William Butler Yeats, “The Living Beauty”

Aristotle often speaks of serious people, and I confess myself at a loss to understand whom he means exactly. This much is clear: he does mean those truly political or religious, people great and small. Serious could mean Gandhi, working to make sure no violence erupted as an empire withdrew. Or it could be people around us right now helping the homeless, or trying to get a bond measure passed to build a proper sewage system for a growing town.

Who is not serious can also be clear. Demonizing others, making excuses, not caring to hear another’s reasoning, failing to learn methods and details, placing image over substance consistently — these mark hack work, demagoguery, those who want power merely to affirm themselves.

Nowadays, there is an enormous amount of money and power to be had by mocking the self-seriousness of others. You can take people who are more or less in the serious category, turn their mistakes and confidence into an indictment of their failures and arrogance, making them look worse than those who don’t even try. People who should know better will take the bait, consistently.

I’ve baited myself in like manner. Years ago, while reading this poem, I reacted badly to its juxtaposition of the high with the personal. I’ll say and maybe dream I have drawn content — I focused on “content” meaning the things any petty bourgeois wants, the things I want. Stability, love, a yard, things I need, some entertainment. Yeats indirectly indicates that these entail contentedness for him too, though he speaks in grand tones:

The Living Beauty
William Butler Yeats

I’ll say and maybe dream I have drawn content —
Seeing that time has frozen up the blood,
The wick of youth being burned and the oil spent —
From beauty that is cast out of a mould
In bronze, or that in dazzling marble appears,
Appears, but when we have gone is gone again,
Being more indifferent to our solitude
Than ‘twere an apparition. O heart, we are old,
The living beauty is for younger men,
We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears.

He says, maybe dreams, that he has drawn content. Under pleasant speech lies trembling ambition. Seeing that time has frozen up the blood, / The wick of youth being burned and the oil spent — he does not speak of himself as any ordinary human. No less than time has made his blood slow, and he has burned his own wick, his own oil, with a passion of presumably intense heat and light. The poetic image of using up your own life in a blaze of glorious talent is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Yeats makes himself a lamp more than “such fire,” but his chosen image cannot be accidental. This is not the speech of everyman. Who says he draws content From beauty that is cast out of a mould / In bronze, or that in dazzling marble appears? As a poet, he has studied the making and reception of idols. Bronze and marble beauties come from bronze, from chisels, and are treated as divine, if not considered gods themselves. The poet makes idols from mere words, as not a few have dictated no less than scripture for entire peoples. How, then, is he content? Did he create an image that allowed him access to the divine? Did he fall in love with his own faulty vision?

The funny thing about asking such incredible questions is that they do not just apply to the poet. The more conventional we are, the more we have at stake with idols. We recognize the virtues of the past or of those truly human or beyond human, and we attempt to realize them. We do this every day — every day people brave burning buildings, sacrifice their lives for others, or do utterly inhuman, cruel things that they think constitute the worst sort of hatred, the worst sort of contempt. A terrible excess of love or hate is only a step away from our doing the dishes or mowing the lawn. We maintain households, quieter lives, because we think we know what those lives fully entail.

This is the living beauty — life itself in the shadow of various beatific visions. It is and is not divine. Like the divine, it has a certain slipperiness. The beauty we attempt to define ourselves with Appears, but when we have gone is gone again, / Being more indifferent to our solitude / Than ‘twere an apparition. The poet, in the end, is human just like everyone else. Even if he is the one who calls forth the vision, he cannot rest content within it. It does not matter if he made it up whole cloth. Beauty has a life of its own, as it appears to those of us living as long as we attend to it. The second we do not pursue it, it is lost entirely; to have beauty is to have nothing. The idols project beauty, demand we imagine them, and the more we fall into that poetic vision the more remote we become from human life. If this sounds like the plight of an artist who overthinks, it isn’t. Think about, on a smaller scale, how those who want a perfect household or perfect family or perfect communities reduce those who love them to their desires. How nations, on a larger scale, turn genocidal, wanting mythic purity. Beauty demands and flees as it is realized. Those great baroque churches, even simple meeting-houses in the States, stand empty. The good and just realization of beauty stands just as subject to nothingness.

I did not realize before how profound Yeats’ self-seriousness was. To wonder about whether you can live up to your own words or vision, to wonder if you can draw solace from your own mind — this is not solipsism, an overly skeptical waste. This marks an entirely different level of serious person, the one willing to brave questions about herself and not accept shallow answers. If it was not a possibility Aristotle could speak more explicitly in his day, it is almost completely lost in ours. Our idols are on cable and will not shut up, lest we ever have a thought different from theirs.

