Poetry Friday: Depression

I promise, this isn’t going to be a full blog post about a celebrity death you’ve probably read and seen enough about already this week, no matter whether you were grieving or indifferent to the news.  But Robin Williams filled the news feed on my social media platter, and probably yours too; and in the wake of the news of his suicide came an echoing rush of posts about depression, suicide prevention, and people generally reaching their hands out into the void to reassure whoever was listening that they were not alone, that someone cares and is ready to help them.  It certainly put those topics on my mind—my own experiences with depression and those of people I love, and what I’ve heard and read from people who went to the brink of suicide, even attempted it, and what that experience felt like.  So today, even though I’ve put aside WWI for now, it won’t really be a sunshine-and-puppies poem.  But it will, I assure you, be a good poem.

You see, I had a long L ride today to the doctor’s office—the cold that knocked me out last Friday (hence no PF post a week ago: my apologies) hung around this week until I had to see if I had strep or something—and I took along for the ride a book I haven’t read in many years.  It’s a title I picked off the remainder table in the basement of Village Books in Fairhaven, probably in about 2002, and it was my introduction to one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner.  Buechner is one of the nation’s greatest memoirists and essayists, in addition to a very fine novelist, but I haven’t had much call to mention him here.  He wrote (as far as I know) no poetry, and his greatest novel, Godric, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize but failed to win (losing to A Confederacy of Dunces, which, when I get there, had better be amazing, because Godric is one of the most moving and wise books I’ve ever read), so I have no real way to mention him here, except by horning him in to this post right now, which I hope you will forgive. In any case, I picked up Buechner’s Speak What We Feel; Not What We Ought To Say, in which he explores, sensitively and with the care of a man who loves words with a passion only exceeded by how much he loves those who write the words, four authors who wrote their way through some of the darkest feelings in their lives.  And the four authors he chooses are incomparably talented: G. K. Chesterton (featured on Poetry Friday only a couple of weeks ago), Mark Twain (who needs no introduction), William Shakespeare (ditto), and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hopkins is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps my favorite poet ever, but I haven’t brought him in here very often—only twice, in fact, in five years of Poetry Fridays (can you believe it’s been five years?).  In part that’s because he’s not American and we are America-obsessed here at FP, perhaps too much so.  And in part that’s because so much of his work deals with faith and the divine, and while that speaks to me I know it doesn’t to many of you, and I haven’t wanted to push that between us too much since the purpose of these posts is really just to make you love poetry and think about it more often.  But I’m going to risk it today, because I think the despair Hopkins wrestled with near the end of his life is universal enough to reach us all, and even when he is expressing himself in terms of his Catholic faith I think he says things that can mean something to anyone, and move them, if they listen.  So today we take on one of the “terrible sonnets”, named not because they are poorly written, but because they were birthed amid terror, and there is something terrible and awe-inspiring about how raw and real Hopkins is as he opens up his soul to our eyes.  None of them were ever given titles, and I think in some ways it’s because Hopkins was reluctant to give any name to poems, however brief, that spoke such real and fearful truths.  This is, then, just a sonnet written in the mid-1880s by a middle-aged Catholic priest who, unknown to him, is only a few years away from dying of typhoid fever:

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

Hopkins has his old demon by the throat, here—too close to be at ease but also strangely in command of himself.  Despair, he says, I’m not going to give in to you, not swallow you down like spoiled meat, dead flesh that will rot inside me.  I love the repetition of “not” in that first line, three times as though he’s having to shout back an advancing beast, and then even a fourth time to begin the next line as he holds depression at bay.  He pushes back against the suicidal impulse to “untwist…these last strands of man”, even referencing a Shakespearean figure by saying he’ll not “cry I can no more” which was the last line of Mark Antony before he commits suicide in Antony and Cleopatra.  Hopkins can, he tells despair, but he can do what?

Something, he says, knowing that it’s a near thing here, depression will have him if he can’t stay on his feet, stay agile and avoid the shadows; something, he says, like hope, or wish that dawn would break, or even (here comes that NOT like a swordpoint again) not choose not to be, as though he can turn the “no, not, never” voice of depression in his head, the voice that tells him to give up and give in, somehow against itself, that negativity suddenly negative about the notion of suicide.  He is grasping at straws, we know, but we are in his corner, aren’t we, cheering him on because we can see what he sees—that he has the fight in him and despair is starting to show its weak points, the soft hollow in its underbelly where, like Smaug the Magnificent, a keen-eyed blow might bring the monster down.

