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.

Poetry Friday: 1943, part 3

In perusing the books of poetry issued in 1943 that grace the shelves of my library—librarianship has its advantages, especially for the literary blogger—I stumbled into an unfamiliar title and poet.  After skimming it, I thought the project interesting enough, and revealing enough about life in that year, to select a poem from the work to share today.  Richard Church was a minor English poet of the mid-20th Century, a man who wrote as a hobby until his late 30s and then dove into journalism, poetry, novel writing, and even a little autobiography to pay the bills from there on out.  In 1943, he brought out a small collection of poetry called Twentieth Century Psalter.  Modeled after the psalters of the Middle Ages, and structured as though these were poems to be used liturgically, like in the daily office at a monastery, the poems speak as bluntly and humanly as the Hebrew poetry preserved in the Tanakh’s book of Psalms.  After a dedicatory preface, acknowledging King David (the traditionally credited author of much of the Psalms) and suggesting that he was a “modern man”, Church simply presents pairs of poems assigned to each day of a thirty-day month—“The First Day: Morning” and “The First Day: Evening”—implicitly offering them as a reading to be added to Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (service maybe still most widely known by their ancient names of Matins and Vespers).  The poems are not particularly sacred, though, or at least they are certainly not mild little pieties, as they turn their attention instead to the grim realities of life in an embattled England, a landscape of bomb craters and evacuated children and a resilient people enduring a modern war.  I thought that it might be best, here on the first day of the month of March, to just take what he’s assigned us this evening.  So, this is a poem by Richard Church, entitled “The First Day: Evening”:

“The instruments of death throughout the world;
They are the child’s desire, the young man’s training.
Women are forging them, by night and day.
Civilization cowers; bombs are raining
Upon the ripening corn; cities are hurled
Into the past, the Babylonian clay.

Some ancient god of wrath might look on this,
And, mumbling in his beard of human folly,
Call down a dozen plagues for punishment.
To-day, only a critical melancholy,
Self-conscious from the very soul’s abyss,
Warns us what follows when our rage is spent.

There have been many gods; there has been one.
All gods, and one, by many a name and token,
Are living still, are gathered in my brain,
A memory of duty, of vows broken,
A quiet conviction of what must be done
To build the broken cities up again.

The city and the cornfield; these are set
At history’s extremes. Between them lies
The story of the gods. Our art and science
No longer feature hell and paradise.
But still the ancient longing and regret
Govern our actions; still the old defiance.

The old defiance! It was this that first
Snatched at the fire and let destruction loose.
Defiance dealt the unpolitical blow,
Blundered in strength, mistook the best for worst,
And shattered adoration with abuse.
Defiance of what? Ah, still we do not know.”

Church—and yes, it occurs to me to that, consciously or unconsciously, his name may play a role in his desire to deal with psalms and liturgy—offers a poem that strikes me as very 1943, and movingly so.  The war is beginning to turn again the Axis powers, but no confidence can really be there yet for a man who’s heard the crump of bombs from an underground shelter, or seen the boys straggle back from Dunkirk.  So he opens the poem with the image of weaponry and how these “instruments of death” are ubiquitous—children imagine them as toys, soldiers train, women toil in factories to build them.  Do you think this is England or Germany he’s thinking of?  Is he envisioning the machine-like society that raises up these lethal tools to threaten his nation, or the machine-like society his nation must become to defend itself?  Both seem plausible readings to me.  There’s something very moving about the end of that stanza—we often use phrases like “bomb them back to the Stone Age”, but I can see it happening in Church’s words.  The debris in some parts of London must have seemed like a Near Eastern tel, the great heaps of pot-sherds on which a new city would rise—but whose city?

There’s something like Thomas Hardy inserted into in the second stanza—a poet wishing he could believe in a vengeful god—although in this case it’s not Hardy’s depression, but Church’s righteous anger and desire for justice and retribution, that fuels the dream.  The stanza, honestly, feels very allusive here, since he’s building in some ways on the work of English poets from a previous generation or two, like Matthew Arnold‘s “Dover Beach” which laments the loss of faith and hope in a world given over to these new scientific ideas.  And something about the final phrase “when our rage is spent” reminds me of John Milton’s famous sonnet “When I consider how my light is spent” that meditates on his blindness and his willingness to serve God.  There are layers here of three centuries of English poets struggling with belief, with the question of whether God is there above the clouds somewhere, and with the question of what we all will do if we have only ourselves and our world for consolation.

That’s what makes the third stanza really interesting to me—the way Church surprises us a few times as he turns it one way and then the other.  He brings up the images of polytheism and monotheism, seemingly acknowledges their validity, and then steps back a little—these gods live, but only in his brain.  And what resides there beside them?  Are these the modern gods—our sense of duty (to ourselves? to each other?), vows we know we have broken and will break?  What is that quiet conviction that Church has, and what does he think must be done to rebuild?  It’s hard for me to see whether that conviction is as ephemeral and imaginary to him as this panoply of gods are, or whether he really believes it….I think he does have that conviction, but hasn’t the poem undermined any reason for him to feel that confidence?  Maybe conviction and duty are all someone can turn to (other than madness) in the face of these broken cities.

