Poetry Sometimes Puts a Dollop of Grim on our Plate!

EXSANGUINATIONS by Joyce Carol Oates

Life as it unspools
Ever more eludes
Examination
We wonder what is best—
Exsanguination in a rush
Or in a 1,000 small slashes.

Oates has the grim that poets often have. This poem makes me think of Shakespeare’s cryptic observation about, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Poets do not have the filter that most people are equipped with…in a sense, “cursed” with…and therefore are skilled at bringing our attention to the underbelly of life as well as the sublime.

Life is harsh. This harshness often bites us in the butt and the gods have equipped us with an infinitely resilient heart to cope…most of the time! Here I want to share an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s “Preludes” relevant to the beauty and Grace that is available in the context of human struggles:

DUST as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all 5
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I 10
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use 
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

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“Tired of Speaking Sweetly” by Hafiz

God is found at the boundaries of our life, in what I like to call a “liminal zone” where the distinctions between “me and thee” are nebulous; one might even say where all distinctions are nebulous.  When this experience comes to us…if it ever does…it comes as an intrusion or invasion of sorts which psychologist Carl Jung described as an “einfall.”  This phenomenon is usually conveyed with the image of a transcendent God toying with mankind…in some sense fiddling with him…until he breaks through his resistance and allows Him in.  John Donne wrote a beautiful sonnet in which he prayed, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” for otherwise his adamantine resistance would never be overcome.

Hafiz, aka Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, was a 14th century Persian poet who wrote a beautiful poem about this process of einfall.  This very human experience, so very human that it merits the description Divine, is often gut-wrenchingly painful as the Donne sonnet conveys and as Hafiz conveys here in a more light-hearted fashion.

TIRED OF SPEAKING SWEETLY (aka “God’s Drop Kick”) by Hafiz

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes get tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,

Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

Shakespeare on Narcissism, Commitment,and Marriage

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare’s first seventeen sonnets were addressed to an unknown friend who he felt was slow in pledging his troth.  This friend appeared to have problems making commitments, aka in modern terms a “commitment-phobe,” and I suspect Shakespeare knew something personally about this malady of the soul.

“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel.”  Here Shakespeare vividly noted the problem of self-absorption, the narcissistic inability to contemplate that one is focused only on his own needs and wishes, devoid of the capacity to consider the reality of the other person.  This brings to my mind the wisdom of Conrad Aiken who observed that often, “we see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which likes the darkness.”  And when this happens we deny ourselves the “fuel” that comes from engagement with difference, with “otherness”, opting for the comfort of sameness which will always legitimate our pre-conceptions the result of which is that we are then, “Making a famine where abundance lies, Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.”

Shakespeare knew something about modern object-relations theory, that we have something only when we lose it.  Or, to borrow from the lyrics of a Donovan 1960’s tune, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”  In this sonnet Shakespeare put it this way, “Within thine own bud buriest thy content/And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.  Shakespeare knew that our heart, “that tender bud from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes” (T. S. Eliot)  was the source of the Infinite.  But he also knew that this infinite treasure was found only with a willingness to “lose” it, to spend it, and that holding on to it in a miserly fashion, i.e. “niggarding” it, would be to waste it.  Jesus had this in mind when he told us that we must lose our life in order to find it.  And I close with a relevant and poignant observation from Anais Nin had a poignant observation on this matter, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

John Masefield Sonnet on Mystery of Life

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

This witty and insightful little poem has amused me for nearly three decades, helping me to maintain caution given a tendency myself to overthink. But this “thoughtfulness,” combined with deep-rooted passion is what has produced poetry of the sort found here in a John Masefield sonnet, showing it can have value! (My commentary below is in italics.)

What am I, Life? A thing of watery salt
Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
Which work they know not why, which never halt,
Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.
I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin;
A world which uses me as I use them,
Nor do I know which end or which begin
Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.

The “unresting cells” are seen to both drive mankind on, to use us even while simultaneously giving us agency to “use them.” Modern science was captivating this young poet. When only 13 years of age, his guardian aunt sent him to sea to break an “addiction” to reading. Thus her “cells” were using her to introduce him to a major dimension of his literary opus, the sea.

So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
I answer to the vast, as wave by wave
The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
Or the great sun comes north, this myriad I
Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

“Like a marvel in a marvel set” made me think of a line from W. H. Auden poetry in which he described life as “a process in a process, in a field that never closes.” Masefield did not see life as static as his ancestors certainly had. The “tingling” of his “I” made me think of what Kierkegaard described as the “giddiness of freedom” which others have described as simple existential anxiety. Human awareness, “not knowing how, yet wondering why” will introduce one to giddiness.
 