In the face of the problem, Yeats resigns. O heart, we are old, / The living beauty is for younger men, / We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears. You will note that this is a profound and resolved resignation; it is not a tragic sigh with which he ends. To fully pursue living beauty is a folly, as it was a folly to chase after some ideal all-too-human lover. He must draw some content from his own visions, the idols he’s realized, and he does that now with this poem. Recognition of the problem lets him put aside for a moment the poetry that would found a nation, give it myths and morals, describe the cycles of history. He can get something from the idols, from the artifice itself, that isn’t more clever, but most certainly wiser.

Anna Akhmatova, “Everything Is Plundered…”

Some weeks ago I spent a considerable amount of time being talked over. No matter how innocently I spoke, I was immediately psychoanalyzed and assigned a motivation. If I had a question, it was marked as hostile and used to fuel repetitive talking points, not open a discussion for reflection or other themes or — god forbid — criticism. It was always assumed I knew less in any given situation, that I didn’t know what I was saying, and as I have a habit of confessing my ignorance this was used against me. I didn’t quite realize why I was getting angry until I separated myself from the couple with which I was dealing and thought about why every moment with them felt awful. I know they have no idea how bad they were. They probably think themselves ready for sainthood, as they enlightened me about every amazing speech, thought, and deed comprising their lives. They had plenty of stories of how everyone else was wrong about everything, and I rest certain that I have joined their fabulous collection.

I don’t know how seriously to take my own indignation. On the one hand, I’ve been an ass plenty of times and will be plenty more. I like to think while there are a few people who’ve put distance between me and them, they have much larger struggles which my presence cannot help. It’s still strange when what I’m describing doesn’t just happen for an hour (not good), a couple of hours (a bad day), but back-to-back-to-back days, like as if a whole unit is thriving on toxicity, needing imagined enemies, needing the world to see their way, needing an excuse to run away from said world. I suspect I’ve stumbled upon something truly awful, but I remain open to being wrong. Maybe I just ran into people who don’t realize, at this time in their lives, that they have really terrible manners.

I might be wrong, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel miserable. I got run into the ground day after day, after all. I sat for a bit wondering if I’ve abused and bullied everyone in my life, thus making myself prone to attracting behavior this thoughtless. Regret piled upon regret — even when you’ve done a lot of good, you’ve got second thoughts, and I haven’t handled much even remotely well — and I just had to stop thinking. I went to Akhmatova, who lived in a country torn by war and revolution, thirsty for ideals, indifferent to the cries of others, readying itself to kill. She lived in the bleakest of times, and if I had the tiniest iota of her strength, I would be able to move mountains. Somehow, she was able to write this about her own situation: Why then do we not despair?

"Everything Is Plundered..."
Anna Akhmatova (tr. Kunitz & Hayward)

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses--
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold, / Death’s great black wing scrapes the air, / Misery gnaws to the bone — I cannot say I could even imagine anything like this. My problems seem so small that I feel petty for simply attempting to complain. She felt misery gnaw to the bone — this isn’t just half a week or so, this could be months. Months of watching people close to you die, others break any semblance of trust. Yet I don’t think Akhmatova would dismiss lightly what I’ve written of my own anger and doubt. When she asks Why then do we not despair?, two things are notable. First, she’s surprised herself. She and everyone who remains should be broken; people break in any number of circumstances. Second, “we.” She’s not focused on her own individual mood, which might not be so positive at a given moment. She’s wondering how a people didn’t break. As noted in the paragraphs before the poem, at least two people I know look pretty successful at accusing everyone else, surviving and perhaps thriving in their own bubble.

In these words, Akhmatova sees far less cynically than I do. The land helps a people with its graces. By day, from the surrounding woods, cherries blow summer into town. It holds a particular grace by not being everything, by being one vantage point. At night the deep transparent skies glitter with new galaxies. Akhmatova makes it sound like the land naturally forms a people and thus performs the natural function of a poet, the oldest sort of poet. “Cherries blow summer into town” stands exquisite — fleshy cherries with their fresh smell become the summer that settles on one’s skin, one’s sight. Divinity is not merely sensual, though. “Deep transparent skies” is a phrase I feel blessed for merely reading. Can I eventually do it justice in my own writing? In the depths — in the distance — clarity.

