Carol Snow, “Tour”

My first day as a substitute teacher in high school I was assigned to a class in a computer lab. The students there were supposed to be making personal websites, which they did, but this entailed searching for things on the Internet which they felt represented them. I felt older than dirt after one minute of watching them search. I had forgotten how powerful advertising is: glossy images lighted almost supernaturally, speech in even tones with no mistakes or hesitation whatsoever, everyone with bright, perfect skin.

I had forgotten what it means to have your standards and aspirations bound to this unreality. Even the students not bound to the mirage had friends that were. I wondered if underlying the entire world of high school was the craziest, most manufactured image, one meant to move product, taken subconsciously by the students as the end of a life well-lived.

I knew right then that the fact I loved poetry and books made me completely alien. What could I have to offer? All I knew by comparison were scrawlings on a page, some of those scrawlings not even that memorable.

It’s in this spirit I want to update some of the commentaries I’ve written on the Poetry 180 series. I don’t want to tell people how to think or what to think. But it isn’t fair to throw poetry and literature and higher ideas at kids—or anyone, really—and not explain a damn thing about how they may inform your own life. It’s really rich when adults who themselves don’t read books tell kids to read, as such behavior can be indistinguishable from bullying.

What do I want you to do with this poem? I imagine the same thing I did—find something about it that interests you and make it yours. For once, possession of a thing—here, a work of art—may entail sincere, open communication about things which we want to understand better:

Tour (from Poetry 180)
Carol Snow

Near a shrine in Japan he'd swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.

Or — we had no way of knowing — he'd swept the path
between fallen camellias.

You are there. You have made a journey to another land, walked a path yourself. You may think yourself a mere visitor, but the word “tour” comes from the Old French word for “turn,” which itself traces back to a Greek word for a lathe—a tool that shapes an object by means of turning.

You are changing, ever so subtly. It starts with wondering about the simplest things. What makes a shrine spiritual? What makes this shrine, in front of you, a place of worship?

Near a shrine in Japan he’d swept the path and then placed camellia blossoms there
. Near the shrine, not in the shrine, there’s a path. Someone devoted to it is there. He has walked a path. You first think he swept it, as it looks a bit cleaner than other paths you’ve seen. The camellia blossoms stand out upon it, as if the path is meant to frame each of them.

That would be a reverential act in the way we Westerners understand reverence. God is omnipotent and must be given due respect. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord (Isaiah 55:8). If you think you recognize the given path, you take care of it, treating it like your most precious possession.

But then, you have another thought, one more radical. You realize that not all of us worship the same way. You wonder about other sacred actions a person could take, ones that show devotion differently.

Or — we had no way of knowing — he’d swept the path between fallen camellias. You’re with your tour group. Maybe one of them blurted this out, trying to say something stupid to get everyone to laugh. But it’s not stupid, not for shrines in a country with a tradition of animism, where everything around one—e.g. rocks, plants, bugs—has a soul. The recognition that everything is sacred means recognizing the beauty and the necessity of the fallen blossoms. One would not sweep between them to clean them of dirt, but to mark the path one must take, a path between sweetness and loss.

Some forms of spirituality demand less in terms of obedience and more in terms of awareness of the mysteries of this world. I don’t say “religion” because all religions have a political, legalistic side, and the spirituality we are concerned with here, while it might be thought Eastern, could easily be seen as secular in the authentic sense of the word. “Secular” from Latin saeculum, “generation, age.”

I’ll illustrate what I mean, though it may seem another puzzle. When I first wrote on this poem, 8 years ago, I wondered if the wind blew the camellias down and swept the path. I wondered, in other words, if we were dealing with an anthropomorphized god, an air spirit living in the shrine perhaps, who perfectly realized his intent by means of an action. We mere mortals can only guess at this unity of intent and action and attempt to be reverent in our diverse, imperfect ways. Maybe we have to do homage to the blossoms, over and against the dirt, or maybe we push the dirt aside—just rearrange things—in order to acknowledge that we are seeking a path. Before the expulsion from Eden, God is described as an anthropomorphized god, one walking around the garden, looking for Adam and Eve.

from Fanny Howe’s “O’Clock”

I have backed up
into my silence

as inexhaustible as the sun
that calls a tip of candle
to its furnace.

