“We got ready and showed our home.The visitor thought: you live well.The slum must be inside you.”– Thomas Transtromer
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
Jane Hirshfield, 1953
This time of year, I often remember my college days. I would sit in my dorm room, and in the carrels of the university library, and on picnic tables by Big Chico Creek, breathing in poetry. I took in long, deep breaths as one does on entering a bakery on a rainy day.
There was an autumn feel to it; a descent into more sublime atmospheres. Leaves fell and crunched underfoot as we walked to class. In those days, there was no pumpkin spice everything. There was Bly and his snowbanks north of the house; Stafford with his images of geese and rivers; and there was Wright with his equine redemption and industrial grief, his momentous confession of a wasted life, “as the evening darkens and comes on.”
It’s the poet’s job to be outdoors a bit longer than others as the days shorten and The Corn Moon appears. As the fog rolls in at the end of the day and the pumpkins lose their green camouflage, we must continue taking notes.
There is a certain sadness in the house, even as the fires are banked for morning. Someone who shined our shoes won’t do that for us anymore. Somewhere deep in our ritual DNA, we begin lighting candles against the universal fear of what the shadows hide. Summer is over.
Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
~ James Wright
“It’s good. I like it. You sure have a way with words.”
“What does it mean?”
That always makes me smile, and a couple of answers pop to mind: “How the hell would I know? I only wrote it.” Or perhaps, “Well what does it mean to you?” Not good. People want an answer; they want clarity and feel entitled to it. But maybe I’m not the right person to answer the question. Maybe they’re not the right person to ask it.
If a cook is exploring a new recipe and asks you to try the dish, you might say Thank You, and report that you enjoyed it or not. But you don’t lay your napkin neatly on the table and say, “Gee that was yummy. What was it supposed to taste like?”
You probably know what Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, that writing can be a kind of telepathy, a psychic connection of Meaning between two minds, across time and space. Or something to that effect. I have cited that postulate before in this blog, but I’m skeptical.
Let’s imagine I sit down with my copy of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, a cup of coffee, and with my vague memories of my college studies in English. And I turn to my favorite poem – which is everybody’s favorite poem:
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
What does it mean? It’s one of those poems that often gets called “deceptively simple,” and it’s true. Most people who read it are very much deceived. Robert Frost died when I was 2, so we can never know. …Well that’s not true. We don’t need to ask the artist, we can explore the art for ourselves. Let’s take a couple of jabs at it.
- Winter is peaceful. Horses are cool. It’s nice to live in the country and use words like “village.” Back in the 1920s, queer meant strange, perplexing. And we have to keep moving and get our chores done before we can go to bed.
- The woods are a metaphor of the psyche, which stands apart from tangible life – the home in the village. The falling snow is the passage of time. As we grow older (the nights grow longer and darker), the dark woods of death – the event horizon of consciousness – seem more real, impending. We pause to consider mortality. The woods are lovely: we have a yearning for the peace of our inevitable passage into the woods. Then there are the harness bells; for whom do the bells toll?
If I’m being honest, it’s always been simply a poem about quietude and peace for me. It reminds me of Christmas, with the bells and the snow and the darkness evening being Winter Solstice. But if I were pressed for deeper meaning, I’d say it’s a rich and elaborate poem about death and the awareness of death; the darkness beyond the lights of the town for all of us.
Around the same time, e e cummings wrote a poem about a girl,
whose least amazing smile is the most great
common divisor of unequal souls.
Nah, that’s Death, e e. Death is the greatest common divisor of everything. It’s what we all have in common. Beyond that fact, I don’t think any two of us look at life and death and Meaning in exactly the same way. And the right answer to all of it may very well be 42.
So I’ve come to suspect that Meaning isn’t rightfully my job; not my department. Please hold while I transfer your call. Honesty is my job, and diligence, and the best craft I can bring to bear. But Meaning is a task for someone else. And here’s a thought that might seem twisted: maybe meaning doesn’t belong to that certain reader who’s asking me to explain. If they’re not finding the Meaning, then the piece has reached the wrong audience. The Meaning belongs to someone I haven’t met and never will. Maybe that’s what Stephen King was getting at.
So despairing of a psychic connection with readers yet unraised, untutored, I have little cause for hope, but that someone years hence finds a scrap of my writing, and it will mean something to her that I can’t even imagine.
“A book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book “means” thereafter, perforce, — both grammatically and actually, — whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it.”
– James Branch Cabell
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
I was walking our dog today and decided to listen to an episode of the New Yorker Poetry Podcast, in which a poem called What Did I Love, by Ellen Bass, is read by the great poet Philip Levine.
Levine, former Poet Laureate of the US and winner of the Pulitzer, said he was envious of this poem. Yes, me too.
You hear him read it here.
You can read the poem here.
And I wish you would. Listen and read along. I can tell you about power and beauty, about a surpassing specificity and blade-sharp precision of writing.
But let me get out of your way. … I’ll just be over here, plucking feathers.
“It’s easier to understand the idea of death than the reality of life, and so we make an industry of waiting, imagining our end lumbering toward our vain and cubicled selves, inventing the selfish moral blank spots we suspect ourselves of being.”
Michael Thomsen on the vanity of the zombie apocalypse. (Paris Review)
Thomsen was writing about apocalyptic games, but that sure looks like I should be able to relate. Death is the greatest common denominator and poets – and artists in general – have never been able to take their eyes off it for long.
This poem by James Wright hit me deep when I first read it in college. It lingers and rises to mind every year at about this time.
His advice: don’t do it. Well, that’s not quite true. He qualifies that almost completely. And he’s honest; I have admired his honesty. But to be honest myself, I haven’t admired much more than that about his poetry.
Was he a poet? Sure. A good one? OK, maybe. But I’ve almost always found in poetry a generosity of thought and spirit. Poetry explores Being and attempts to say the unsayable, name the unknown and unknowable. One might hope for occasional feints toward metaphysics.
Read some Bukowski poems and see if you find that in his work. I could be wrong – it’s been quite a while – but what I found named the human condition in terms all too well known, and in ways that I’d call existential but not particularly concerned with gaining altitude.
I just meant to share an interesting poem, and here I am speaking ill of the dead. Mea culpa. I imagine even Mozart had detractors. Bukowski published more than 40 books, which is …um … more than me. He must’ve been getting some wood on the ball. So ignore my rant and see what you think of the poem.
Here you can read Machines by Michael Donaghy, a finely writ and balanced poem.
I love Jesus who told us
the heavens and earth shall pass away.
When the heavens and earth pass away,
my word will remain.
What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Pardon? Affection?
All your words were
one word: Arise.
– Antonio Machado
In my solitude. I have seen things very clearly that were not true.
– Antonio Machado