Saturday, September 26, 2009

Good Poems for Hard Times


Back when I had much too much time on my hands, I was ambitious to be a poet and even went so far as to write a few poems and send them away to magazines, double-spaced, with a stamped envelope. The poems were full of passionate obscurity; and yet, being 21 and confident of my calling, I felt validated by the magazines’ rejection of them and could have gone on writing the stuff for years and years. What killed my career was encouragement. I wrote a poem called ‘Crucifixion’ and a friend of mine (himself a poet) wrote me a letter praising it that only made me see how cheap and fraudulent it was and I didn’t want to be that kind of fake. Aside from the occasional limerick for somebody’s birthday, I’ve been clean ever since.

But my most intense and authentic experience of poetry was stealing the Oxford Anthology of Verse from Dayton’s department store in downtown Minneapolis when I was 16. It was a lovely big book and I opened it, inhaled the pages, let temptation burgeon and simmer, and since Dayton’s sales personnel were occupied with Christmas customers, I stuffed the book under my jacket and walked out, and thought, You should go to jail for this. I came to love that book. Poetry is a necessity as simple as the need to be touched and similarly a need that is hard to enunciate. The intense vision and high spirits and moral grandeur are simply needed lest we drift through our days consumed by clothing options and hair styling and whether to have the soup or the salad.

The meaning of poetry is to give courage. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right. Poets have many motives for writing, but what really matters about poetry is the miracle of incantation in rendering the gravity and grace and beauty of the ordinary world and thereby lending courage to strangers. This is a necessary thing. At times life becomes almost impossible, and you curl up under a blanket in a dim room behind drawn shades and you despise your life, which seems mean and purposeless, a hoax and a cheat, your shining chances all wasted, nobody can change this or make this better, love is lost, hope gone. But it can help to say words. Poems help. In Mrs. Fleischman’s eleventh-grade English class, my assignment was to memorize Shakespeare’s sonnet “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” and so I did, and having it in my head for forty years has brought me many moments of clarity, and other poems. They don’t come to me in moments of hilarity, but often when feeling bereft or drowning in work, Shakespeare’s lark at break of day from sullen earth arises, the heart is calmed, and one goes on.

America is in hard times these days, the beloved country gripped by persistent jitters, what mustn’t be lost, in this dank time, is the passion of young people for truth and justice and liberty; and when this spirit is betrayed by the timid and the greedy and the na├»ve, then we must depend on the poets. What your life can be, lived bravely and independently, you can discover in poetry.

People complain about the obscurity of poetry, but actually poetry is rather straightforward compared to ordinary conversation; rarely in ordinary conversation do people speak from the heart and mean what they say. It’s there in poetry. Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn’t matter poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart all that matters about poetry to me is directness and clarity and truthfulness.

My dad and I were as different as could be (I made sure of that), but his life had a clarity that I find in poetry. He was a carpenter, and if I close my eyes, I can see him, thirtyish, handsome, sawdust in his hair, running a 2x4 through a circular saw, trimming it, holding it up to the studs, pulling a nail out from between his front teeth, taking the hammer from the loop on his pants where it hung, and pounding in the nail, three whacks, and a tap for good luck. This simple act, repeated a thousand times as he built the house up over our heads, had the cadence and fervor of poetry; his life was poetry. His voice and the heat of his life can be found in poetry and nowhere else: poetry is about driving the nail into the pine, mowing grass, about our common life.

Poetry is free speech. It is ever on the side of the irrepressible spirit. It is on the side of exhilaration and the stupendous vision, the sight of the stars through the barred window, the perfection of small birds. Poetry is made of the grandeur that is available to a man with no fortune but with somewhere to walk to and ears to hear and a mind to transport him. He may be defeated in love and finance and yet the night belongs to him, he feels entrusted with the stunning sky, the guardian of the houses on the street and all the people in them. So are poets, the angels and shepherds of the sleeping world.


W.H. Auden

The chimney sweepers

Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;

The lighthouse keepers

Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;

The prosperous baker

Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;

The undertaker

Pins a small note on the coffin saying “Wait till I return,

I’ve got a date with Love.”

And deep-sea divers

Cut their boots off and come bubbling to the top,

And engine-drivers

Bring expresses in the tunnel to a stop;

The village rector

Dashes down the side-aisle half-way through a psalm;

The sanitary inspector

Runs off with the cover of the cesspool on his arm

To keep his date with Love.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973) was born in York, England. His father was a physician, his mother a nurse. By age 15 he knew he wanted to write, and at Oxford, he was a lackluster student and an ambitious poet. He left England for America in 1939 for which he was accused of cowardice, though it was English society, the class system, his parents, the old order, more than the war, that he was escaping. His best-known poems ‘September 1, 1939’, ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ and ‘To an Unknown Citizen’ all appear in Another time (1940) except for his famous elegy, ‘Stop All the Clocks’, from his play The Ascent of F6 (1938). He lived in New York City, a tireless teacher, essayist, editor, playwright and poet. He moved back to England the year before he died. A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.

Garrison Keilor

(‘Good Poems for Hard Times’)

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