She ends, singing a nation. They believe, I believe seeing them, we believe. And the miraculous comes so close to the ruined, dirty houses. The object of belief is not here yet — it is something not known to anyone at all — but we hope, depending on each other to demonstrate faith. A people unbreakable gives an individual strength. This is a natural assumption, a power wild in our breast for centuries.

I am not sure what to say after all this. I respect Akhmatova greatly. Her strength is something for which I should strive, and if I could write one word with the carefulness, wisdom, and beauty she brings to her craft, I would be an incredible writer. There is a larger, mystical sense of being a people and all that implies; it connects us to the past, makes the present possible, heartens us. All the same, I cannot lie to you. I see my nation freely falling into pettiness, groups of people purposely narrowing their own vision in order to prove themselves right and exert control in a relative sense. This is closely related to certain reactionary, nationalist tendencies, though it need not result in them. Generally speaking, it does create people obsessed with their own personal drama who push others away. There has to be another basis for faith, for knowing hope, even as I accept inspiration from those close to me. I hope I can find that faith by reaching out and reaching within, no matter my disappointment, no matter my smallness.

References

Kunitz, Stanley and Max Hayward. Poems of Akhmatova. New York: Mariner, 1997.

Emily Dickinson, “One and One — are One” (769)

Disappointed in people? Wondering why they don’t keep up, or why they use you to prop themselves up? You’re not alone in that (you’re alone in, um, other ways). One and One — are One, Dickinson declares, and it almost sounds like she found a friend, maybe a lover, definitely unity. Not quite, as the rest of the poem fails to mention anyone else, and if actually addressed to someone specific, has a tone not unlike “get lost.” Life, Death, the Everlasting — all are best approached by one alone:

One and One — are One (769)
Emily Dickinson

One and One — are One —
Two — be finished using —
Well enough for Schools —
But for Minor Choosing —

Life — just — or Death —
Or the Everlasting —
More — would be too vast
For the Soul’s Comprising —

One and One — are One — / Two — be finished using: I’m done even thinking about two of us. The very concept of two I relegate to its proper sphere. Well enough for Schools, yeah, I’ll deal with you in public, when I must. I’ll even engage, at those moments, in a public form of reason. No one will disagree that 1 + 1 = 2. Ask me about your wit, wisdom, beauty, yada yada yada I concur. What I really think will stay private.

There might have been friendship or love between us. We could have been something more. Oh well, we’re apart; what’s left is minor choosing for me. Perhaps choosing among Life — just — or Death — / Or the Everlasting: you’re damn right I’m disappointed in you. How long can I stay angry? Not as much as I’d like. As one, I’ll face life, death, maybe the everlasting alone. Your failure to appreciate what I bring means if we confronted these things together, More — would be too vast / For the Soul’s Comprising. You would bring too much vastness with which to deal; you would dilute my soul. The worst part about my rant is its truth, a truth not quite the same as hurling insults, e.g. trying to cleverly say you possess nothing of use. The truth is that without a commitment, it doesn’t matter how awesome you are. Your choice is something I must respect. A soul comprised of unreciprocated love struggles to sense its own completeness, let alone begin to comprehend the bigger questions.

Blog in Review: “the value of merely trying to appreciate, trying to communicate,” 7/29/17

Emily Dickinson’s “No Prisoner be” is a declaration of liberty I hope to make my own. It promises, ultimately, that one can always be free. But it does indicate that involves hard thinking about what we consider freedom in suboptimal situations.

I enjoyed writing once again on Amy King’s “I’ve Opted for a Heart This Mid-November Morn.” I can’t say I always feel good. Sometimes it does feel like a lot of things are a conspiracy against me, that I’m perceived certain ways and because of those perceptions, I’m not allowed to be myself. It feels like my appreciation of the world is only mine, worth less than garbage. King’s poem does a wonderful job of affirming the value of merely trying to appreciate, trying to communicate.

Jane Hirshfield’s “All the Difficult Hours and Minutes” expanded upon themes of the last two poems. How to deal with all the difficult moments, the ones we save and our brains replay over and over again? Hirshfield implies that we can call forth a higher purpose from what otherwise seems self-torture. This is certainly not easy, and it depends upon the correct circumstances.

Yosa Buson’s “Yearning for the Past” suggested something that I have trouble even conceiving nowadays, a situation where people love the present so much more than the past. Eventually it does cry for the past, not out of nostalgia, but a real sense that the past could be lost in the midst of a wonderful but temporary present. How to appreciate what is while respecting what was?

