they look for the form of the one who was despised and mistreated, rejected by almost all who knew him, in the end, and put to ignominious death as a hated criminal.  They may know much more than I do about his hands and voice, may see them much more alive and at work in the community around me, and may feel the warmth of light in places that are still dark to me.  Lent is a season for listening, then, at least for me—to Levertov today, and hopefully to the voices of many other people in the 40 days (plus Sundays) between now and the ringing of the Easter bells.  Perhaps it will be for you, as well.

Poetry Friday: Casey at the Bat

It may seem that the middle of winter is a strange time to tackle a poem about the national pastime, since baseball’s season is still weeks away (pitchers and catchers have yet even to report to spring training), but if you’re someone like me—a guy who’s been a Seahawks fan so long he still has a little slip of paper tucked away in a keepsake box with Chuck Knox‘s signature on it—the thrilling and then gut-punch agonizing finish to this year’s Super Bowl instantly brought to mind Ernest Lawrence Thayer‘s classic poem about anticipation, arrogance, talent and disappointment.  You may be most familiar with it as the narration to a Disney cartoon, and indeed, there’s a side of the poem that is cartoonish.  But Martin Gardner, who wrote essays on American literature for the better part of a century, championed the poem for years as “America’s epic poem”, a verse that is titanic and powerful in what it says about who we are, and viewed especially through the lens of the emotions I went through last Sunday, I’m coming around to the notion that Gardner was right.  Without further ado, here’s the whole text of Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Thayer presents us with a mesmerizing little poem: one that, yes, has gotten quirkier as the years pass and some of the slang becomes increasingly comical (I love the narrator’s calm assertion that Flynn and Blake, Mudville’s lesser lights, are, respectively, a “hoodoo” and a “cake”).  It can seem almost like a joke, presenting us with a setup, the gradual build of tension, and then the little shock of laughter as the outcome we expect—the triumph of “mighty Casey”—is pulled out from under us.  But we don’t really laugh at Casey, do we?  He’s not a clown; he’s a tragic hero.

Or at least that’s what I’d like you to try to bring to this poem.  Walk through it with me—it has its weaknesses (Thayer was no great poet, and even he came to look disapprovingly at this piece as he aged), but I think in spite of his inexperience and the poem’s frequently silly tone, you’ll see there’s a grandeur to the poem that explains why it endures.  Let’s start with the rhythm—seven metrical feet per line, iambs—which may feel familiar if you read it out loud and really listen to the rise and fall.  It’s the same rhythm Emily Dickinson uses in most of her famous pieces—“Some keep the Sabbath going to church”, etc.—although she breaks the lines in two (four feet and three).  She almost certainly borrows the rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, from the rhythms of the hymns sung in the New England churches she would have grown up attending (however she chose to keep the Sabbath once she was grown).  There’s a stateliness to the sound: it doesn’t quite sound funny to us, aloud.  It’s tapping into something about English and the way we’re accustomed to hearing it, I think: the meter says “these are thoughts to dwell on”.  Thayer chose it well.

Then the setup: I think it’s worth noting that Casey doesn’t lose Mudville a game it has in the bag.  Mudville’s played 8 of 9 innings and is in a real bind.  They haven’t been fast enough, strong enough, precise enough.  Any baseball fan will tell you that down two heading into the ninth inning is heartbreak territory, most of the time: close enough to believe in the possibility of a win, but almost guaranteed to end with a lazy pop-up or a rage-inducing called third strike.  And then, when Cooney and Barrows make quick work of themselves, well, most fans would be packing up their peanuts and crackerjack, if not physically heading for the exits.  But then something wonderful happens.

It’s too easy to see the end of the poem as all that counts, I think, but there are these little miracles in the middle of it, and plucky Flynn and doughty little Jimmy Blake are the two gems—they give Mudville all it could have asked.  Whatever failures lay behind them when they came to the plate—and there must have been some, to inspire the foul feelings in the stands as they are announced—each of them has a moment to shine, and they seize it.  They take what could have been an ignominious loss, 4-2 finishing with a routine ground ball to short, and turn it into a shout of delight, a thrill of expectation, a dawning realization that, no matter how it ends, this will be a game we go home remembering.  Sport has that instant memory-making quality, for those who love it: the chance to know just a moment in advance you’ll have this image clear in your mind all your life, and to revel in that knowledge (as much as it terrifies you).