And then Hopkins wheels, shouting to the heavens now at “thou terrible” because it is God, really, who angers him, God who seems to have bet the house on Despair just when Hopkins thought he stood a chance.  Why, he implores to Heaven, would a God who made the Earth his footstool hold a man down when he’s at his lowest, why would the famed “Lion of Judah” slash out with a fierce paw, why do his bones creak and crack as though they are being prepared for a butcher to tear them open and why does the cold wind turn and toss him, fling him from his feet when he would be most ready to run away?  Hopkins, a devout man who had profoundly disappointed his family with his conversion to the Catholic Church and his choice of the priesthood, a poet who once burned all the verse he had (up to that point) written because he worried his pride in writing took too much of his attention from God, is saying some of the most awful and true things he can think of about someone he once (in an earlier poem) called his “first, last, friend”.  He has been in the den of a predator, deep in the darkness, for who knows how long, and he knows the pad of depression’s clawed feet and the stink of its breath, fresh from some other kill.  How, he asks, can he have been so abandoned?

And then the poem turns, even as we wonder how it possibly can, as we ask ourselves what words could come out of that tempest to give Hopkins a fair answer.  He looks at his life and sees that the winds have blown clear from him the things that do not matter and never did (this “chaff”), leaving him in possession of the only things he would have wanted to keep.  Something turned for him, we realize—out of all that crying into the wind, all those accusations levied against the monstrous figure of a silent and uncaring God, his hand found another hand in the darkness.  It was a kingly hand, to be sure—a hand to be kissed, holding a scepter to be kissed as well—but it moved something in him.  His heart began to take strength like an animal drinking from a calm pool, and from some unknown storehouse he came away bearing joy with him like a thief, because it can feel that way to find joy after the despair lifts, as though all the happinesses in your life couldn’t possibly have been earned, couldn’t be yours by right, and yet they are there and real and cheerful.

But this is no easy poem, no Precious Moments depiction of depression and Hopkins’ anger at God.  Because even as the cheer lifts from his throat, he asks himself who he is cheering for.  Is it this strangely doubled divine figure, the heroic hand that both saved him and flung him into the storm?  Or is it Hopkins himself, the man who in anger addressed the terrors he knew, despair and divinity both, and called them to account?  He wonders if somehow it can be both of them (or if not, which one it could possibly be).  He looks back now—and it is back, although we may not have understood it until this very moment—into a year of “now done darkness”, a fight he somehow survived, perhaps even won, and recognizes that in grappling with despair he wrestled also with God, as though he were some Old Testament patriarch.  And it shocks him (“my God!”) even as he affirms that it simply was the case (“my God.”)  And there the poet ends.

I think it’s one of the more convincing portrayals of depression I’ve read—it rings true for me, anyway.  Despair doesn’t lend itself to neat and tidy outcomes, to the “happily ever after” we seek in fairy tales or to the guns-blazing take-out-the-big-bad-guy finish of a big action film.  Coming out on the other side is always a struggle, and it leaves its mark—in the case of Hopkins, leaves him still fencing with Despair after the year of darkness ends, leaves him angry with God (while acknowledging God’s critical role in his escape), leaves him uncertain even how he feels about all that’s transpired and whether he should be thrilled by this tough, loud, litigious voice he hears himself flinging back at Heaven.  It’s also, I should note, a very convincing portrayal of what faith feels like to those of us inside it—not the cheesy, saccharine anecdotes of some twinkly-eyed minister who claims faith is all about happiness and the easy life (I’m sorry, Joel Osteen, but if you know anything about faith, it sure doesn’t come out anytime you’re on television), but the real battle of contending with an often cruel universe and a God who is certainly not present at all times and in all ways exactly as we would expect God to be.  Hopkins’ ambivalence—both about God’s role in his depression and his reclaiming his joy, and more generally about whether or not he sees himself or God as the hero of the piece—is what people who work at faith really experience.  He joins a long list of criers into the darkness and the storm, from Job of Uz to Elijah to a Nazarene carpenter and itinerant preacher who cried famously (and desperately) into the darkness from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I know this won’t all work for all of you.  Some of you—and I’m thankful for this—don’t know what it’s like to stare down Depression….not “depression” with a little d, which hits anybody who feels a bit down now and then, but Depression the serious, long-term, often crippling psychological condition.  And others of you don’t know what to make of my occasional words about faith, either because you use that word to mean something very different, or you really don’t use it for much at all because it doesn’t mean much to you.  I appreciate your reading this far anyway, and listening to Hopkins (and me) ramble on a little about these things that have made us who we became.  And for those of you who know one or both of these topics up close and personal, I hope something resonates here, whether it’s a sense of kinship with an experience you recognize, or else perhaps a sudden insight into a side of the experience that you hadn’t considered before.  What means most to me about the terrible sonnets, and this one in particular, is that, bleak as they are (another is, I think, much worse than this one, as it’s written before the despair had yet lifted), they helped me see a path out, and understand how to walk it.  I discovered Hopkins before Depression found me, and reading him was one of my ways through my year-plus of “now done darkness”.  He and I had different experiences in many ways, of course, and expressed it differently, but it was good to have him as a fellow on the journey.  I hope Robin Williams had someone like Hopkins for his 63 years, as I expect Depression was an old foe of his and not a recent discovery—I hope you, too, if you face the same enemy, have some good friends at your side.  And if you feel you don’t, I hope you know to reach out for hands beside you in the dark, or to call into that wind that seems to blow only in opposition to you: whether it’s me or someone else, I know there’s someone who could take your hand, or call back through the storm, and though that doesn’t complete your journey out it’s the only way I know of to get started.

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Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2013

Apologies to regular visitors to the blog, which has lain fallow much of March.  I find these brief unplanned breaks from blogging are good for me, but I’ve missed sharing reflections and poetry (and hopefully at least a few of you have missed it too).  I return, though, because Good Friday is one of my favorite (and most challenging) annual traditions—tackling an explicitly Christian poem in a way that tries to make it accessible or meaningful on some level to people of all faith traditions and levels of interest in spirituality.  I’ve gone with more modern poets on recent Good Fridays, but this year I feel like reaching back a little to one of my all-time favorite poets, a writer so devout that he nearly gave up his gift for God’s sake and it’s only by happy chance that much of his work survived to be shared and read.  The whole story of Gerard Manley Hopkins is a fascinating one, but one I won’t belabor now.  For this solemn holiday (for me, at least), I just want to settle into the poem right away, and see what thoughts I have that may resonate with any of you.  This is “As kingfishers catch fire”, written in 1882 but not published until 1918, well after Hopkins’ death:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Another sonnet, of course, and a carefully crafted one: Hopkins begins with a world on the edge of something inexplicable and almost explosive, with a nimbus of flames wreathed around these tense, alive bodies and even the inanimate stones seeming to jostle actively.  This is the kind of theme he likes—he explores in a couple of his more famous poems, “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover“, the idea that just beneath or hidden among the physical world is this bright, fiery reality we can see if we attend to it—and his care with sounds is remarkable.  Hopkins’ best poems are, for me, better aloud than almost anyone else’s (except maybe Dylan Thomas, but this is no accident: the Welsh Whitman was definitely influenced by Hopkins’ style), and here the patterns are incredibly well crafted.  The kingfishers and dragonflies hide inside themselves the bursting “f” sounds that immediately catch “fire” or “flame”, the alliteration acting almost like sparks flying out from the hidden insides of these creatures and kindling Hopkins’ imagination.  The sequence of “r” and “o/ow” sounds in “over rim in roundy wells stones ring” rattling and echoing like real stones clattering down the sides of a deep well.  In the music of these sounds, Hopkins builds a world in the first half/octet of the sonnet, and one that expresses a simple and essentially secular message: the earth, he says, is full of things, all of which are at their best and almost startlingly alive when we let them be themselves.  There isn’t a division here between spirit and body so much as an important fusion, where those deep truths held inside everything, animate and inanimate, are meant to be expressed somehow.  Hopkins isn’t writing us a prescription here, of course, so much of this is shrouded a little by the poetic language—what does it mean that the birds and insects are catching fire in the opening line?  Is the bell singing out its “name” really a “mortal thing”?  He pushes past this, though, to conclude the octet with another characteristic flourish, verbing a noun in an unusual and thought-provoking way: in this case, the word “self” becomes a verb, “to selve”, to speak and spell what and who we are because this is what we were meant to do.  There’s something lovely and old-fashioned in the idea, and if the poem ended there that’s not a bad stretch to have walked: again, I think this isn’t particularly religious of him, and I feel like a lot of folks can identify with something there—the call to discover who we truly are and live that out unashamedly, as secure and confident in being us as a bird or stone or bell is in being and doing what it is.

The Christian turn, then, and the added layer I want to ponder on Good Friday, is the sestet, the final lines that make a sonnet a sonnet by upsetting the coziness of the poem’s opening 8 lines and showing us the man behind the curtain.  In this case, that “man behind the curtain” is almost a literal one: Hopkins is almost artless, plain-spoken, in urging us onward with that child-like statement “I say more”, as though we were about to turn away from him with his thought only half-completed.  It’s not enough to be human and to “selve” out that humanity.  We dig deep and find these extraordinary qualities within us that go beyond mere humanity—the thirst for justice that makes us “verb” it into the world (“the just man justices” — what does it mean to us to justice? What can or should we justice today?), the way that the grace we feel in our life can become a force that sustains all our journeys in the world.  They too go out of us into the wide earth.  And, here the explicit theological idea underpinning all of this, ultimately Hopkins sees us as people who have put on the form of God, who are dwelled in by God, and thus somehow we must break that into the world the way a bell rings out its name.  There’s a danger to this kind of thinking, of course—the man on the street corner who thinks he speaks for God when he lists off the hated, the judged, the ones who will be excluded from glory (in his mind)—and one I don’t want to minimize.  But I’ve also seen the beauty that Hopkins’ way of seeing the world can inspire, the way that people afraid of the earth’s great agonies and sorrows, people certain they are too small to really make a difference, put on that Christ cloak that urges them to be God’s hands in the world to heal, to help, to shield and to save.  Ultimately one of the most powerful messages in Hopkins’ poem is that message that is fully encapsulated by Good Friday: the notion at the core of Christian theology that to be human is to share an identity with the divine power underpinning the universe, and that to live out humanity fully in imitation of the divine example means to risk all for the sake of the world.  To risk pain and death, even, for the sake of love; to reject violence as a means of “solving” a problem even to the point of suffering violence with patient forgiveness in our hearts.  This is the theological core that inspired and steadied the civil rights movement, that helped Gandhi (who famously lacked much sympathy for Christianity, but who said that no one had done more for humanity than Jesus) articulate the ideas of non-violent protest and soul force that continue to change the world.

I recognize that not everyone will respond to this poem as I do, any more than that all of you will feel the same mix of emotions and reflections that I do on Good Friday.  What I hope does resonate, and move you on some level, is the reminder that the kind of self-expression Hopkins explores in the opening half of the sonnet isn’t meant to be self-indulgent or self-absorbed.  He’s opening us up to the beauty of that kind of surrender to live out our true purpose because he wants to then push us to find our truest purposes in service to that ideal of love, of grace for those who need it, of justice for those who have no one else to stand by them.  The selves we are, in Hopkins’ eye, are made for that kind of work.  If these Christian holidays are a part of your life this weekend, I hope they help center you (and me) on that true purpose, and the knowledge that love and hope are not alien to us, not strange clothing that ill fits us, but rather are the deep identity locked inside of us that we have always been meant to open up and bring into the world.  And if the holidays mean little or nothing to you, I hope at least that this season of spring, with the return of warmth and life and growth, of kingfishers and dragonflies soaring over nearby waterways, turns your mind to that kind of “selving” that reaches beyond ourselves and into the lives of those you can meaningfully bring help to.

Poetry Friday: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Greetings all—it’s only a smidge past midnight, but I still feel bad posting Poetry Friday on Saturday.  It was a busy week.  In any case, this week for a class project I briefly toyed with the idea of using some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and although that didn’t pan out I remembered how much I liked his work and decided to post some of it here.  Like almost all of his work, this is a poem that didn’t appear until well after he had died (the man was shockingly humble—a fascinating life story, if you know nothing about him): it first appeared in 1918 in “Poems”, a posthumous edition put out by his friends.  It is entitled “Inversnaid”:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

This is a poem that, once I had read it aloud, I couldn’t get the sound out of my head.  I memorized it (maybe the first poem I ever voluntarily memorized) and still recite it to myself sometimes, especially out-of-doors on blustery days.  Once I had chosen it for today’s poem, I asked myself if it had some kind of deep meaning, or if it was just Hopkins using the extraordinary sounds of his poetry (based on some of the Old English poetic styles but also his own invented style called “sprung rhythm”) to describe a cool natural scene.  I think the last stanza comes closest to any kind of philosophical statement, but even there it seems to me that it’s largely just the poet’s natural exuberance about the beauty of nature—he’s been staring at this gorgeous stream and pool and stand of trees, and he can barely contain how glorious it is and how desperately it’s needed.  Hopkins suffered deeply from depression (his “dark sonnets” are excruciatingly beautiful and tragic), and I think being next to a pool that “rounds and rounds Despair to drowning” was even more invigorating for him than it would be to the average person.  But this still isn’t a very “deep” reading.  What do you think—is the surface reading I’m getting the only thing that’s there?  Or is there some cool symbolism here I’ve jumped past?