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.

Poetry Friday: Katherine Grace Bond

So, as Poetry Friday celebrates its two year anniversary (more or less), I realized that I wanted to branch out a little.  I’m going to continue reflections on poems from the year of the novel I’m reading.  But I also want to spotlight the poetry I spend much of my time reading—that is, the poetry of my friends.  I sent an invitation to a few poet-friends of mine, soliciting some material they’d like to have featured here.  Since one of my blog’s aims is to start a conversation about literature, I’m hoping this helps further that aim—these are, after all, the works of living, breathing poets.  They may have sent them to get feedback as they consider a revision.  Even if that’s not in the cards, there’s at least the possibility of conversation about them.  Just as with my reviews of books written by friends, I have no qualms about being critical where I need to be, and the folks submitting poems know that.  I’ll be picking poems that resonate with me for some reason or other, and I hope people will react to them as they feel motivated to (don’t be shy about criticism, in other words: though of course don’t be needlessly rude, either).

Today’s poet, then, is my former mentor in the poetic arts—Katherine Grace Bond, who (in addition to her work as a professional writer with some noteworthy publications to her credit) has long worked with classes and informally-organized groups of young writers in an attempt to help them hone their craft.  Katherine helped push me to write some of my best work, and without Katherine I literally would never have met a cute girl that I ended up marrying.  So it’s needless to say I think a lot of Katherine, and I’m pleased she’s willing to let me have a crack at some of her work.  Today’s poem is entitled “Light”:

Once I caught light
and kept it in a box
beneath my bed.

Before long it wanted out,
so I taped the box shut.

Light was my secret.

But it made such
a great roar
that the darkness

I chose a very brief poem, in part, because my recent tendency has been to dive into longer pieces that have a lot going on—almost too much for me to be able to talk about everything I’d like to. One of the things I like about “Light” is that it presents itself so simply…no elaborate or mystifyingly obscure title, no words prodding you to seek a dictionary for clarification. There’s an openness about the poem that invites readers to identify with it. For me, the message of the poem is an interesting one, because at first glance it seemed “easy”. As I handled the words in my mind, though, I became less and less sure. Capturing and hiding the light seemed, at first, to be negative—even if we don’t think about the Sermon on the Mount right away (though some will), it’s the kind of setup that seems to be begging for trouble later. But I’m not sure the poem wants to say that. Is it bad that the light is a secret? Is its shaking of the darkness a bad consequence—the secret escaping in unintended and unwelcome ways—or a good consequence—light overcoming darkness, strangely, not visibly but aurally and physically with sound and shaking? Is the message of the poem that those precious things we hide in ourselves are good for us, holding back the things we fear around us by being present inside, or rather that we hide the beautiful and the worthy things to our own peril, because if locked inside us long enough, they will break?

And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how this internal conversation reflects on my opinion of the poem. In part, I wonder if Katherine’s poem isn’t succeeding because it’s not really reaching me—whatever she hoped to say is getting blurred for me, maybe by some imprecision, or by the poem’s brevity (which may not allow enough room to deliver the heart of what she means to say). But in part, I wonder if Katherine’s poem is succeeding—that she is taking advantage of the ambiguity in some very simple, declarative sentences to allow me to move the poem in the direction I’d like to go. Light and darkness are usually pretty straightforward symbols in literary settings, but the actions of the narrator in connection with them make them complicated: is that the point?

I should note that, while I do hope Katherine will comment, I’m not looking for the cavalry to ride in and “tell me what the poem means”. I’m curious, though, how the poem affects other people. And I’m pleased to have a poem this simple because we can’t trip over too much in it—we can “get down to brass tacks”, as they say, pretty rapidly and compare directly how we read the various elements in the poem. Part of me wants to leap out into all the connections my brain makes with light: why light matters, how light interacts with people, etc. But that’s me rushing past a poem without really hearing it. I’m going to linger here in uncertainty a bit, and I’m hoping some folks will comment. If I get anywhere, I’ll add additional thoughts down in the comments.

In the meantime, look for another post (and probably a review) of Years of Grace in the days ahead—I’m trying to finish rapidly. And if you like Katherine’s stuff, or are just curious to see more, check out Katherine’s WordPress blog: I’m sure she’ll be glad you stopped by. Have a great weekend!