I love those two fellows for their contributions, but of course, this is a poem about Casey and to him our eyes must go.  After Blake’s astonishing double puts the tying run in scoring position, Thayer gets a little Old Testament in his language—the echo of the spectators goes out and makes a clamor in the natural world like something out of Isaiah or Ezekiel.  Casey is almost apocalyptic as he steps forward, and rightly so, since in the lives of those five thousand standing there, it feels at least a tiny bit like the world might end if he can’t manage to knock in the runs.  This is hyperbole.  All sporting language is, and fans know it: we are watching fiction.  But it doesn’t diminish the way those real feelings well up, unasked for, in our minds.

What makes Casey tragic, and American, to me is his unconquerable confidence.  He is the perfect image of the superstar, a vision that haunts all our society’s best and worst moments.  We prefer our leaders like this, whether quarterbacks, captains of industry, or even presidents: we like them unruffled by doubt, untroubled by the very real and slim odds they may face in a given situation.  There’s something reassuring about that confidence, even if we could never find it in ourselves (maybe especially so).  Casey is easy, light-hearted—he tips his cap as though out for a stroll through the park.  He saves his sneers for the opposing pitcher, but even then, he really is very relaxed about the encounter, at least at first.  He’s too good to swing at a less than perfect pitch, and really we sense he’s saving himself for the perfect moment, as though his legend would be diminished by a first-pitch single into right field.  He wants the 0-2 count so desperately that he might as well have laid down and watched the first two pitches go by while doing a crossword puzzle.  He steps in to save the umpire, and when the crowd erupts in anger after the second strike, it’s to them he darts a look of scorn—even they, the gang in his corner, shouting his name, praying to Heaven for one swing of his bat, they are really beneath him in that moment.  He gradually seizes control of the whole event: you’ll notice, he signals to the pitcher for the second pitch, as though it was foreordained, as though Casey is writing the script and even the opposition must play along.

What, then, do we make of a script that ends in the way it does?  There’s sudden hate and violence inside Casey as he waits for the third pitch, but who is it for?  Even though, situationally, it seems obvious it should be the enemy pitcher, it can’t really be, can it?  He’s more or less sent engraved invitations to have the pitcher throw two by him.  And who could hate Flynn or Blake, or even his other teammates who’d let him down—baseball is certainly a team sport, and without the efforts of the others, Casey could never have gotten into this position.  Despite that scornful look, I’ll go ahead and even clear the audience of the charge.  Who’s left to hate, then?  Where does the violence go?

Casey reminds me in this moment of Captain Ahab, the one-legged monomaniac who seizes Moby-Dick out of the hands of its so-called narrator, Ishmael. At one point in that novel, we are told that Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” There’s something that elemental about Casey, in that moment, and this is why the poem for me is large and intimidatingly wonderful. Casey’s anger reaches beyond the game he is playing and the moment he is responding to. This is the anger that anyone with talent and opportunity has to stare down—the realization that to be good at anything means to dare failure, and that to be great demands putting ourselves in positions where the only possible failures will be catastrophic ones. He might be angry on some level that there is such a game as baseball and that he was born to be good at it—angry at the inescapability of error and loss, because even if he launches this pitch into the next county, a day will come when he swings and misses, and it will look like all the others. Casey’s monstrous third strike has the power to haunt us because it’s not a particular failure. It’s the failure that awaits us all at least a few times in our lives. But it’s the kind of failure that can only come to us when we’ve been good enough at something to be put in that position. Cooney and Barrows, the first two outs of the inning, will not see the spectre of those outs in their sleep all their lives. No one will write “Cooney at the Bat” about his unfortunate line out to the third baseman as the leadoff batter in the 9th.  This is the kind of loss that can only come to us in a Casey moment in our lives.

