H.W. Gretton, “Triolet”

Honest, I haven’t been thinking about love lately. Okay, I’m lying. I probably have been thinking about it way more than I should. Still, this poem made me chuckle on its own merits:

Triolet
H.W. Gretton

I wrote my love a triolet
That burned, as many do,
With ardour, but I now regret
I wrote my love a triolet.

Today a lighted match I set
To all our billet-doux.

I wrote my love a triolet
That burned, as many do.

Comment:

Yesterday, I spoke to someone who was trying to figure out what he wanted from relationships. Somewhere in this discussion, I briefly mentioned that relationships can be about status. He bristled at this, but quickly composed himself. He said he didn’t understand what I meant. I then asked him about a bunch of couples he knew who flaunted their status as “together,” so much so that they inspired jealousy or anger from everyone else. “Point taken.”

So for this poem, I believe it’s worth reflecting on why love and revenge go together. It isn’t quite as simple as being disappointed that a relationship didn’t last. It’s closer to betrayal, at the least encompassing those feelings. The triolet captures this much well: “I wrote my love a triolet that burned… with ardor, but now I regret I wrote my love a triolet.” Regret turns into anger quickly, for “today a lighted match I set to all our billet-doux.” In fact, there’s a want to create a monument to anger, to make it permanent. We’re reading a triolet written, we think, after the relationship. “I wrote my love a triolet that burned, as many do.”

It’s those last lines which complicate things, though. When was this triolet written? Is it the same triolet he speaks of in the first stanza, the one “that burned… with ardour” and that he regrets? The poem invites us to speculate that his declaration of love and his destructive fury are the same thing.

In a way, they are. They’re both investments of feeling at the expense of one’s identity. You tie your identity to someone else, you let go of a little bit of dignity in order to burn with ardour and declare your passion. It doesn’t seem like the most substantial sacrifice, as plenty of people boast about being in love. But that boasting isn’t as insignificant as it seemed, on second thought. You tied your identity to someone else and made it clear that this made your life so much better, maybe better than many others. And while it’s true there is tremendous loss an an immediately personal level – you can feel like you lost years of your life – it’s also true that wanting to make a small monument to anger is more than a private milestone. You’re burning, trying to say that you can’t be wronged with impunity.

References

H.W. Gretton, “Triolet,” from Essential New Zealand Poems: A-Z, ed. Lauris Edmond & Bill Sewell. Auckland: Godwit, 2001. p. 106

Fiona Farrell, “What It’s Like”

I said I would blog daily, and haha this is already a day late. I can’t say I wasted today: I finished a first read of al-Razi’s “The Philosophical Life,” went through a bunch more of Andrew Johnston’s poems, started some counseling homework, worked for a few hours. There was more than this, of course, but I’m never disappointed in a day where I sit and read philosophy, even if I don’t jot down notes. I believe it is worth it to try to think, though that ends in failure quite often.

I thought I should get away, at least momentarily, from this recent theme of anxiety. The poem below, “What It’s Like,” indulges excitement, the thrill of freedom and the freedom of thrill. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

What It’s Like (via Tui Talk)
Fiona Farrell

Well, it’s kind of like
you’re hanging over a
steep drop, fingers
cracking on some old
root or other and below
there’s sand or river,
boulders worn to solid
spheres, and you say to
yourself, ‘Now, I could
let go.’ And what do
you know?

You do.

And then, it’s kind of like
singing with your feet off
the pedals, bush lining a
damp black road downhill
to the corner and a creek
like a crowd hanging about
in dappled shade for you
to whistle by.

And then, it’s kind of like
lying on a hillside, sun
full on and a gum tree
rattling away like streamers,
and there’s a whole kind of
shining party going on,
and you’re at it.

Comment:

I probably fell in love with love because of how empowering it was. I fell hard, for it wasn’t merely a new set of experiences. It was a new set of possibilities, a whole new world. A whole new world, and all one had to do was give into the craziness, let oneself be bold and uninhibited, not caring for rules:

Well, it’s kind of like
you’re hanging over a
steep drop, fingers
cracking on some old
root or other and below
there’s sand or river,
boulders worn to solid
spheres, and you say to
yourself, ‘Now, I could
let go.’ And what do
you know?

You do.

What’s it like falling in love? “Like you’re hanging over a steep drop, fingers cracking on some old root or other.” You don’t see yourself as tethered, but you do see danger: “below there’s sand or river, boulders worn to solid spheres.” In danger, you have the lamest, most drug-induced of insights. “Boulders worn to solid spheres” speak to time; time has eaten many in love; falling may not be that bad. You actually think this garbage – maybe this is a revelation of sorts – and you decide to let go.

The lover in this first stanza does not show herself to be empowered. Rather, she’s daring herself, trading anxiety and hesitance for an ersatz courage. That courage is the largest of all gambles, a gamble that something entirely outside your knowledge, your world, will save you. I don’t think I was conscious of this when I fell hard for love itself. I do think other lovers are different, much more aware of what they want, however irrational. I suspect they are more attentive to the sacrifice in this image, the “I did it all for you” plunge.

This is not the whole story. The poem switches to another time, one following the plunge. We can identify different motivations in that stanza:

And then, it’s kind of like
singing with your feet off
the pedals, bush lining a
damp black road downhill
to the corner and a creek
like a crowd hanging about
in dappled shade for you
to whistle by.

The risk of the plunge before is there, but it is not because of decisiveness, rather sheer carelessness. There’s joy: “singing with your feet off the pedals.” You’re letting your momentum take you down, letting all the things you would ordinarily bemoan be present for you. That bush blocks your sight, a “damp black road downhill” means you could lose control. You don’t care, you think they enhance your experience. “A creek like a crowd” tells everything. It’s like everyone bears witness to your exuberance, either cheering you on or seething with jealousy. This is the fall you hope for, but quietly, your own perception of the situation has shifted. “I made a decision” has turned into “I don’t care.”

Is that really a sound basis for joy? It’s the weirdest situation, really. I think most of us can remember being in love and romanticizing every stupid thing we did for love. We made sure we felt we were on the highest cloud. Is that the same thing as the careless of “singing with your feet off the pedals?” In a way, yes – any carefulness we show masks a far greater negligence.

There’s one more part of the fall to consider, the impact:

And then, it’s kind of like
lying on a hillside, sun
full on and a gum tree
rattling away like streamers,
and there’s a whole kind of
shining party going on,
and you’re at it.

You might be dashed to pieces against those smooth boulders, but “it’s kind of like lying on a hillside,” with “a whole kind of shining party going on.” In this last image, you’re at rest, no longer in motion, simply listening and seeing and enjoying. The poem, as a whole, works on two levels. There’s the experience the lover wants and will get merely by being in love. She’ll make an uninhibited decision, dropping her anxiety; she’ll continue to see everything going her way, confirming what she decided once; finally, she’ll be at a “shining party,” where she doesn’t even move but everything gleams. Contrasting with this level of analysis is reality. A crazy decision was made, an enormous carelessness and effort were exercised, and a passive, glorious end is envisioned no matter what. Reality does not necessarily exclude being loved back and reaping rewards almost unimaginable. But it does seem like we twist reality to create the craziest of narratives, and what’s even crazier is that this sometimes works. For myself, I remember the experience of being at “a whole kind of shining party” to be so incredible that I wondered if it was possible to recreate that joy without being in love.

Andrew Johnston, “Boat”

For a long time, I thought anxiety a taboo subject. I was used to awful people in my life telling me that their abuse of me was justified because they were stressed. And I certainly lashed out at times, making the same terrible claim (1). When I focused on projecting confidence, being more assertive, I focused on specific skills, such as public speaking, writing and talking clearly, being more organized. This worked to a degree, but the limits of it are clear to me now.

All this is to say that I didn’t bother to find the source of the actual anxiety. I’ve gotten too many responses to “On Anxiety” already, and I had better say something practical, which is: if you’re feeling anxious, identify the source, then do something positive about it. Nowadays, I’ll write in my personal journal, trying to find the source of the feeling. From there, I’ll assess. What did I do wrong? How am I being wronged? What would I like things to be? What can I reasonably change? That’s identification and evaluation of the source. Doing something about it involves short-term fixes (listening to music, going for a walk, reading, talking to people I trust) and long-term fixes (getting toxic people out of my life, insisting on accountability, taking care of responsibilities, reaching out to others, finding the right job, going to counseling, doing something fulfilling, etc.).

I’m spitballing a bit, but I just want to emphasize that if you think you have a problem, do something about it. The worst of all possible worlds occurs when you paralyze yourself.

Alright. With that said, let’s talk about this gorgeous poem by one Andrew Johnston, a New Zealand poet who writes introspectively, carefully measuring every word. “Boat,” below, is about our expectations regarding thought itself:

Boat (from poetryarchive.org)
Andrew Johnston

A boat though no more than a thought
might carry us, far from

the coast, as far as
we know. But

is it a ship then,
cresting and sounding? I think,

for its boasting, it’s just a boat
drifting down a difficult river —

now and then it runs aground
and that is where we live.

Comment:

“A boat though no more than a thought might carry us, far from the coast, as far as we know.” Thoughts, however small, are boats of a sort. Both can carry us “far from the coast,” away from previously impassable boundaries, to “as far as we know.” Dreamily, Johnston introduces the question of how thought functions. Does thought go “as far as we know?”

If so, maybe a thought plumbs our minds, revealing us to be deeper than we regarded ourselves. For thought can carry us far from the coast, bringing us to somewhere wholly new. Should we exult in this? Johnston asks if he should grant the thought/boat no less than majesty: “But is it a ship then, cresting and sounding?” Does every thought, no matter how tiny, implicitly hold a conquering, epic scope?

Johnston hesitates. “I think, for its boasting, it’s just a boat drifting down a difficult river.” We’re not necessarily conquering oceans, for thought exists in a specific context. The earth we traverse is smaller, more particular than we thought it was. To be exact: thoughts are relative to the complications of our lives. This doesn’t mean we can’t have large thoughts that communicate across the ages. It does mean that truly thinking starts with recognition of where one is.

The proof that we don’t conquer oceans, that our thoughts about God and humanity and the fate of nations begin with what is personal more than what is universal, is that thoughts strand us. Even if you think through something well, even if you arrive at something original and groundbreaking, you do not automatically become a fountain of wisdom and impartiality. You still have limits, areas where your partial grasp of the whole truth provides for you, but in their own way obscure the whole. “Now and then it [thought] runs aground and that is where we live.”

I guess my hope for all of you is that as you resolve your anxieties, you work with these limits and don’t find them discouraging. I hope you can embrace the deep need for diversity which a proper appreciation of life entails. Sometimes, anxiety is born of intolerance, hewing to the delusion that if all said the same – if a universal truth were fully articulated – all would be well. It’s never that simple; often, how things are meant stands far more important than a literal meaning.

Notes

(1) The distinction between a more realistic anxiety and neurotic anxiety is useful here. Going back to the previous post, I stand by saying anxiety alone doesn’t justify anything. However, a clear, demonstrable pattern of abuse – perhaps trampling over people’s rights, or demonizing the powerless – is not a cause of neurotic anxiety. It’s the cause of a more than justified anxiety, the latter which cannot dissolve until the former is addressed.

On Anxiety

Down the highway she drove, accompanied by leather seats, a space-age dashboard, all the space climate control could afford. It was like she was completely insulated from the environment: the grime of the road, the noise of traffic, the personalities of other drivers. Yet she clutched the steering wheel tense, trembling, fearing something. I sat next to her, and I could only think that every atom in her was searching, failing to find solace, and therefore screaming.

There are a few who complain about their anxiety and stress no matter what’s happening. I don’t want to spend words on them, not because they lack real problems, for many do suffer regardless of how much they do or don’t complain. I’d rather focus on how anxiety crushes one from the inside out, not allowing itself to be spoken. I remember another who wouldn’t leave the house in a Canadian rural town. Occasionally there were landscape photographs of a rugged beauty, but then they stopped. Life narrowed for her to a computer screen; her phone became silent. Showering regularly became an achievement, and being out in public was so stressful that it induced crying. You would think someone like this socially awkward, wanting to avoid people in general. On the contrary: she had been a fantastic public speaker, did cosplay, taught all ages, acted. Once, she did all the things for public performance which would make you think she was fearless.

So I’m puzzled. I see people embracing life wholeheartedly in one way, and scared to death of it in another. Anxiety almost seems to messily cleave life into two terrible, overlapping halves. There’s the part where you can function, more or less, and it is an open question whether shaking at the steering wheel counts as functioning. It is also an open question whether only functioning at moments where one has to step up constitutes functioning. And then there’s the part where you close down, or life is utterly miserable, and so even if you’re out in the world it feels like it would have been better if you stayed home.

