Poetry Friday: My birthday and the Inferno

So another year has made its turn, and I come again to my birthday.  In recent years it hasn’t seemed much of a milestone—32 seems much like 33, which again is not so different from 34.  But facing 35 feels just a little different, as though I have to take age seriously now.  I don’t quite know why that is.  I joked earlier today that maybe it’s the implicit sense that I’ve lived out half of my “threescore years and ten”—the seventy year lifespan that the Psalmist (at least the author of Psalm 90) establishes as the norm for humanity.  But of course that’s silly in two senses—my demographics suggest a longer life than that (as do the long-lived ancestors I spring from), and then again no one is ever promised anything.  I’ve known too many people who never made it even this far to take any of the life ahead of me for granted.

It’s likely, I suppose, that fatherhood brings out at least some of this in me.  I see my little daughter grow and realize how much time truly is gone for me, how many leagues lie between the man I am now and the boy I was when I was her age.  And I can blame media, too—not the “mainstream media” we so often blame for our various -isms, ageism included, but a very specific collection of media usually called “the Up series“, a remarkable string of documentaries following a diverse array of Britons from the age of 7 (in “7 Up”), returning to them every 7 years for new interviews and to see how much they change or do not change.  The most recent film, out last year, I think, was “56 Up”.  Getting to know these people and then watching them age almost half a century over the course of eight films (all of which I watched for the first time over the course of the last month) has certainly brought me in touch with mortality and the part it plays in the human condition.  It’s been great, truthfully—very moving, very insightful, often inspiring and even funny.  But it also brings with it at least a tinge of melancholy, as well as spurring me to think about the passing of years in my own life.  35, as a multiple of 7, was one of their documentary years, and I find myself looking back at me at 7, 14, 21, and 28.  I wonder what I would say to a film-maker this year, and who I will be (and where, and why) in 7 more years.  It gives a person pause.

The last couple of years I’ve quoted from Dylan Thomas’s great “Poem on his Birthday“, a poem I dearly love, but it was for him at 34, and having reflected on it at 33 and at 34, I feel I am ready for the next poet-guide to take me onward a little farther into life.  Who wrote a great poem, then, about being 35?  One of the greatest poets, or so the ages have proclaimed, and so we’ll turn our attention to just the first 30 lines of his work.  That’s right, dear reader: it’s time for Dante’s Inferno.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.

But when I reached the foot of a hill,
there where the valley ended
that had pierced my heart with fear,

looking up, I saw its shoulders
arrayed in the first light of the planet
that leads men straight, no matter what their road.

Then the fear that had endured
in the lake of my heart, all the night
I spent in such distress, was calmed.

And as one who, with laboring breath,
has escaped from the deep to the shore
turns and looks back at the perilous waters,

so my mind, still in flight,
turned back to look once more upon the pass
no mortal being ever left alive.

After I rested my wearied flesh a while,
I took my way again along the desert slope,
my firm foot always lower than the other.

I’m using Robert Hollander’s translation of the Inferno, which is available online at the Princeton Dante Project, but I’ve read at least pieces of many other translators over the years; Longfellow, Ciardi, Mandelbaum, Dorothy Sayers.  They all harrow and haunt in their own ways.  In these opening lines, Dante begins where I am now—“midway in the journey of our life”, as I already alluded to in this post.  He doesn’t say “I’m 35. Holy crap.”  But we know from references in the poem that it is set in the year 1300, a year in which Dante turned 35, and that combined with the Psalms reference makes at least many critics comfortable with this as a literal statement of his age.  So I identify with him from the first, although almost immediately I’m struck by what a crisis he’s been in—a crisis that I, thankfully, can’t see in my own life right now.

Dante metaphorically (or actually—take it how you like) finds himself in the woods—not the gentle forest of sunlit groves and well-trodden paths, but the deep and shadowed forest where no path runs straight and where fear makes its home.  We know from nursery rhymes what a powerful, elemental thing the forest is to the medieval mind, a place outside of civilization and therefore beyond safety or reason.  It is a place full of threats and anxieties.  You may wander in it for many days without finding a gentle face or a shelter to call home.  Wherever Dante is sitting when he writes these words, down there at the root of his mind he is lost, his skin and clothes torn by thorns and whipped by branches, and he does not know how to get out.  Yet Dante knows that he cannot leave out this part of the story—to be able to relate to us the joy that he would later find, he must begin in this place of fear and confusion.  All our lives are just that complicated—the bad and the good come to us and if we don’t see how, in some ways, they fit together, we’ll never understand the whole tale.