I called this a tragedy, an epic poem, and it really is both of those things, because it ends in darkness and sorrow, like Priam cradling his son’s body in his arms as he returns to the gates of Troy.  That may seem like I’m putting too much stock in something that’s a game—just a game.  But it doesn’t feel that way to anyone involved, and as I’ve been suggesting above, it’s because the game allows us to confront something larger and truer about our real lives, where the strikeouts and goal-line interceptions and missed free throws won’t be quite as easy to spot, but where the prospect of victory can be as sweet, and the impact of failure just as immediate.  Thayer strikes just the right note, I think.  No failure, not even one as huge as Casey’s, which looms over the poem’s final stanza, can douse the sun, end happiness or music, halt the progression of time as it draws us forward into new challenges and prepares us for new wins and losses.  But before we move on we have to mourn, even something as silly and inconsequential as a swinging third strike.  The Mudville nine will play again—Casey will probably bat hundreds, even thousands more times in a long and successful career ahead of him.  None of that will erase that perfect afternoon, the unexpected wonder of the two-out rally, the tension tight as a piano wire as Casey prepares all for his glorious apotheosis, and then the sudden end to all.

Maybe you don’t see any of this in what seems to you an outdated and really very silly baseball poem.  I’ll acknowledge there’s a case to be made on that side of the verse.  But I expect more than a few of you know what I’m talking about.  Seahawks fans (and before them Packers fans, and Ducks fans, and Royals fans, etc.) have been hearing the usual refrains—you have to be pretty great to finish that close to the top, you have to be pretty talented to be right there with a chance to win it all, etc.  We know how all those words really feel; we know how it felt in the Mudville stands that day, standing there wearing a replica Casey jersey and watching his face fall as the umpire called out the third strike and raised his fist.  Poetry, if it is to speak to the whole of the human condition, has to go there too—to take the silliness of our immersion in a sport and capture what is also grand and noble and terribly sad about the moments sport brings.  For me, Thayer goes there with Casey, and I’m glad he did.

Poetry Friday: Miller Williams and the Sestina

I embarked on a consideration of the poetry of the Inland Northwest last time out, but, as often occurs here on Poetry Fridays, events have distracted me and taken me somewhere else this week.  I saw somewhere that Miller Williams had died.  Now, most of you might not be familiar with Miller Williams—he’s a noted but not pop-culture famous American poet of the late 20th Century, who’s probably most well-known, in all honesty, for being father to an award-winning singer/songwriter, Lucinda Williams.  His work touched many, though, and brought him high enough in the esteem of the right ears and eyes that he was asked to write and recite a poem for the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton, in 1997.  Miller was a clear-thinking and tough-speaking poet, often, and according to the Poetry Foundation’s bio of him, he always felt that the best praise he ever got was “a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’” I think that’s fair.

The reason I knew and loved Miller’s work really centered around one particular poem of his, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”. The reason for it is that, each December and January of my teaching career, I taught a mini-unit on poetry. Some of the all-time classics, some poems by friends of mine, some stuff I suspected most of the sophomores wouldn’t get and some stuff I dearly hoped most, if not all, of them would. One of the things I wanted to show them was the dazzling array of poetic forms, and the most fiendishly challenging and clockwork-clever of them is the sestina. It’s a tricky form to even understand—it abandons meter, and focuses on a small set of six words, which dance along the right margin of the poem like it’s the Virginia Reel, spinning, changing partners, always there but never in the same place. You can follow the link a couple sentences back to the Wikipedia entry explaining the exact pattern—how each of the six line stanzas uses the same six words to end each line, but how no word is ever at the end of the same line twice (that is, the word that ends the first line of the first stanza will end the second line of the second stanza and the fourth line of the third stanza, and so on for each of these six special sestina words). Now, because a sestina has to keep coming back to the same six words, most sestinas end up feeling a little silly. They can never move on from the topic at hand, and by the fourth or fifth stanza it often can feel like the poet has said all they have to say, leaving us irritated and bored. A neat device, you may think—catchy at first, but ultimately more a set of rules that prevent you from writing a decent poem than enabling you to.

But not Miller Williams. He had the genius notion that the sestina is an engine of great emotional power, structured in such a way that, in the hands of an artist and a passionate human being, can punch us in the heart and the head at just the right moment, and leave us wiser. At least that’s what I think. Because every year, no matter what else won the acclaim of each crew of sophomores, I could always count on them falling just a little bit in love with Miller Williams, and “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”:

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come—

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark—they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They’re going to
less with time.

Time
goes
too
fast.
Come
home.

Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.

That damn sixth stanza. It makes me cry every time. I don’t think I have to tell you why or how this works. It will move each of us in different ways, and show us different sides of love and of loss. I just wanted you to know it existed, and that there existed, too, a man named Miller Williams who wrote something that will live far beyond his mortal body. I bless him and these words of his.