To eat or to be eaten, or both? That is the question. Life and death. What is our human fate and purpose? These are large questions, indeed, and poetry has some answers to get us slowed down in these hurtling days where we are going too fast to notice all that’s here, to sense the sensational, to pay attention, as Mary Oliver says, to be astonished. . .
Henry Thoreau said he went to the woods to live deliberately, to slow down, so as not to find at the end of his life he has not lived at all. You’re at the Poetry Slow Down, produced by Zappa Johns, I’m your host, Professor Barbara Mossberg, my students’ Dr. B, and you can tell already, evolved listener, that we’re slowing down, going into the weeds, the rough, on purpose, which is what poetry is, really: the weeds of language, the luring terrifying mysterious woods, what grows naturally, where and how it will, wildly, profusely, appreciated or unwanted, used or routed out, needed or cast aside–a language of difficulty and strangeness, using the very words on which we depend for all that we need, our bodily and spiritual and emotional needs, prayers to God and Creation, love to others, requests for help: poetry slows us down, with what William Carlos Williams said is news we need and without which we die miserably, expressed in ways that are experienced as “difficult” and “despised.” We need it, we heed it, this news, but it’s for what matters, the big things, like fate: like, what we are for, here, we on earth. This question of our purpose of being, our fate, our raison d’etre, is not something we can get to looking for a parking place, or sitting in a stadium, or scanning headline news—or, maybe not, maybe these activities, sitting at our desk at work, dealing with clients and patients, bosses and colleagues, family members, partners—maybe this is the simmering question, what I am for? Poetry is right there for you, because poets take time out, or they might see it as making time count, slowed down to work out insights about the one thing psychologists say we cannot live without: meaning. Oh, we can try. We can try to get through our minutes and hurried and worried life without saying, what am I for, what is my fate, why am I here, but you know it’s no good. Because you’re wondering. Poets stop the clock, and take us into the weeds, the swamp, the woods of our lives. For Thoreau, these were the preferred places—Emerson said of Thoreau, He was the attorney of the indigenous plants, and owned to a preference of the weeds to the imported plants, as of the Indian to the civilized man,—and noticed, with pleasure, that the willow bean-poles of his neighbor had grown more than his beans. “See these weeds,” he said, “which have been hoed at by a million farmers all spring and summer, and yet have prevailed, and just now come out triumphant over all lanes, pastures, fields, and gardens, such is their vigor. We have insulted them with low names, too,—as Pigweed, Wormwood, Chickweed, Shad-Blossom.” He says, “They have brave names, too,—Ambrosia, Stellaria, Amelanchia, Amaranth, etc.” and it’s interesting that the names we give for disrespect of plants we dismiss as “weeds,” as of no value, but of particular ire to us, as hardy as they are unwanted, we call animals, also those we . . . well, take up, literally, serve up, to serve us: pigs, worms, chicks, shad . . . .
Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. When, formerly, I have analyzed my partiality for some farm which I had contemplated purchasing, I have frequently found that I was attracted solely by a few square rods of impermeable and unfathomable bog—a natural sink in one corner of it. That was the jewel which dazzled me. I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village. There are no richer parterres to my eyes than the dense beds of dwarf andromeda (Cassandra calyculata) which cover these tender places on the earth’s surface. Botany cannot go farther than tell me the names of the shrubs which grow there—the high blueberry, panicled andromeda, lambkill, azalea, and rhodora—all standing in the quaking sphagnum. I often think that I should like to have my house front on this mass of dull red bushes, omitting other flower plots and borders, transplanted spruce and trim box, even graveled walks—to have this fertile spot under my windows, not a few imported barrowfuls of soil only to cover the sand which was thrown out in digging the cellar. Why not put my house, my parlor, behind this plot, instead of behind that meager assemblage of curiosities, that poor apology for a Nature and Art, which I call my front yard? It is an effort to clear up and make a decent appearance when the carpenter and mason have departed, though done as much for the passer-by as the dweller within. The most tasteful front-yard fence was never an agreeable object of study to me; the most elaborate ornaments, acorn tops, or what not, soon wearied and disgusted me. Bring your sills up to the very edge of the swamp, then (though it may not be the best place for a dry cellar), so that there be no access on that side to citizens. Front yards are not made to walk in, but, at most, through, and you could go in the back way.
In fact, the search for meaning is what can save us, what can sustain us, what can keep us going on, in all of the stressful trivia of our lives. Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning says, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Now Frankl is going to suggest we have a noble purpose, of doing for others, greater forces outside ourselves, sacrifice, and we’re going to hear his inspiring thinking for how we are to figure out why we’re here; he’s in my pantheon of writers along with Rumi and fierce Twain and earnest brave Emily Dickinson and Thoreau. But what if our purpose is . . . to be eaten? I’m asking this, Poetry Slow Down, because it’s summer, and we’re having barbeque, and hot dogs and hamburgers and pulled pork and fried chicken, and crab cakes, and I was thinking of that short poem by Howard Neverov, Bacon and Eggs: “The chicken contributed, but the pig gave his all.” There’s a startling acknowledgement here of the human mind, an empathy for what Robert Burns—who may be one of the most revolutionary poets of all time, and consequential for our ideas about civil and human rights and the environment—in a poem about a field mouse calls “a fellow mortal.” The idea that a pig sacrifices his life for us to have bacon and eggs, is to give a moral noble sensibility of conscious willingness, whereas, alas, as Gertrude Stein says in pigeons on the grass, alas(I think she meant this as she knew Ernest Hemingway was coming to the Luxembourg Gardens to nab a pigeon for his lunch), the poor pig just has the fate of being tasty, at least to our minds. I was thinking of this: these gorgeous turkeys who strut and stroll down our Eugene streets, the amazing complicated chickens, the smart pigs, the staring focused salmon, the gleaming duck, the large-eyed cow—and so many more, beautiful creatures who happen to be tasty. Is that right, that to be eaten is their fate? How unfortunate to be found to be tasty!
I had my own thinking on this turned around when I was camping in Yosemite. It’s in a poem I called “Night Hunger, Wild Hunger,” and I’ll read it to you to get us going on the question of our own human fates, and poems by Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, Chrstoher Smart, Ted Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Roahl Dahl, Robert Burns. How we eat and are eaten by our fellow mortals, and what does it all mean? Who are we for? What are we for? How do we serve? Our poets stop to wonder, and serve us up a show today on the big picture we don’t have time for, but ponder all the same. Hear hear!
© Barbara Mossberg 2018