Language & the Existential Abyss

There is some way in which we don’t have language, but language has us. To put it differently, in our youth we don’t “acquire” language but language “acquires” us. We are born into a verbal field and the matrix of that field consumes us…in a sense…as it shapes our identity. To illustrate one dimension of its formative influence, in English we say, “I see the book” while Eastern languages would say, “The book is seen.” In the West language has shaped us so that we see ourselves more separate from the object-world while in the East the subject-object relationship is more nebulous. Language, infinitely subtle and complex, makes us human. It allows us to communicate, to reach a hand across the existential abyss that would otherwise separate us.
Here are two Carl Sandburg poems which illustrates the mysterious complexity of language:

JABBERERS by Carl Sandburg

I RISE out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

Two tongues from the depths,
Alike only as a yellow cat and a green parrot are alike,
Fling their staccato tantalizations 5
Into a wildcat jabber
Over a gossamer web of unanswerables.

The second and the third silence,
Even the hundredth silence,
Is better than no silence at all 10
(Maybe this is a jabber too—are we at it again, you and I?)

I rise out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

One thing there is much of; the name men call it by is time; into this gulf our syllabic pronunciamentos empty by the way rockets of fire curve and are gone on the night sky; into this gulf the jabberings go as the shower at a scissors grinder’s wheel….

**********************************

PRECIOUS MOMENTS by Carl Sandburg

Bright vocabularies are transient as rainbows./Speech requires blood and air to make it./Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,/While diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,/In the moment of doom when the word forms/It is born, alive, registering an imprint—Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries!

WHAT ARE YEARS by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

I have referenced and explored this poem before in this venue, but I wish to delve deeply into the heart of the matter this time.  She dives into the meat of her message with “he who sees deep and is glad” to introduce the notion of furrowing into the marrow of life which, borrowing from the title of an Adrienne Rich poem I like to describe as, “Diving into the Wreck.”  For the “deep,” i.e. the “marrow” will always be murky, dark, wet, confusing, and frightening until we get accustomed to it.  But in so doing we are “acceding to mortality” which is to say we are becoming human which culture has offered us a myriad variety of ways to avoid.  But as we embrace our mortality, recognize that death is our ultimate fate…a veritable imprisonment…we can then rise “upon ourselves as the sea in a chasm, struggling to be free and unable to be, in its surrendering find our continuing.”

I have been to the ocean many times and the vivid image of the ocean crashing into those chasms, powerfully and noisily, and then surrendering into calm is so gripping.  And only in this catastrophe do the waves, in surrender, find their “continuing.”

This poem is a beautiful picture of the infinite energy that we are coming to grips with the world of finitude.  Our first impulse is to rail against the limits that we find, even death, but Moore had discovered that in accepting the circumstance of human life she found empowerment. And then there is the powerful observation, “They who feel strongly behave.”  I have seen so many who feel so very strongly that they cannot behave and succumb to a haphazard life which often includes addiction.  I know one young man, for example, who can give expression to his artistic skills only when confined to prison walls and is spending his early adulthood and soon-to-be middle ages in and out of prison.  When there he has found the answer to the famous movie line of Jim Carrey, “SOMEBODY stop me.”

“Satisfaction is a lowly thing.  How pure a thing is joy.”  Moore recognized the pyrrhic victory of immediate gratification.  C.S. Lewis described sin as, “Preference for immediate satisfaction over a ‘believed-in’ pattern of glory.”  The dilemma of modern life…so vividly illustrated in the United States currently…is an obsessive “preference for immediate satisfaction” over the interest of the long-term welfare of the country…and the species.

There’s Something to Say for Tedium!

DOLOR by Theodore Roethke

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces. 

I’ve always liked this poem though it is so heavy-handed and grim, using mundane phenomena of day-to-day life to paint a picture of the relentless tedium of life.  Usually we don’t notice this tedium for we are acclimated to it and take it to be reality…and it is good that we do; for this “tedium” makes consensually-validated reality possible and we can trudge through the necessary pretenses of daily living.  But then Donald J. Trump stumbles onto center stage and we see just how “unnecessary” this sheep-like behavior is!  For example, why must we “make nice” every day, obeying rules of decorum and civility when we could easily just lay aside our inhibitions and say or do what we really are thinking?  Just one example comes to mind, last fall on the debate stage, when all but one of the presidential candidates were “making nice” with one another only to discover one of their members was playing by different rules.  Furthermore, Trump’s willingness to “tell it like it is” resonated with many voters who quickly fell in line with him, finding his disinhibition the perfect expression of their pent-up frustration which Roethke beautifully portrayed in his poem.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Thingsfall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.  (The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats)