Denise Levertov, “Keeping Track”

On the one hand, I don’t want to write on this poem. I feel miserable. My efforts have been scattered; scattered efforts produce lackluster results; I have no one to blame but myself.

On the other hand, what does it mean to “keep track” when trying to master a craft? If I fail, I can say what came before was doomed to failure. That answer is a bit too easy—can it possibly account for how success is achieved? Is “keeping track” simply matching “success” to whatever preceded it, and “failure” likewise? That sounds outrageously stupid, but then again, watch how we talk about leadership and good habits.

Keeping Track (h/t @KelliAgodon)
Denise Levertov

Between chores—
               hulling strawberries,
               answering letters—
or between poems,

returning to the mirror
to see if I’m there.

Levertov divides life into three parts: chores, poems, the mirror. Her lines about chores do keep track of time, but in the most whimsical way. Between chores— / hulling strawberries, / answering letters—she does not bother to list any true chores, skipping instead to what we assume pleasures. Those pleasures seem to combine sensuality and grace, as good letters don’t only speak to one emotionally charged moment, but are crafted so they can be reread.

The chores, the necessitated, are perhaps broken up by a higher sense of pleasure. What, then, of poems? She holds poems directly analogous to chores, and I confess this makes me feel better about my own failures. I keep thinking it is a luxury to be able to read and write and study, and I know that’s true. But this logic tends to create a powerful sense of guilt. E.g. if my work is a luxury, then I should indulge it continually; if my work is a luxury, that means failure is not acceptable.

I feel like Levertov has gone through something similar. Between poems, / returning to the mirror / to see if I’m there—what’s lost between poems is a sense of one’s very self. This initially sounds, to my guilty ears, overblown. Some people have to work 60-70 hours of manual labor a week, some are enduring prison. Shouldn’t we save the notion that the self could be blotted out for them?

It is possible that there are gross injustices which hurt people dearly and things that are not quite gross injustices which also cause pain. The price of craft is, to be blunt, forgetting who you are. A writer often has to write to figure out what she’s feeling. This isn’t just a therapeutic exercise, as some part of authenticity has been alienated when one strives to engage an audience or get the words exactly right. Good habits come at a cost: they’re still habits, and they may have to be questioned or undone in certain circumstances. As a writer’s material is her own life, her own process can be in tension with life.

On my reading, the notion of a mirror holding a reflection becomes crucial. It really helps to have an object do that work, as opposed to a set of techniques or expectations. However, as you’ve probably guessed, the object in question—the object holding yourself—would be poetry itself. It’s almost as if one is completely beholden to the finished product. Levertov’s use of space in this poem emphasizes “between,” which she uses twice to refer to returning to the mirror.

Emily Dickinson, “Success is counted sweetest” (Franklin 112)

Let’s try, you and I, to get success. Right now. We’re going to define it, and once we define it, we’ll realize we have a bit more of it than we thought we did. Let’s go get what’s already there.

For myself, I want to be more organized and disciplined. This means writing, studying, and reading regularly, not letting messes pile up, having proper meal times and bed times. It means publishing on a regular basis. I want to model the behavior I want to see in others, so reaching out and being kind are priorities. And that, in turn, means speaking out—I don’t want to hear excuses for the unacceptable, I don’t want people who have no concern whatsoever for others dominate our discourse.

I’m sure you’ve got a similar list, and similar sentiments regarding your own progress with each item. You can ask me what I’ve actually been doing, and you’ll hear something like “I just started.” I’ve found it useful to locate my efforts in the “pre-planning” stage of action. I can employ professional-sounding terminology for professional-sounding excuses. I do hope you’re making more progress than I am; maybe angry jealousy will get me moving.

Strangely enough, this debased vantage of mine might count for something. Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed—the only way to appreciate success is to not have it—in fact, to never have it. Does that include not trying to succeed? If I’m trapped in my own inaction, does that mean I have a picture of success? It would seem not, as the last two stanzas of this use the imagery of battle, of struggle. It looks like at some point, I have to try and fail in order to appreciate success. But let’s take as close a look at this poem as we can:

Success is counted sweetest (Franklin 112)
Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need. 

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need—we were told success is counted sweetest by those who never succeed, but now this proposition becomes more concrete and more specific. Not succeeding involves “sorest need:” you and I desperately need whatever “success” offers. A nectar is natural and may be bright, not just sweet. You could look at it as a gift of the gods, or you could look at it as an everyday occurrence.

Success, then, is a matter of necessity and perspective. This is dizzying, and we’ve only read one stanza. I usually appeal to necessity to cut down on opining. If I know I need to eat, that ends the debate of where I want to go to eat, right? Not quite—I’m still picky, partly because I want a meal, of all things, to be “successful.” I don’t just want satisfaction, I want in some small way to show it off. Now if I can’t eat—if I’m in “sorest need”—the utter indignity is soul-crushing. I can’t even feed myself: what am I worth?

I think Dickinson comes close here to articulating the literal end of American life as we today experience it: we’re afraid to leave the house. All of us, not just the ones saying we’re introverted or speaking openly about anxiety. It’s incredible how we’ve cultivated public spaces that in essence are only extensions of our private lives. There is nothing properly public, and lessons of leadership and proper social engagement are hard to find. So I believe this poem can speak to complete inaction, to paralysis before anything has even happened. It’s a completely arbitrary and imaginary definition of success that is both so necessary and so devastating.

Still. Not one of all the purple Host / Who took the Flag today / Can tell the definition / So clear of victory—in the swirling mass of battle, not one solider for either side really knows what they’re fighting for. Dickinson shifts to martial imagery, implying we’re all soldiers, we’re all trying. This does not seem to square with my thought that her poem can speak to complete inaction. However, a not insignificant part of my dissertation was dwelling on Xenophon’s Socrates loudly proclaiming to an elected general that all men go on campaign because they desire happiness. If something about telling people to kill or be killed in order to achieve happiness strikes you as strange, it would be wise to contemplate the speaker. Did Socrates go on campaign to make himself happier?

Martial rhetoric, the notion that “we’re all in this together,” undoes itself by its very nature. Some go to war because they’d be tried and shot if they didn’t; some break down while training, unable to handle any of it; some freeze up the moment the bullets fly. War is not necessarily a test of one’s strength or nature. Once again, given present circumstances, I have to be clear in a way future generations will not understand. There are people I know who would use this sort of analysis to say that opposing slavery did not merit battle. That’s not a serious consideration. Sometimes, there are things that have to be fought for, as there are duties which must be executed. It’s a separate question of whether one who fights fully realizes what success entails. Success is not the same as moral principle, to say nothing of other considerations.

The funny thing is that full realization of what victory means does lie with someone who cannot fight, or who is prevented from seeing the end of their effort. That doesn’t mean you ought never to fight. It does mean what I said above: success itself is not the moral principle. Only the defeated, the dying, can realize what success itself is. As he defeated – dying – / On whose forbidden ear / The distant strains of triumph / Burst agonized and clear!—success, which you need to feel for your very dignity, only exists relative to defeat. Someone has to lose. This means that success in battle alone does not advance anything moral. War is mere carnage without the prospect of peace.

In a larger sense, our inaction points to the fullest possibility of action. Success is not the moral principle, and being paralyzed by lack of it is likewise not moral. There are different degrees of “ne’er succeed,” and they are comprehended with emotional honesty, with recognition of “sorest need.” We’re back where we started, only incrementally wiser. No specific action, no triumph, is going to tell us what success means for us. We have to try to know ourselves, know what we want, and be ready for a trade-off—defeated and dying is going to happen to all of us, no matter what. Dickinson validates paralyzing anxiety in the same breath she undermines it. If I can verbalize my excuses, surely I can do so much more.

Emily Dickinson, “Away from Home are some and I” (821)

It has taken me some time to realize there are different sorts of profundities. I suspect I am not the only one who has fallen into the trap of holding wisdom comes in only one variety. Because a particular style of speaking strikes me as profound, I unconsciously believe all the things that sound that style “wise.” However, style does not exist independent of substance, and thus it becomes easy to miss blunt, harsh truths necessary for wisdom because they lack a specific aesthetic.

In the poem below, Dickinson speaks of migration. Given the enormous amount of white nationalism in which Twitter and Facebook are soaked, I don’t doubt there are those who will actually read this poem and think that emigration is only difficult for the cryptic reasons she specifies. I’ve met people who want to believe that asylum-seekers are liars who simply want to commit crimes. I’ve met some of them in Great Books-type circles. It is not for nothing Rep. Steve King, known for explicit endorsements of neo-Nazis, continually speaks about the threat to “Western Civilization.” His sentiments are not entirely alien from what a disturbing number who claim to be educated actually believe.

It is not unwise to wonder about the tribulations or horrors faced by those who emigrate and hold that to be a separate topic from the loneliness and alienation encountered by someone who fancies herself a free thinker. Dickinson’s first stanza seems somewhat playful, though the second has a much darker tone:

Away from Home are some and I (821)
Emily Dickinson

Away from Home are some and I —
An Emigrant to be
In a Metropolis of Homes
Is easy, possibly —

The Habit of a Foreign Sky
We — difficult — acquire
As Children, who remain in Face
The more their Feet retire.

Away from Home are some and I, she declares. Some are away from home, she’s away from home, she’s not with them or home. Her tone does not sound harsh or embittered. She does sound lost, and definitely worried: An Emigrant to be / In a Metropolis of Homes / Is easy, possibly. Maybe one can be a successful emigrant, as there are homes everywhere, homes with mothers (metropolis: in Greek, “mother city”). It isn’t simple to find your true family, those you feel a kinship on the deepest level with. But since she has not really tried this before, she cannot immediately discount the possibility that it might happen sooner rather than later, that a certain felicity might be experienced.

She’s begun to consciously search for where she belongs. She’s always been in “a metropolis of homes,” she’s always been “an emigrant to be.” The problem of this poem is how to reconcile this search with who she was before. If I realize I have been where I have not belonged, do I throw away my old self entirely? Maybe with regard to morality, where the immoral must be rejected and repented for, but this poem feels like it concerns the problem of intellectual maturity. The Habit of a Foreign Sky / We — difficult — acquire / As Children—who we were before depends not just on our ignorance, but our learning. As children, we learned a difficult habit, i.e. how to not be ourselves. How to deal with a foreign sky. It’s not an entirely useless habit; in fact, if one wants to understand oneself on a deeper level, one doesn’t immediately look for kin or allies, but looks at how one reacts and learns.

Emigration of a sort has brought her back home even as she has declared herself away from home. She remains at home in Face, but her object is not to submit to the conventions of her world, but understand them so they cannot constrain her. Self-knowledge means becoming a migrant, putting on a mask for those who don’t have questions, who are hostile to questions, who only understand obedience: As Children, who remain in Face / The more their Feet retire. When we were children, there were many times we didn’t understand why we were being barked at, but we understood to keep quiet and ask the questions we needed to ask later. We understood how to understand, once. I suspect there is more of a link to contemporary events in this poem than I allowed in my initial remarks, but I would not approach any such conclusion lightly, as if being a migrant were easy.

Emily Dickinson, “Exultation is the going” (76)

From Jane Hirshfield’s “Pyracantha and Plum” I do receive a certain confidence. One can acknowledge the past, think through it, and find something worth saying to another. Perhaps, on that last point, many of us have become cynical. I know a few people who will simply assert what happened to them as if they’re telling the truth (they’re not) and as if the moral lesson is clear and usable by everyone (it isn’t). In the face of this false confidence, it can be hard to see how to build genuine self-esteem. Nervously trying to get the truth, we might start thinking too much, isolating ourselves, not taking the risk of engaging others without appropriate shame.

What if we’re just tired of dealing with anxiety, responding to it continually with care? What if we wanted to declare ourselves joyful no matter what? Dickinson, in the poem below, seems to want to prove herself no less than exultant. Exultation—a leaping above, a joy so powerful it characterizes a blessed afterlife—is the going of an inland soul to sea:

Exultation is the going (76)
Emily Dickinson

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses — past the headlands —
Into deep Eternity —

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

On the one hand, this poem gives a distinct impression on a cursory reading. There’s a joy beyond all joys few can have; only a select, poet and audience among them, can understand this. On the other hand, Dickinson builds a context for that notion and then wholly undermines it. To be sure, “exultation” does not come from naiveté or willful ignorance. It is something we, bred… among the mountains want. We see past the houses — past the headlands — into deep Eternity from a distance; we do glimpse the sea. Our desire is for our vision, our words, to meet confirmation each step of the way. Our desire is for experience.

Still, one can’t help but be a bit suspicious about the experience wanted. The equivalence of “deep Eternity” with the everyday, earthly sea; the isolated heights implied by mountains; the “we” that wants exultation, a “we” crafted by sharing in poetic expectations—this is a quiet critique of faith. I don’t know if Dickinson knows it, but Machiavelli spoke of fortresses atop mountains as bad political strategy. Machiavelli implies that rule from above, at a time when the Church held massive political power, is hopelessly removed, impersonal. While it is striking that “exultation” in this poem is a descent, that does not necessarily change the audience Dickinson engages. We’re here, reading together, quietly wanting control over our own lives through these words. We know how we want to feel compared to others: Can the sailor understand the divine intoxication of the first league out from land? The sailor is not us, as he experiences the sea every single day. He does not feel “divine intoxication”—he has a job to do and does it.

Does this mean we shouldn’t “exult?” The poem is a sly comment about poetry itself being a siren song. It almost feels, for a second, like everyone reading the poem was entirely serious about going past the houses, past the headlands, reaching the sea. Like one atop a mountain wasn’t having a reverie. The question which remains is about what sort of experience and knowledge reading, imagining, and trying to understand constitute. There are no easy answers to this. Some of the most destructive I know, those tearing the world apart, are fantastic readers with a deep appreciation for authors and their intent. Yet I suspect there is something to the life of the mind that can help one escape one’s worst tendencies if utilized correctly. I will be the first to admit that this is a matter of belief.

Jane Hirshfield, “Pyracantha and Plum”

Out the window, I would spy a mulberry tree and a pair of birches which were set against a coniferous treeline separating our yard from the neighbor’s. When the window was open, the air had a certain freshness, even on the days I was plagued by allergies. I always felt trees have some share of majesty, however small—they are going to grow, their roots will expand, they will inherit the earth. The driveway next to the mulberry tree deteriorated, a basketball hoop had better days, and a tool shed devolved to its material cause, becoming crumpled metal.

What does it mean to see our lives in the places that age with us, in the natural world we think we know? This almost sounds a ludicrous question, as I’m sitting in front of the computer right now eating cake donuts from 7/11. But a moment’s reflection leads me back to the time I was eager to take long walks, trying to find the most beautiful scene I could possibly imagine and make it part of my memories.

So I wonder what exactly I want at such times. Hirshfield places herself between two seasons, each with symbolic weight. Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree, spring blossoms seeming tender, hopeful, on another. It feels like her winter is ending, and part of moving from being “chastened” to becoming “hopeful” involves searching for and accepting moments of inspiration:

Pyracantha and Plum (from The Atlantic)
Jane Hirshfield

Last autumn's chastened berries still on one tree,
spring blossoms seeming tender,
hopeful, on another.
The view from this window
much as it was ten years ago, fifteen.
Yet it seems this morning
a self-portrait both clearer and darker,
as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel
had walked through the garden, looking hard.

As of the first sentence, the world and her feelings are in a precarious position. The berries are out of season, the blossoms are new and delicate. Things seem “tender, hopeful.” I remember plenty of times I thought I was making progress, I thought I had something good, and in truth all I had was more expectation than skill, more hope than result. Recall of those times does not make me feel listless or numb, but it does make me anxious and unsure. It is not clear Hirshfield is ready to find or accept inspiration, should it come.

Hirshfield identifies feelings like anxiety or insecurity with the whole of life. We don’t really outgrow growing up, struggling with possibility and change—the view from this window much as it was ten years ago, fifteen. But all her considerations so far are background of a sort, as she has begun to establish how she is reflected in the landscape. Yet it seems this morning a self-portrait both clearer and darker—we didn’t need her to tell us she saw herself through the window. However, she has realized something. Outside is less a portrait, more a “self-portrait.” She sees what she wants to see, her seeing an instinctive crafting. The self-portrait she paints is “both clearer and darker,” and is strangely enough related to the work of genius: as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel had walked through the garden, looking hard.

This could initially seem too large, too out-of-place. Is she overindulging a melancholy reflection, proclaiming herself triumphant no matter what? The funny thing is that as adolescents, we indulge a similar type of ego defense often, e.g. “it’s my brilliance that caused me to miss every note at the piano recital.” I don’t think that’s occurring here, as the speaker has demonstrated a quiet, building maturity. “Some Rembrandt or Brueghel,” operating while she slept, gave her not only a new day but the possibility of seeing that much more in this new day. A genius could look at the garden and see her life written upon it. That’s not untrue, and it gives rise to a specific hope. Her time spent reflecting on her feelings, on her all-too-natural reactions, need not be pointless indulgence but the beginning of communication. If it is possible someone else could see her portrait as meaningful, it is certainly possible she can keep painting, working to depict the mystery at hand.