On that last point, I think of someone from one of the most cosmopolitan, culturally rich cities who was more than a victim to himself. Over cups of coffee, surrounded by artists, students, and young people, it wasn’t immediately evident that his anxiety made him a ball of rage. But here and there he lashed out, saying the most awful things to and about others, things so vicious you wondered if he stayed up late at night thinking how to get others to kill themselves. Over a series of conversations, a portrait emerged: he was anxious about work, the lack of respect he got, the inability to get friends and lovers. However, you would never hear him complain directly about those things. He would deflect: everyone else is stupid, everyone else wastes life, here are all the amazing things he’s done today which he wants you to hear about but are actually good in themselves and do not need to be told to anyone. It was like he built layer upon layer over a foundation of anger, and the highest layers could almost pass for disinterested. Almost.

What does not allow itself to be spoken informs every word spoken. I wonder about a certain teaching regarding sin, where if you hold murderous hate in your heart, or lust after another’s wife, you have already killed and committed adultery. Maybe someone would use this to blame another for the ugliness within that they’re fighting. I wouldn’t be so quick to cast blame, though. The most hateful example of lashing out at everyone may simply voice the pain of the other two examples. There are times when hate isn’t really hate, when a confused fear reigns supreme in the individual. All the same, all three examples beg for remedy. Anxiety can bring forth empathy, but it can never on its own justify anything. To allow it the final say is to destroy the very concept of life in the process of destroying your own.

Kobayashi Issa, “Even with insects”

Even with insects (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

Even with insects–
some can sing,
some can’t.

Comment:

Children, teenagers, and young adults complain that they are not understood, and so it feels horribly immature, even alien, when you’re older and you’re not understood. To be sure, not being understood is a strange condition. You’ll complain you’re not understood for a particular reason, a particular feeling. But when you think about it a bit more, it seems a more involved affair. You’re really asking for a number of things to be characterized a certain way, your way. And sometimes, you wonder how much it would take to get other people to see things your way, a way you don’t fully understand yourself. What could be said that would work?

I suspect all who have a certain maturity can divide our interactions into two categories: successful communication with other people, failed communication. What we want to say can be deeply felt and not easily articulated, and it’s easy to think there are other people who are much better at speaking what’s necessary, people who can talk well naturally. Self-expression, in that respect, is almost like one’s capacity to sing, and it’s possible to be in awe (as well as utterly jealous) of people who can sing. It’s also possible to let that awe or jealousy consume one to the point where one stops caring about expressing one’s own feelings.

Onto the poem. Issa presents us with a picture of someone complaining: “Even with insects– some can sing, some can’t.” One could say the noise of tuneless insects on a hot summer night bothers him, but that’s not quite right. It’s more that the man in question is bothered by whether people can sing or not, thus his introduction “even with insects.” Why on earth would he be bothered if people can sing or not? Why would he be bothered if he couldn’t sing?

That’s the funny thing about a world of indirect, oblique communication. In some cultures, not speaking directly has a high value. Being able to subtly show displeasure or aversion, able to demonstrate a feeling by simply recounting one’s actions or describing a scene, comes at a cost. It prioritizes the medium for the message. Here’s a man who expresses his discomfort at the heat of summer and a cacophony of insect chirps. The complaint concerns where he is, but while that phrase can resound deeply, it is only an invitation to understand him. Giving expression of one’s emotions an aesthetic value takes away from what is actually happening to a given person.

What is happening to him? “Some can sing, some can’t” provides the necessary clue. He’s honed in on the notion that some insects can sing. There’s something he recognizes as a tune in all that chaos, and that tune no less than characterizes an insect for the sake of this musing. If we extend this idea to human beings, that some human beings can sing a tune tells us what we need to know about them. So can the speaker sing?

If he can sing, then the haiku is merely a complaint that the world is annoying to him. If he can’t, if he identifies with tuneless insects, then this poem acquires a certain gravity. He feels naturally unable to express himself. It is quite an oppressive feeling, if not one of the most oppressive feelings. It makes the world nothing but noise, nothing but hell. The tunes others weave don’t act as a model, but as a display of unattainable skill. One joins an ocean of unknown melodies. I guess I shouldn’t be too bleak – Issa’s tone is more that of mild annoyance. Still, I can’t help but feel a general aimlessness or listlessness will lead this direction.