And then the camera pans back again and the view sweeps out to all of human civilization—something that, in the 1940s, probably did look very simply like a march from the cornfield to the city, from one end of history to the other.  “Between them lies the story of the gods.”  But it’s our story also.  So Church is telling us something about ourselves—in part it’s really clear to me, because he’s so direct about how the “old defiance” survives even if talk of Heaven and Hell, of reward and judgment, has more or less passed out of “polite society”.  But in part it’s not clear, simply because I don’t think Heaven and Hell have totally walked off the stage (for one thing, how could he know then that in 3 years the world would learn of Auschwitz, of Treblinka, of Chelmno, these scars left in the wake of war, so abhorrent that we would revive an old word, “holocaust”, to capture the magnitude of the evils done).  And I think the stanza anyway is asking us to see more than that: he’s given us a very visual metaphor to work with, the city and the cornfield extended out in front of us, and the space between, and I think we’re meant to look at it and ask ourselves what we see.  What is all this for, and what has it gotten us?  A fair question any day, but maybe especially fair from the perspective of London during the Blitz.

And that ambivalence, that uneasiness, persists in the final stanza—the “old defiance” lingers on here, and now I wonder what it really signifies.  Fire, that critical human invention, here is a result of this defiance, and yet its only purpose seems hostile and violent.  Defiance brings harm where it could have brought health, breaks the old icons without understanding the new world it makes, deals “the unpolitical blow” (a phrase I confess I do not entirely understand in context).  And what, he asks us, are we defying anyway?  We do not know.  But what does he mean by that?  Is it that human defiance is rejecting the old faiths, but that we don’t understand them?  Or simply that, because a lot of people now doubt God’s existence, it’s hard for them to “defy” someone they don’t believe is there?  There’s not much old about that kind of defiance anyway—it’s a modern impulse—so maybe I’m misreading it entirely, and really he’s talking about something else….the “original sin” of ambition or pride, perhaps?  I am unsure.

What I do like about all this is that it does operate just like a psalm ought to—challenging, heartfelt, obscure.  If it was read in a real prayer service, a priest or minister could really chew on it for a while: who are humans, really, and where is God in England in 1943?  What are we doing with our lives and what will it mean?  How can we (Can we?) ever escape these old patterns, the circle of defiance and destruction that more or less characterizes a lot of human endeavor?  I may possibly come back to Church if I’m still reading 1943’s Pulitzer novel at the end of the month: I wonder if this poem is intended to raise questions that he really means to wrestle with himself by the last few days of the month, or if he’s just opening doors he has no intention of closing.  In any case, the anthology is an interesting idea—one another poet could easily steal here in the 21st Century, and maybe someone should—and if it’s in a library near you, I suggest you pick it up and give it a look.

Poetry Friday: Another new year’s poem (Or, I have got to get out of 1942 and move on with my life)

So, here we are, another Friday passing and I’m still mired in Ellen Glasgow, and out of poems I’m familiar with for 1942.  I need both to find some more good 1942 poems and to finish that novel.  Anyhow, so as not to leave your weekend unpoemed, I thought I’d pull out another poem about the new year—last year I posted two, after all, so why not again here to acknowledge 2012’s passing and 2013’s arrival?  This is a poem by a poet previously unfamiliar to me—Kenneth Patchen, who wrote this verse entitled “At the New Year” in 1939.  I share it with somewhat reduced commentary (in comparison with my usual musings) and a pledge that I’ll spend the time I’m saving trying to read further through my current Pulitzer novel.  Anyway, here it is—Kenneth Patchen’s “At the New Year”:

“In the shape of this night, in the still fall
of snow, Father
In all that is cold and tiny, these little birds
and children
In everything that moves tonight, the trolleys
and the lovers, Father
In the great hush of country, in the ugly noise
of our cities
In this deep throw of stars, in those trenches
where the dead are, Father
In all the wide land waiting, and in the liners
out on the black water
In all that has been said bravely, in all that is
mean anywhere in the world, Father
In all that is good and lovely, in every house
where shame and hatred are
In the name of those who wait, in the sound
of angry voices, Father
Before the bells ring, before this little point in time
has rushed us on
Before this clean moment has gone, before this night
turns to face tomorrow, Father
There is this high singing in the air
Forever this sorrowful human face in eternity’s window
And there are other bells that we would ring, Father
Other bells that we would ring.”

Some brief thoughts to share—I like the rhythm of the first 3/4 of the poem, the long string of phrases that feel like a breath drawing in more and more and more until at last the air comes forcing out in one long statement at the end.  I like the expanse of those in-breaths in part because they feel almost liturgical and sacred as they stack on each other, the prayer offered for everything from “these little birds” to “the deep throw of stars” (love that phrase) to “the sound of angry voices”, as incongruous as some of those negative images are in this context.  I also like how the poem juxtaposes two very different moods and purposes—the whole poem seems to be building to make a request of the “Father” (God, I think we can safely presume from context?) and yet no request ever comes.  Rather than seeking the Father to do something—to hallow these humble places, to dwell in these empty spaces, to be or to act in any way—the poem’s purpose in the end is revelatory, not intercessory.  It is a declaration to the Father—in all of these things of earth, and before anything else comes to interrupt or distract us, we hear the high singing and the sorrow of the human race, and we say that “there are other bells that we would ring”.  What bells are these?  Why do we speak of them?  I have my own theories.  I think the speaker is being bolder than the phrases may suggest—that what is being hinted at is that we don’t want just another new year, but something world-altering, a turning that overturns something about the cities and fields that are familiar to us.  Just how apocalyptic this vision might be, or how radical the poem’s underlying message is, I don’t think I can fully say.  But it gets me thinking, and I hope it gets a few of you thinking also.