Red sparks hit a rough surface
I have been out—cold—too—long enough.

—Fanny Howe, from "O'Clock"

Maureen N. McLane treats this excerpt from “O’Clock” as describing a pain specific to making poetry. Her gloss: “Red sparks hit a rough surface: The self, the song, an ignited match. The lyric of potential. The lyric of waste” (McLane 180).

I think I see how her reading works. The poet initially overwhelmed, cornered, forced back into her silence. Are there times I’ve felt like I couldn’t speak, so much so I wanted to explode with words? It’s like Howe wants to take those moments of intense anxiety and invest them with a certain profundity. What if every moment you could talk was a slow, gathering storm of facts and observations? You, your silence, would be “as inexhaustible as the sun that calls a tip of candle to its furnace.”

You need not collapse, then, either into paralysis or a swirl of rage and fear. Your silence has borne witness; every small detail you can describe, every lighted candle, is part of the inexhaustible sun.

“I have been out—cold—too—long enough.” The poet transforms silence into a power spoken. But I hear the same problem I’ve alluded to above, louder and clearer. There’s a defense mechanism all of us use, proclaiming “I know!” when something bad happens or is happening, so that way we don’t have to ask ourselves any unnerving questions. Saying one holds a knowledgeable silence as vast as the sun seems like this denial writ large. It could be a special case of ignorance, distinct from Socrates’ interlocutors, who may proclaim “I know!” but find at least one of their opinions questionable. In our case, a combination of pessimism (“Nothing will ever work out”) and learning (“I know because I’ve seen bad things happen before”) fix us in patterns we do not care to change. You “know” the job won’t work out so you don’t try. Ditto the relationship. The trip is too expensive, you’re not sure what you’d get out of it anyway. —Trust me, I understand this fatalism too well.—

“Red sparks hit a rough surface”—McLane speaks of the self as an “ignited match.” I guess my question is this: we know all the necessary causes for ignition, but what is actually sufficient? When I have made changes in my life, put some small part of my small apprehension of truth into action, I have done so from a self-awareness more accidental than intentional. All this time spent cultivating a greater self-awareness, a stronger sense of identity, and I sometimes feel like the purpose is only to manage one’s fortune better.

References

McLane, Maureen N. My Poets. New York: FSG, 2012.

Sappho, “Although they are / Only breath…”

Sappho is honest. For a moment, she admits her words are “only breath.” Then—and this is perhaps questionable—she declares her “command” over “immortal” words:

“Although they are / Only breath…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal

When I first wrote on this fragment 4 years ago, I contrasted it with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” That poem is not shy in promising immortality to a beloved:

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Death shall not brag! You will grow in “eternal lines to Time!” I have put you in verse and made you immortal! This rhetoric strikes me as stupidly blunt. Sure, it could be thought more sophisticated. The beloved, ambitious but not sure for what he stands, might be swayed by the prospect of immortality. Better to be known than unknown, if one can’t be sure of what is actually good in life. You could also say that Shakespeare jokes about his command of fame. Those who are privileged are always promising too much, just like those of us who want to be taken seriously. Shakespeare outboasts everyone, with, um, his command over boasting. “So long lives this,” indeed.

Immortality appears on this reading a matter of conventionality. Maybe this is easier to understand in a world where Shakespeare’s poems and plays are mass media, commenting and critiquing other works widely known. Maybe it was easier to see then we have systems set up which privilege some works and exclude others. Not every great book is great for some “natural” or “authentic” reason, as I learned reading the dumpster fire that is Beowulf. (John Gardner’s Grendel, on the other hand, might be one of the best things I’ve ever read. He builds a serious, thoughtful, interesting character, and you want that character to kill everyone.)

Immortality is a kind of game in Sonnet 18. When I reconsider this little fragment of Sappho’s, it feels so different, so vulnerable. Although they are only breath—will you consider that I, too, am only breath? Words which I command are immortal—somehow, temporarily, I have this divine power. I can put together things which have lasted, otherwise we could not possibly understand each other. Maybe I will create an arrangement of these things which lasts. But if it does, it is not because of some audience outside of you and me. If what I have to say matters, you’ll hear it, you’ll treasure it, and it will be just as good as “immortal,” if not better.