Dante has this sense that his life had been on the right trajectory before, that there was a “true way”, THE true way, in fact, and yet he got drowsy and woke up here.  Getting out of the forest is job #1, of course, but he recognizes that job #2 is going to be finding that right path again.  First things first, though.  He reaches the foot of a hill and suddenly he can see the sun—yes, that “planet that leads men straight”, since unlike the other “planets” (or “wanderers”) in the sky, the sun can reliably indicate the compass directions.  And suddenly he is calm again, deep in his heart where the fear had him as choppy and unstable as a windswept lake.  There’s something really familiar about that moment, when you suddenly get perspective and the stress falls off you.  It’s not always sunlight, of course—sometimes it’s the realization that a critical date on the calendar has passed, or the arrival of a friendly face at your door just when you needed it.  Something gets through to us and gives us perspective on the things that were about to swallow us up, and suddenly we see how small they are, how easily navigated around.

Dante tells us he felt like someone who had barely made it back to shore without drowning; he looks around himself in disbelief that somehow the darkness didn’t get him.  He’s worn out, though, exhausted by all this striving.  He’s willing to work up the slope now, and see what’s on the other side, but he does it by inches: he plants his foot and reaches up the slope tenderly with the other, testing the stability of the footing.  Once he gets his planted foot up and firm under him, up his other foot goes again.  This is a man barely ready for the second half of his life, and yet also a survivor, someone you can see will not be counted out until the last punch is thrown.  He may be reserving his strength, and cautious about the terrain, but he’s also not going to try and make it home without seeing over the top of this ridge in front of him.

It’s been nice for me to think about this Dante—not just the man who will quickly become a chronicler of the damned, a man we can reduce (if we are not careful) into being a mere transcriber of allegory, a hollow shell through which we perceive the sin and judgment of others.  It’s this Dante who will embark on that journey, a man who has faced the most terrifying places inside himself and come out on the other side.  Having learned that there is a light shining beyond all those shadows, and having learned some caution with his feet (they led him astray when he was drowsy, but now they’re firm underneath him), he’s the kind of man who’s ready to face the worst truths about humanity, including his own society.  You can see what Virgil is about to see in him.  I like thinking about 35 in this way—an age where experience may have beat out innocence, but where Dante and I are still young enough to learn and to seek out opportunities to be taught.  Dante’s path is a wondrous one; mine, perhaps a bit more mundane.  But we both have faced down forests in our time, and we both know what it feels like to be in desperate need of a little rest and recovery.

As I said, it’s not that I identify with this opening to the Inferno right now in my life, necessarily.  But a variety of things have put the Inferno on my mind, and I see that I can gain a lot from pondering them.  Much of life is not epic or cosmic in the sense of the journey Dante is about to take.  Most of life is that interplay of shadow and light, of effort and rest, that Dante has felt inside himself and knows is where the story must begin.  I hope I have my own stories to embark on this weekend, or if not now, then soon enough.  Dante was cautiously ready for an adventure, and I think I am too.

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Poetry Friday: Another birthday

It’s come to that time again on Poetry Friday—34 years ago today I was on my way (and disrupting any wedding anniversary plans my parents may have had), and 34 years ago tomorrow I was born.  It’s an especially thought-provoking birthday since it’s my last before a new birthday is added to the list for my family—my wife and I are counting down the last few weeks to my daughter’s arrival—and so I’m mulling over all sorts of things.  The passage of time, of course, and what it means to be born and to grow old, what it means to become who we become and what we lose and gain along the way.  Last year, I quoted from Dylan Thomas‘s incomparable “Poem On My Birthday”, and while my inclination was to turn elsewhere this year, I just can’t do it.  The Welsh Whitman’s effect on me is hypnotic at times, and this poem—the last he published before his untimely death—is almost impossibly rich and dense and intoxicating, and is, to boot, a poem he wrote facing a birthday in his mid-thirties.  I hope I have a lot more years ahead of me than Dylan did when he wrote this, but his words always remind me to savor the days, regardless.  So, with minor apologies (as this is the first poem “revisit” in over four years of Poetry Fridays), I turn to a passage from Dylan Thomas’s birthday poem—a slightly different one than last time—and will reflect on it below.