Larkin makes poetry look like the easiest thing for him. “The Mower” showcases his tremendous gifts and drive. It’s a plea for kindness, taking the urgency of carpe diem and transforming it into a radical call for love. It’s really hard to top just how excellent this poem is.

I reintroduced myself, if you’re interested in hearing me talk even more about myself, and I wrote on Death Cab’s “Transatlanticism.” I’m actually kinda happy with how the latter turned out.

Death Cab for Cutie, “Transatlanticism”

for Constance Turner

I have no idea what I was doing when I wrote on this 9 years ago. Well, that’s not entirely true — I have some clue. I looked then for peculiar language, wherever I might find it, and put all my effort into deciphering that language, as if there were a hidden truth which empowered its finder. I still do that, and I guess that’s why I’m prone to writing essays which are absolute messes. They’re all words about words, spiraling into galaxies of their own. They make no sense to any other observer, not even a future me, but they make perfect sense to me at that moment.

I can’t help but feel that this is a peculiar childhood state I’m reliving. Death Cab, for their part, has grown up. The longing of this song — I need you so much closer — now informs a number of hard thoughts about love and loss. You can see this partially in “Black Sun” and “No Room In Frame;” neediness has been replaced by wondering how beauty betrays, how we can love without hurting each other.

So what was I thinking 9 years ago? I thought a sly counterfactual lurked beneath the lyrics: What if someone loved enough that the world could flood? To be sure, that’s not terribly complimentary to the singer. It marks him as someone with a rather exaggerated notion of love, self, and pain. The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how — he’ll tell you how he saw the birth of an entire ocean. That ocean, just a bit short of the Biblical flood: the clouds above opened up and let it out, and it took indented, dry land, filled every hole, making islands in the most remote, random spots. That’s where his feelings stand:

Transatlanticism
Death Cab for Cutie 

The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how
The clouds above opened up and let it out

I was standing on the surface of a perforated sphere
When the water filled every hole
And thousands upon thousands made an ocean
Making islands where no island should go
Oh, no

Most people were overjoyed; they took to their boats
I thought it less like a lake and more like a moat
The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door
Have been silenced forevermore
The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row
It seems farther than ever before
Oh, no

I need you so much closer (X 8)

I need you so much closer (X 4)

So come on, come on (X 4)

His love/pain floods the world; he’s cut off from his beloved by miles upon miles of water. I don’t remember feeling crushed about love then, but like everyone else, I engage in a lot of projection. I used the word “pathetic” a bunch of times in the old commentary, even though “Transatlanticism” is on its surface a song about distance. You can plausibly hear it as lovers simply residing far from each other, oceans being the same as realizing how much distance hurts:

I thought it less like a lake and more like a moat
The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door
Have been silenced forevermore
The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row
It seems farther than ever before

A few details stuck out to me then, and they stick out now. The emphasis in the lyrics is on how he feels, on how he perceives himself feeling. He calls the ocean a moat, he moans about not hearing his footsteps, he’s unwilling to fight the distance. He says nothing about how his lover might feel, or what he would like to do for his lover. Add those to perhaps the most curious detail: Most people were overjoyed; they took to their boats. Wait, what? The world just flooded. Are they mad?

I arrived at the conclusion that “Transatlanticism” might not be about two people in love. It could be about someone with a crush, getting no attention paid to him, realizing that the world is going on without him. Everyone else is happy, he’s alone, and he’d like to make some kind of movement. Maybe he’s already done stupid things to get his beloved’s attention, maybe he’s already made a move. The realization is that he can’t just make someone else fall in love because he thinks he’s in love. I suspected the lyrics hide a person that’s growing. Yeah, he’s pleading, but that pleading comes to an end, and doesn’t involve any overly romantic notion of thinking he can change someone’s mind through his feelings, thoughts, and actions.

That’s what I thought then, and I don’t see a need to change it 9 years later. It still feels strange to talk about, though. It feels strange to remember I was sensitive to this. Getting love started is so ridiculously complicated. You’ve got to be passionate and at the same time ready for rejection, able to embrace restraint. You’ve got to be willing to be pathetic while simultaneously self-conscious. Listening to “Transatlanticism,” I hear it move from quiet and cloying to more hopeful and full. It stays tender throughout. There’s something I was supposed to learn 9 years ago, but I don’t think I’ve got it yet.