William Blake, “A Divine Image” and “The Divine Image”

11 years ago I started blogging on poetry and desperately needed content. The rule was to post daily, and this had three consequences I didn’t foresee:

  1. I really did build an audience, but I had no idea what to do with it other than engage in self-promotion.
  2. Reading as often as possible and taking notes does not get you good daily posts. Writing about literature, however badly, simply does not work that way.
  3. I needed more poems than I even knew existed. The second you start writing and want to say something genuine is the second you realize you know nothing.

A friend was bored out of his skull at work and sent me the following over e-mail. I realize now that it is pretty cool to send someone a suggestion and find it promptly written on, published, added to the public record. Unfortunately, I confess the quality of what I produced was somewhere between “garbage” and “sewage.” Allow me to try to correct the record, 11 years later. Here’s William Blake’s “A Divine Image:”

A Divine Image
William Blake

Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secresy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.

A longtime reader of this blog, an excellent poet himself, considered Blake “twee.” The verses like nursery rhymes, the elaborate riddles, the excessively bright or dark imagery—it can feel to me like prog rock gone Satanic. Certainly this poem is accompanied, in Songs of Experience, with some curious art. A sweltering, muscular person swings a hammer, attempting to forge or crush something, while a strange face watches him.

I don’t believe this work is “twee;” it’s stranger than that. It looks to me like a code which you memorize. When you have an encounter that throws you, like others being cruel or jealous, you repeat the words to yourself, and you realize that the emotions directed toward you are a form of power. Cruelty, jealousy, terror, and secresy are ways of maintaining rule. The poem is not a spell, it’s not scripture, it’s not recognized as philosophy. But it is radically subversive, mystical, and educational. It could inform a child at the expense of parental and traditional authority; it does not accept our cheap, tawdry capitalist ways as proper child-rearing. The accusation the poem levels against us by its very existence should not be underestimated.

This poem corresponds to another in Songs of Innocence entitled “The Divine Image.” As if there were only one divine image, God our father dear. To Him, The Divine Image, we pray. In doing so, we also pray to Mercy Pity Peace and Love… [and] to these virtues of delight / [we] return their thankfulness. Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love do not seem to have anything whatsoever to do with Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror, and Secresy, but that’s precisely the riddle in which Blake is interested.

Before we take a closer look at that riddle, I want to introduce the last two stanzas of “The Divine Image,” as they are enormously significant:

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Everyone prays, and everyone prays to the human form divine(!). This human form, heathen, turk or jew, is no less than God. Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell, there God is dwelling too. We can surmise that even in Songs of Innocence, this is very radical; anti-Semitism in the UK is still a notable problem, and what a sizeable number of Brexit voters understood by “Leave” is one of the more disgusting phenomena of our time. I’ve got to wonder about European colonialism/imperialism, religion, and white nationalism—how long have these been explicitly linked? You could easily imagine this sort of speech spat upon in, say, Orbán’s Hungary, or other despotisms condemned to the limits of their vision.

So even though “The Divine Image” more than likely holds a unique theological vision, it alone does not contain the full teaching. Still, it alone can be useful. Blake assigns to Mercy, “a human heart;” Pity, “a human face;” Love, “the human form divine,” and Peace, “the human dress.” It’s a beautiful picture with which a child could approach his schoolday. He could see showing Mercy as the only way to have a heart. He would face bad situations with Pity more than anger. Love would not be used for objects, and Peace would be manifest in one’s manners, one’s gait, one’s complete conduct. It’s not what you wear, but how you wear it.

Blake takes a fairly detailed moral teaching and flips it on its head. Now Cruelty, not Mercy, has a human heart. Jealousy replaces Pity in our faces. Terror replaces Love as nothing less than the human form divine. Secresy replaces Peace, and “dress” becomes less about conduct and more about concealment. It’s cynical, but it’s hard to pinpoint in what exact way Blake is being clever. What has the schoolchild encountered that turns him from Mercy, Pity, Love and Peace? On a larger scale, what are we supposed to know as the world explodes on account of a violent, paranoid white nationalism not even barely concealing itself in religious garb?