Poetry Friday: 1942

It’s been a busy Friday, and will be a busy weekend, so this will be a shorter Poetry Friday than most.  In 1942, America’s most beloved (and possibly greatest) poet, Robert Frost, published another collection of his work.  From that book, entitled A Witness Tree, I offer this very brief poem for your consideration: this is “A Question”, by Robert Frost.

“A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.”

Rather than dissect this too much with my own interpretations, with a poem this short, I’m more inclined to ask questions and see what responses you might have.  Is it simply obvious that the voice is “God” or at least some kind of divine being?  Or is it possible the questioner is not responsible for our predicament—a voice (whether from within or without) that is asking us a question it cannot answer?  I’ve seen religious interpretations of this poem, and I wonder whether that’s where you think Frost is taking us.

I also wonder what you think Frost’s answer is: Frost’s then-well-hidden but now-largely-well-known struggles with depression and suicide inhabit a lot of his poetry, though certainly not all of it.  Is the poem intended to make us wish we had indeed never been born?  Or is it a challenge we can answer—an opportunity for us to affirm trial and pain and sorrow for the sake of the joy of living?  Ultimately, is Frost inviting our pessimism or our resilience?  Does the poem invite something different than he intended?

Lastly, and related to the above, what do you think the voice’s motivation is for asking?  After all, it’s not a poem in which a human wonders if he/she should give up, or wishes he/she had never been born.  It’s a poem in which a voice addresses humanity (I’m reading “men of earth” inclusively, anyway, though you don’t have to) and asks for an answer to a question, but what will the voice do with that answer?  Why does it want to know?

That’s all I have this week.  Next week’s Poetry Friday, though, will be a doozy—I’m bringing to a close our series on T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets with 1942’s incomparable “Little Gidding” (so important a poem for me, I’m thinking of breaking it into two parts, like they do with the last volume of over-rated children’s fantasy movie series).  Thanks for your comments below, and for dropping by this little corner of the Internet on Friday night for some poetry.

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.

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.

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

So begins the 1928 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder.  Yes, that Thornton Wilder, as in the author of one of the most performed high school plays ever, Our Town.  I’m afraid the authorial presence you get in Our Town surfaces early here, but more on that in a moment.

What I want to note first is that we have stepped outside of the United States for the first time in the history of the Pulitzer.  Okay, so Willa Cather took her hero for a stint overseas in World War I, and yes, some of the best moments in Arrowsmith consisted of an extended stretch in the Caribbean.  Before there has always been an American center to the novel—often a quintessentially American center—and Wilder at least has the daring to move outside that sphere for his setting.

The course of the novel is laid out pretty clearly from the beginning.  The collapse of the bridge was witnessed, we are told, by a Catholic missionary, Brother Juniper.  Brother Juniper is so convinced that God purposes all things that he decides to make a study of the five lives lost in the collapse of the bridge, since clearly their fates were foreordained.  He hopes, by careful examination, to prove God’s divine power to the “poor obstinate converts” he’s working with in Peru.  And, we are told, he believes he’s gotten to the bottom of the situation without ever understanding who the five people really were.  Our novel, then, will show what Brother Juniper did not see, and look into the question of whether human life is a fundamentally grim and pessimistic affair, or rather a beautiful (if subtle) mystery that connects us to a higher power.

This is a fascinating and promising premise for a novel—following five lives to a seemingly random and catastrophic death, seeking a clue in their details to the truth about the universe.  I’ll confess, it may be the best novel I’ve read yet, if we only consider how it plays as a paragraph (envision for a moment how The Age of Innocence would sound in a paragraph summary….I wouldn’t read it, on that basis—would you?).  But Wilder seems interested in writing this novel the way the Stage Manager narrated life in Grovers Corner.  The narrator refers to “you and I”, meaning me, the person reading the novel, and him—in fact he notes that a character doesn’t understand the things that “you and I” do.  We’re about one step from “dear reader” territory, here.  It’s possible to write an engaging story using that kind of narrator–the omniscient benevolent uncle, condescending slightly to the reader but in a good-humored way that makes you content with your cup of cocoa and the sweetly realized conclusions with their pinkish moral hues.  But I don’t think you can write a novel that examines the soul-scarring questions of mortality, fate, and free will in that voice.

I may be jumping the gun—Early Autumn, after all, began in not terribly promising fashion, and proved to be a really nice and well-constructed novel (in my opinion).  But I’m skeptical.  The novel at least has the merit of brevity (a little over 200 pages, and small, wide-margined pages, at that)….we’ll see how this goes.