Saturday, November 16, 2013

Poetry - What Is It Good For?

The thing about our souls is that sometimes they need a little reawakening. About 20 years ago, while leading a Rollins group on a field trip in Mexico, I took a long-distance road trip with one of the students, a young man named Brad.  Brad was thoughtful enough to bring along a batch of cassette tapes that were brimming with some of my favorite tunes.  Listening to all that great music from Dylan, the Beatles, The Band, Pink Floyd, the Stones, etc., brought back a flood of memories and reminded me just how much I missed good, old, rock n’ roll music.  The demands I had faced as a tenure-seeking professor with a growing family had consumed my time so thoroughly for several years, that I had fallen into a rut where I had forgotten to stop and listen to the Guns n’ Roses.  It took a fresh gust of healing wind in the form of sweet old-time music to get my soul dusted off and back in business.

A similar thing happened more recently when, after listening to my friend Susan Lilley read some of her poems here on campus, I was reminded how happily I respond to honest-to-god, quality poetry.  I started then to look back into some of my undergraduate favorites, like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the works of Yeats, Auden and Ezra Pound.

On Eliot and Pound I have mixed feelings.  Great poets, but such flawed human beings.  Eliot was  not only a prototypical elitist snob (it seems to me), but was also, according to reliable sources, grossly unkind to his wife.  Ezra Pound was a gentle soul, if Hemingway is to be believed, but during WWII expressed all too much sympathy for the Axis powers and their "values."  Not cool, Ezra.

I still like the poetry of Eliot and Pound, more than I like the poets themselves, actually, because I have learned to separate the art from the artist.  Have to do it sometimes. (Yeah, you, Clint Eastwood.)

Reading "The Waste Land" over and over gave me a sense that the world, was once a thriving, spiritually charged arena wherein humans could act out their destiny, but that it had deteriorated into a bleak and meaningless . . . waste land.  Not sure why reading it gave me a good feeling, but it did.  And at least I learned who Sybil of Cumae was, that’s got to be worth something.

Now here’s one by W. H. Auden.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content 
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

This is an interesting poem, no doubt about it.  And, though I would not in a googillion years want to cast aspersions on W. S. Auden, one of my favorites, I have to say, this piece does have a somewhat pushy quality.  With the two concluding lines, I picture Mr. Auden slamming his book shut and glaring into my face as if to say, “Did you get it?  Do you see what a loser this guy was?  And that his life was a total waste land?”    

Yes, Wystan, yes.  For sure.

If you want to find lots of poems these days, you can look at the New Yorker magazine.  Of course, you will only know that they are poems because of the spaced out way in which they are printed on the page.  If it weren’t for the typesetting, you might mistake some of them for a series of typographical errors.

OK, here’s my rendition of what I see as a typical New Yorker poem:


I walked the sidewalk until a corner slowed me;
I saw the bank across the street, a mountain rectangle;
I went the other way.

Here's another kind of modern poem, maybe too juicy for the New Yorker:

April 2013
This cruel month, does it bring forth the neoprene lilies,
Or do they,
Like the dogs of yesteryear,
Bark and hang their withered stems
In yeasty sorrow?

WTF? [editor’s comment]

I do not want to shortchange the New Yorker, however, since it is, in fact, a very cool magazine. Also, it recently published a poem that actually made sense, one by our own Billy Collins.  Billy is a resident at our Winter Park Institute and last Tuesday, Darla and I had a chance to hear him read some of his latest work.  He was, by the way, America’s poet laureate (two terms, if I remember correctly) and knows a thing or two about how words can be used to enliven hearts and minds.  Darla says that his poetry reminds her of Fred Astaire’s dancing: it is delightful to the senses and appears so graceful and easy - but the grace and ease belie an underlying vortex of skill and effort.

Here’s one of Billy’s from his latest book, Aimless Love:


This morning as low clouds
skidded over the spires of the city
I found next to a bench
in the park an ivory chess piece –
the white knight as it turned out –
and in the pigeon-ruffling wind

I wondered where all the others were,
lined up somewhere
on their red and black squares,
many of them feeling uneasy
about the saltshaker
that was taking his place,
and all of them secretly longing
for the moment
when the white horse
would reappear out of nowhere
and advance toward the board
with his distinctive motion,
stepping forward, then sideways
before advancing again –
the same move I was making him do
over and over in the sunny field of my palm.

A pleasure to read, indeed.  I can see the knight in the author’s hand, and the chessboard with the intrusive salt shaker.  And the very idea of absence, of someone or something missed, calls to mind for me the times I had to spend away from my cozy family when I was doing fieldwork in China.  (Though I’d be interested to know what varlet might have played the part of the salt shaker in that scenario.)

The simple yet significant scene that this poem calls up is to me one of the chief characteristics of Billy’s work.

I am brazenly dropping the poet’s first name here because, following his reading, our friends Phil and Susan introduced us to him and to his writerly partner, Suzannah Gilman, and we had an opportunity to chat with them a bit.  I have to say that Billy was great to talk to - thoughtful, pleasant and charming.  Naturally, I wondered what his scheme was.  “He must be trying to make us like him,” I thought to myself, “What’s up with that?”

Darla, much more naïve than I, simply concluded that his personal warmth is like his poetry. She thinks that he is the Fred Astaire of engaging human-heartedness.