I think the way to approach “A Divine Image” is to start with the immediacy of cruelty and jealousy. I remember when people were (they still do) dumping on my approach to scholarship. I’m not a perfect student, certainly not an accomplished writer, but it didn’t take a lot of reflection to see that some people were jealous of the audience. Political philosophy is personal for me, mainly because I’ve learned that arbitrary cruelty isn’t arbitrary at all. It has a purpose—maybe not “terror” explicitly, but a constant fear of doing wrong, of being harshly punished for the least mistakes. That fear is implanted in order to promote someone else secretly. If you doubt me on this, look up what Donald Trump Jr.’s net worth is, and note where he has been brought in to speak the last year or two.

You can use “A Divine Image” to hone in on the realities of race, sex, and class in America. But Blake can speak beyond the pettiness of his world, the backwardness of ours. That last stanza is chilling. The human dress is forged iron, / The human form a fiery forge, / The human face a furnace sealed, / The human heart its hungry gorge. The nursery rhymes are there, it’s singsong, but it’s a dark chant about how nasty the forces we face are. “The human dress is forged iron”—a major reason why hate and anger can’t be defeated is that they are constantly projected onto others. Angry at yourself? Just project your failures onto some other group. You can’t pay the bills, but you work, unlike group such-and-such that’s leeching. Do this enough and you can talk yourself into supporting genocide. This awful dress of iron, this eagerness to embrace violence, comes from a lack of honesty. People in all ages and times try to hide the worst parts of themselves from themselves. Potentially limitless desires (“hungry gorge”) sealed off by ways of operating in the world that make us look sane no matter what crazy thing we do. I live in a state where prisoners boil to death in prison and the people in charge just shrug. The human form, a fiery forge indeed—we can only beg forgiveness for what we’ve wrought.

Emily Dickinson, “To make a prairie” (1755)

Looking out at the vast expanse of prairie, miles of wilderness and potential, is itself a reverie. It is, perhaps, the reverie, a surge of wonder at the mere hint of opportunity. All men are created equal, and each can do something special with her life. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not just rights, but assertions of optimism.

And then, what we understand now. A land where every home is a broken dream. Where billionaires rage on account of a combination of insecurity and unearned deference. Where the reality of race can be spoken, but never heard. Where small frustrations balloon into angry, hateful conspiracy theories, where we project onto others rather than relate, where violence and the threat of violence are the only ways people feel empowered.

Sometimes I am asked “Why poetry?” My response the last few months has been the arts are the only thing we have:

To make a prairie (1755)
Emily Dickinson

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Dickinson begins with the quintessentially American—the prairie, the unexplored, the undiscovered country. It is an extraordinarily bold starting point; she wants no less than to make a prairie, to bring a landscape into being.

She initially uses her creative powers to dwell on what is natural. To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee. Vendler (2010) speaks of the erotic overtones of this imagery, and I do think they are important (Vendler 522). However, I think it remarkable that she starts both bold and restrained. “To make a prairie” intones the spirit of our creed, but a prairie is actually made by simple animals and plants through natural processes. In her quiet way, she’s showing the spirit of the creed is the fundamental problem.

It’s the problem she has to start with, as it’s her spirit too. Her report of how exactly the ingredients work becomes jumbled in her mind—a clover and one bee is followed by one clover, and a bee, and revery (523). I can’t tell why the jumble occurs, but I do know that when what you thought was true does not work for you, you fall back on your belief. In this case, what’s left is “revery.”

Revery—dreaming—moved her from the prairie to the clover and the bee. It moved from a hopeful whole to natural potential. And it didn’t entail any progress for the artist. She needs to know how to make prairie, to have a basis upon which she can build. All she’s done so far is deconstruct.

The revery alone will do, if bees are few
. Nature does not always motivate, still less a prairie of the confines of one’s country. What makes a prairie is the revery, what makes a revery is the prairie. In dreaming, she asserts her independence, her ability or inability to put it all together, alone. The funny thing is that this makes the prairie fertile ground for clover and bee, hitherto unknown.

References

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010.