Sunday, April 21, 2013

NPM: A Physics

Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon

Tonight's poem has been pulled from Good Poems for Hard Times (sequel to Good Poems), an anthology compiled by Garrison Keillor. Yes, that Garrison Keillor. The Prairie Home Companion guy. It's an excellent collection, consisting mostly of more recent and as of yet uncanonized poets, and might be worth the price tag just for Keillor's introduction. An excerpt:

People complain about the obscurity of poetry, especially if they're assigned to write about it, but actually poetry is fairly straightforward compared to ordinary conversation with people you don't know well which tends to be jumpy repartee, crooked, coded, allusive to no effect, firmly repressed, locked up in irony, steadfastly refusing to share genuine experience -- think of conversation at office parties or conversation between teenage children and parents, or between teenagers themselves, or between men, or between bitter spouses: rarely in ordinary conversation do people speak from the heart and mean what they say. How often in the past week did anyone offer you something from the heart? It's there in poetry. 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 I wrote about it as a grad student I hereby recant and abjure -- all that matters about poetry to me now is directness and clarity and truthfulness. All that is twittery and lit'ry: no thanks, pal. A person could perish of entertainment, especially comedy, so much of it casually nihilistic, hateful, glittering, cold, and in the end clueless. People in nursing homes die watching late-night television and if I were one of them, I'd be grateful when the darkness descends. Thank God if the pastor comes and offers a psalm and a prayer, and they can attain a glimmer of clarity in the end.

I finished typing this and realized there were maybe five or six better paragraphs I could have transcribed instead. It's very rich.

Note #1: Regarding the last sentence about the psalm and prayer: some pertinent words from a book I've been reading lately, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White:

Out of the ancient world had come a mass of beliefs regarding comets, meteors, and eclipses; all these were held to be signs displayed from heaven for the warning of mankind. Stars and meteors were generally thought to presage happy events, especially the births of gods, heroes, and great men. So firmly rooted was this idea that we constantly find among the ancient nations traditions of lights in the heavens preceding the birth of persons of note. The sacred books of India show that the births of Crishna and of Buddha were announced by such heavenly lights. The sacred books of China tell of similar appearances at the births of Yu, the founder of the first dynasty, and of the inspired sage, Lao-tse. According to the Jewish legends, a star appeared at the birth of Moses, and was seen by the Magi of Egpyt, who informed the king; and when Abraham was born an unusual star appeared in the east. The Greeks and Romans cherished similar traditions. A heavenly light accompanied the birth of Æsculapius, and the births of various Caesars were heralded in like manner.

The same conception entered into our Christian sacred books. Of all the legends which grew in such luxuriance and beauty about the cradle of Jesus of Nazareth, none appeals more directly to the highest poetic feeling than that given by one of the evangelists, in which a star, rising in the east, conducted the wise men to the manger where the Galilean peasant-child
the Hope of Mankind, the Light of the Worldwas lying in poverty and helplessness.

The <bold><italic> treatment was mine. White attributes the power of the "star over Bethlehem" myth to its appeal to poetic feeling. And up above, Keillor isn't necessarily making a statement about religion. He is implicitly stating the shared provinces of poetic thought and spirituality, poetry and religious text. It is no coincidence that the most influential religious texts tend to be poetical.

Note #2: Keillor's sentiments do seem to align with W.C. Williams's assertion that poetry should not be restricted to "the classroom." They're right: placing poetry exclusively in the academy's hands is like dousing an orchid in formaldehyde. People can still admire and study it, but it sure as hell won't be alive.

Obliquely germane: nevertheless, poetry should condescend to an audience only to the extent that readers will be compelled to rise up and meet it.

ANYWAY. Would that I were as good at pertinent and unobtrusive introductions as Mr. Keillor. Tonight we have a poem by 2009 Genius Grant recipient Heather McHugh!

A Physics
Heather McHugh (1948- )

When you get down to it, Earth
has our own great ranges
of feelingRocky, Smoky, Blue
and a heart that can melt stones.

The still pools fill with sky,
as if aloof, and we have eyes
for all of thisand more, for Earth's
reminding moon. We too are ruled

by such attractionsspun and swaddled,
rocked and lent a light. We run
our clocks on wheels, our trains
on time. But all the while we want

to love each other endlesslynot only for
a hundred years, not only six feet up and down.
We want the suns and moons of silver
in ourselves, not only counted coins in a cup. The whole

idea of love was not to fall. And neither was
the whole idea of God. We put him well
above ourselves, because we meant,
in time, to measure up.

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