“Oh, let me midlife mourn by the shrined
And druid herons’ vows
The voyage to ruin I must run,
Dawn ships clouted aground,
Yet, though I cry with tumbledown tongue,
Count my blessings aloud:

Four elements and five
Senses, and man a spirit in love
Tangling through this spun slime
To his nimbus bell cool kingdom come
And the lost, moonshine domes,
And the sea that hides his secret selves
Deep in its black, base bones,
Lulling of spheres in the seashell flesh,
And this last blessing most,

That the closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
The louder the sun blooms
And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;
And every wave of the way
And gale I tackle, the whole world then,
With more triumphant faith
That ever was since the world was said,
Spins its morning of praise,

I hear the bouncing hills
Grow larked and greener at berry brown
Fall and the dew larks sing
Taller this thunderclap spring, and how
More spanned with angels ride
The mansouled fiery islands!”

The only way to really appreciate Thomas is to read him aloud or to hear him read aloud.  Maybe two or three poets, at most, have ever loved the sounds of words as much as he loved them, or treated them with such passion.  Read these lines above again, aloud, if you can.  Let your self-consciousness go and really dig into the sound patterns, the alliteration, the vowels that echo.  It’s worth it.

This is a strange passage for me to ponder, I suppose, just as it was strange for him to write—a huge piece of a birthday poem devoted to mourning.  But Thomas is keenly aware of what will linger and what will not, and he confronts it.  He imbues the world around him with meaning—the herons standing like silent priests of a religion remote from him, the secret name of the sea lost, deep beneath the waves that are framed to hide itself from us—and addresses this powerfully symbolic earth.  He laments what becomes of us as we age, this “voyage to ruin” that we cannot check or reverse, but as he does so, he blesses this same life.  And it floods over him: the beauty of a world made of earth and water, fire and air.  The beauty of fragile human bodies, the curves of the moon as it waxes and wanes, and then the last blessing, the one that still startles me with joy.  That the same step that takes me, one by one, closer to my last day is a step closer into knowing the greatness of living—the sun whose light grows sweeter and the gale whose wind tusks and ramshackles the ocean waves.  Life gives more than it takes: or if not, it should, and where we can find the way to believe it, we ought to.

As always, I am wordless by the end.  What a mansouled fiery island is, I cannot tell, but I see them in my dreams.  Maybe those are the lands where Elijah‘s chariot was built.  What a dew lark is, and why its songs would grow taller in the thunderclap spring, I have no way of knowing, and yet as I read I feel I know exactly what he means.  It’s like looking into Plato’s world of forms—the perfect images of things we can only see partially here on earth, all of our surroundings shades and echoes of some more intense and glory-filled plane.  I am light-headed, almost transported, when I read his best work, this poem in particular.  And that’s not figurative language: I literally feel as giddy as when I’ve had more than one beer (I know, what a scandalous fellow I am), the sensation is that physically real.

Every time I write about Thomas, part of me senses I’m writing just for me.  He never starts much dialogue in the comments, or provokes much reaction.  I think that, for many of you, what attracts me about him is what you find too obscure, too strange, too difficult to make sense of.  And I can respect that—maybe Dylan and I are kidding ourselves.  Maybe his work is less visionary and insightful than I credit it with being.  All I can say is how it moves me, how it grabs me by the throat and drags words out of me, or shouts of joy as I read, or tears.  If once a year I pick a poem just for me, not because I think it will appeal to others, necessarily, or because it comments on something worthwhile, or adds insight to the Pulitzer novel, I’m glad it’s him, and this time of year is as good a time as any to do that.  Next week we’ll be back to something a little more accessible, I promise; and for those who got something good out of Thomas today, I’m glad, and I hope what we both see in him is as real as it feels.

