Square Zero

Old Enough To Read a Good Poem

Posted by Eric (April 18, 2007 at 11:50 pm)

mindIsn’t is strange how you come upon things? I was reading entries on the blog of a Virginia Tech student posted throughout the day of the massacre at Blacksburg (where my brother attended grad school), and scrolling back past that date I learned that Kurt Vonnegut had died.

This student declared how much impact the works of Vonnegut had had upon him. I wonder in the end if Vonnegut’s books or having been there in Blackburg on April 16, 2007 will have had a greater impact on this young man’s life. And, yes, I’m really asking that question. Let’s not pit books against “real life”; if books aren’t part of Real Life, then life just isn’t real enough.
I too was a Vonnegut fan at his age. I remember I was proud that most of the Vonnegut books I had read (at one time I had read them all, but he kept writing them and I didn’t keep up) were stolen from the college book warehouse I worked at one summer—and I told Vonnegut so in a letter I wrote to him from my college dorm that fall. I had thought he was forgotten writer who would be delighted to receive a fan letter. I disappointed to received no reply.

I went to a lecture by Vonnegut once. He said many memorable things, and I took copious notes, but one remark that stand out right now was this: “Don’t be so damned happy about computers.” And here it was a computer that helped me learn of his death earlier this month.

Another strange connection: Looking up the text of “Too Many Daves” for a response in the comments of my last post on books I’m reading, I found my way from one poetry site to another until I came upon a wonderful poem by W.B. Yeats entitled “Politics.” The poem begins with a quote from Thomas Mann: “In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms,” to which the poet’s voice responds:

  • How can I, that girl standing there,
  • My attention fix
  • On Roman or on Russian
  • Or on Spanish politics?
  • Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
  • What he talks about,
  • And there’s a politician
  • That has read and thought,
  • And maybe what they say is true
  • Of war and war’s alarms,
  • But O that I were young again
  • And held her in my arms!

Now, that is a true poem—which is to say, it is a beautiful poem, and it speaks the truth; what have politics really to do with the destiny of man in the face of longing and the approach of death?

I thought, I need to learn more about this Yeats, who was to me little more than a name among others in British literature, tied up with Byron, Shelley, Keats. (The latter, by the way, lived a century before Yeats, but the two poets are linked both by their similar but curiously unryhming names and by appearing together as a pair in the lyrics of a Smith’s song.)

I vaguely remembered that Yeats was an Irishman, but to my dismay I discovered that he was a spiritualist and “mystic” (in the effete nineteenth century sense) and wrapped up in the Heremetic Order of the Golden Dawn—which I had never heard of until just the other day when another Golden Dawner, Aleister Crowley, was mentioned to me in connection with the Beatles and the overall decay of Western culture in the late twentieth century.

I learned that Yeats was a political opponent of Catholic influence in the new Republic of Ireland. And yet, there is no denying that some of his poetry speaks right to the heart of this Catholic man— for example, “A Prayer for my Daughter”.

In my rambling about poetry sites, I also looked at some poems by a favorite poet, Wallace Stevens and lo, in his biography at Wikipedia, I find that he was baptized a Catholic shortly before his death in 1955. Which seems to set the universe back in balance; we lost Yeats, we gained Stevens. I will pray for them both, and I hope they will do the same for me.

Life is short. It was very short for Keats, who died at twenty-five, but managed to write some of the most lastingly appreciated poems in the English language. By the way, I recently rediscovered a paper I wrote on his poem, “To Autumn,” for which I received a very good grade (B+ or A-, I forget), along with a note from my professor lamenting that I seemed to write these papers off the top of my head without really trying. In fact, I had typed it out the night before it was due, in one draft, after closing the pizza place at which I was an assistant manager—though I did think out a sort of outline while doing the dishes, the most distasteful part of closing the restaurant, which I took on in order to boost the morale of my employees (which it did).

But life is also long. Long enough for me to have shrugged off the influence of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut had some interesting things to say, and I think he really had a compassionate heart under all that cynicism. But I think I would have done better not to have steeped my mind in all that cynicism at such a young age.

And life is long enough for me now, at forty, to finally really begin to appreciate poetry. I’ve always enjoyed the occasional poem, but now you will find me pacing about the living room, or even my office if I need a breather, reading aloud from the volumes of poetry that I’ve managed to collect over the past six months of raids on my parents’ attic and my wife’s grandfather’s old library.

There is nothing else like reading—out loud—a good poem from the same musty volume that a dozen other readers have read before you, and of hearing in one’s own voice, upon one’s own lips, another man’s words uttering as if for the first time something true about the world.

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2 Responses to “Old Enough To Read a Good Poem”

  1. John Jansen says:

    I can’t say as I share your enthusiasm for Wallace Stevens’ poetry. Truth be told, I detested his poetry when I read him for a 20th century American lit class in college.

    When it comes to poetry – especially by the likes of Wallace Stevens and others in his genre – I find myself like Homer Simpson, who, after expressing initial excitement upon discovering an old Gary Larson calendar, said, “I don’t get it.” [Flips to the next month] “I don’t get it.” [Flips to the next month] “I don’t get it.”

    Still, learning of Stevens’ baptism shortly before his death has brought a smile to my soul. Thanks for including that tidbit.

    Comment posted April 19th, 2007 at 2:52 pm
  2. Eric says:

    John—I wonder if you really want to compare yourself to Homer Simpson! By the way, I have (somewhere) and autographed copy of the second Larson book.

    My favorite Wallace Stevens poem is “The Anecdote of the Jar,” which I used to recite while cleaning our first apartment, trying to get the rhythm and emphasis just right:

    • I placed a jar in Tennessee,
    • And round it was, upon a hill.
    • It made the slovenly wilderness
    • Surround that hill.
    • The wilderness rose up to it,
    • And sprawled around, no longer wild.
    • The jar was round upon the ground
    • And tall and of a port in air.
    • It took dominion every where.
    • The jar was gray and bare.
    • It did not give of bird or bush,
    • Like nothing else in Tennessee.

    The poem was, apparently, suggested by an actual “Dominion” brand canning jar. But just imagine coming upon a plain old canning jar in the middle of the wilderness. Suddenly the wilderness is “no longer wild”: man has been there, and made his mark, “claimed” this wilderness for his own ends, simply by placing his artifact there on the hill.

    This poem is the story of that man, the one who claimed the wilderness, who tamed it by this simple act of placing a jar there. However strange that act may seem (“I placed a jar in Tennesee . . . upon a hill”—Why did you do that?), I think this poem truly evokes the impact of man and his ways upon the world.

    Comment posted April 20th, 2007 at 10:35 am