Poetry Friday: On the occasion of my birthday, I turn to Dylan Thomas…

That’s right, for the first time in the blog’s history, Poetry Friday falls on my birthday, and I thought it was high time I posted a birthday poem.  At first, I wanted to find a birthday poem about a poet turning 33, since that’s my number this year, but the only suitable candidate was by one of those whiny Romantic poets who seemed to be especially melancholy about hitting the big three-three (I kid, George, I kid—you’re not whiny, you’re….er, complicated? I’m sure that’s what they told you at the time).  So I decided to share with you tonight an excerpt from a lovely poem by the Welsh Whitman (that’s a nickname for Dylan Thomas I’ve just invented—tell your friends) called “Poem On His Birthday”, in the hopes that, although Dylan was celebrating “his driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age“, I’m close enough to that mark that I can take his words for my own use.  If you’re a big Thomas fan and have the time for a slightly longer poem, go read the whole thing, which is gorgeous.  I try to aim at a much shorter length here for PF features, figuring that you only have so much time on a Friday night (and some folk only want to work through a Dylan Thomas piece for so long), so here’s one excerpt from the middle of his birthday poem to himself that I was particularly struck by:

And freely he goes lost
In the unknown, famous light of great
And fabulous, dear God.
Dark is a way and light is a place,
Heaven that never was
Nor will be ever is always true,
And, in that brambled void,
Plenty as blackberries in the woods
The dead grow for His joy.

There he might wander bare
With the spirits of the horseshoe bay
Or the stars’ seashore dead,
Marrow of eagles, the roots of whales
And wishbones of wild geese,
With blessed, unborn God and His Ghost,
And every soul His priest,
Gulled and chanter in young Heaven’s fold
Be at cloud quaking peace,

But dark is a long way.
He, on the earth of the night, alone
With all the living, prays,
Who knows the rocketing wind will blow
The bones out of the hills,
And the scythed boulders bleed, and the last
Rage shattered waters kick
Masts and fishes to the still quick starts,
Faithlessly unto Him

Who is the light of old
And air shaped Heaven where souls grow wild
As horses in the foam:
Oh, let me midlife mourn by the shrined
And druid herons’ vows
The voyage to ruin I must run,
Dawn ships clouted aground,
Yet, though I cry with tumbledown tongue,
Count my blessings aloud:

When I read this poem, I feel like Caliban in the Tempest—clouds open and shower forth riches in a dream I hope will never end.  We are traveling into the inner space of the mind and heart as words combine in dazzling images that cannot exist (but do, dear Dylan, in that impossible imagination you help us discover).  I cannot tell you what it means that the dead grow for His joy like blackberries in the woods, except to say that Dylan Thomas, that rascally old alcoholic, is a man profoundly touched by hope.  I cannot tell you what it means to walk the long way of the dark, accompanied only by the stars’ seashore dead and the chanters of Heaven’s fold and the roots of whales, except to say that Dylan Thomas, the most boorish and overbearing guest at every party he ever attended, is the poet who writes the songs we sing on that dark path, and he believes those songs will lift us out of it again on the other side (in that unknown country).  The man was a study in contradictions (I call him the Welsh Whitman for a reason), but what he drags out of me is this deep sense of belonging on the earth—a powerful feeling of kinship with living things and dead things, with the tiny animals of the deep waters and with the most distant stars.  In Dylan’s verse, when I am able to immerse myself in it, I find my way to such astonishing gratitude that all I can do is cry out with him, my brother of the tumbledown tongue, and thank God for a world and a human voice and the idea of poetry.

This is all unhelpful as an analysis of a poem.  But on my birthday, like Dylan, I feel just a little liberty to be obscure, to be glad and to make merry—a liberty I maybe feel more often than is strictly proper, but one I have decided to indulge in today anyway.  If what you saw here touched you, go follow that link to the whole poem.  The list of blessings that follows this excerpt is daring and strange and exactly true.  And if Dylan doesn’t move you, I hope that somewhere in your weekend you will find joy, whether in word or image, whether in thought or act, and that you come back again for another good dose of poetry next Friday.  Until then, may you go lost in the unknown, famous light.