THE POETRY SLOW DOWN
Dr. Barbara Mossberg
Produced by Sara Hughes
December 28, 2013
© Barbara Mossberg
We alchemists look for talent that
can heat up and change. Lukewarm
won’t do. Halfhearted holding back,
well-enough getting by? Not here.—Rumi
And not here, on our Poetry Slow Down, not you, and not I, Professor Barbara Mossberg, for our show:
TOWARDS WHAT END?
@HOGMANY: LET THE WILD RUMPUS START—BUT FIRST, WE’VE GOT TO SET IT UP RIGHT. AND IT WAS STILL HOT: IN MY END IS MY BEGINNING: IN POEMS’ ENDINGS WE CONSIDER ENDS OF POETRY, SLOW DOWN TO GATHER OURSELVES FOR CARRYING ON, SO SKIDAMARINK A DINK A DINK AT THE POETRY SLOW DOWN WITH PROFESSOR BARBARA MOSSBERG
As the year slows down to an end, we’ll consider how poems end, and what we may learn about ways to usher out the old and prepare for the new, musing on endings from ancient epic to Maurice Sendak, sonnets and quatrains, icon poems, lovely poems, whose purpose may be revealed in the endings as we reason how to carry on. We’ll hear it for Bobby Burns, Dorothy Parker, Shakespeare, William Stafford, Tennyson, Homer, Dickinson, Stanley Kunitz, Thoreau, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, oh, you know which one–, Rumi, Naomi Shahib Nye, James Wright, Mary Oliver, Nikki Giovanni, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Mark Doty, Billy Collins, Rilke, Chuck Tripi, and more . . . alchemists looking for talent that can heat up and change . . . that’s you! Here! Hear hear!
I’m thinking of you, listening to our poetry show, slowing down for something so old-school and yet so HEAR as radio, closest to the way we have talked to each other from the beginning, just our voices . . . in the beginning, maybe around a fire, mostly in the dark, and it was poetry, it was song, it was story sung in a form we now call epic, and I have been thinking of what it is about poetry that has always been the foundation of every society, every community. Even as we approach the last days of this year, poetry leads the way—for example, how the Scots celebrate Hogmanay . . .
Now do you remember, Poetry Slow Down, our show a few weeks ago on cleaning in these December days? [You can podcast it or I’ll send it to you as soon as I’m done sweeping.] Well, this is to get us ready to properly celebrate the poetry way New Years Eve–before midnight cleaning the house on 31st December (and clearing all your debts before “the bells” at midnight)—a spirit cleanse like the Iranian winter solstice celebrations, with the poetry of Hafez, we celebrated on our show last week– . . . .Then, Hogmanay: immediately after midnight we sing the Robert Burns poem’ “For Auld Lang Syne.”
Poetry is the way a people knows itself, gathers itself, and it occurred to me, thinking of poems for our end-of-the-year show today what it is about poetry. Is it that when we talk to each other, our day to day conversash, we don’t really talk about what is going on with us, inside us, what we are thinking. Yeah, we exchange information, pleasantries, how we slept, how we’re feeling, our needs, issues, complaints, ires, irks, jokes, we say how are you, we mean it, we answer, fine, and sort of mean it, but there’s a world of knowing inside each of us that isn’t expressed, half-hearted holding back Rumi says—. We’re all Homeric or Dickinson nobodies in the sense of being largely unknown—in magnitude we’re tips of our own icebergs. We don’t talk directly into each other, to this listening alert self. Stories and movies and newspapers entertain us as onlookers but don’t talk to US. But a poem is a kind of magic mirror. It talks to us. The poem waylays us, grabs us, trips us, slows us down, wrestles us, wrangles us, gets our attention, sits us down, rocks us, bothers us, unsettles us, stirs us and shakes us and soothes us, telling us what it is that can be thought and felt. Maybe because the poets are trying to express themselves, what it is to be them, on this earth of ours, on this journey with each other, they are speaking to us and for us. They are challenging us. In their belief in us, they are changing us. I am thinking of how we are led into poems, let us go then, you and I, do not go gentle into that good night, let us arise and go now, and go to innisfree, I was born in the congo, sing in me muse, I thank You God for most this amazing day, I’ll tell you how the sun rose: the poets can’t do it without us—we are part of it, this listeningness, this hearing, this being. The poet is expressing the most private vision, in such strange language, but it is telling us something important about our world and our life. Emily Dickinson said, This was a poet: it is that distills amazing sense from ordinary meanings. Maybe that is why William Carlos Williams says it is difficult to get the news in despised poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. It’s you: the talent invoked by words like these of Rumi who’s after YOU our Poetry Slow Down—he doesn’t let himself off the hook—and he brings us in: we have skin in this game. Our show reviews poems in which Rumi brings us in to his confessions, making clear the courage he says is necessary to tell one’s truth, and our own sense of risk, indeed, in participating in the poem. What we realize in this reading is that in each poem the ending is an opening to a new stage that calls on us as a “mighty kindness.”
On that note, as we confront the end of the year, and reflect, and perhaps jot some new new years resolutions or dust off old new years resolutions, yearning wistfully to escape our bullying bad habits, adopting good ones, as we consider how we are going to conclude this year, we hear how poets end their
poems. Are the poems means to an end, revealed in the last lines, or an end in themselves? We may end up with ideas about new ways to go forward, new resolve, maybe resolutions . . . are you in? That’s the spirit! . . . We’ll hear poems of infinite sweetness and light; poems of cheer and resoluteness; poems of deus ex machina; poems that lecture us, hector us, win us, whine, shine us, take us someplace, to some end, and leave us for what end. . . We begin with William Stafford’s “The Way It Is,” written in his last weeks, an admission of fraility but enduring ability to hold on, followed by a companion poem of Stanley Kunitz, “The Long Boat.”
“This is a very brave way to end this poem, after he has imagined making peace with letting everything go, his own end, drifting away from all he loves, and no one can help him, no one can stop this, and he’s okay with it, his disappearing, and then at the end, he admits, he loves the earth so much he wanted to stay forever. And so we are left with something not resigned or philosophical, a living love, that does not end . . . “ We hear an explanation from Rumi’s “Not Here.” And this seems to be exactly what Mark Doty keeps in mind 800 years later–A Green Crab’s Shell, Mark Doty—he’s so finicky in the way he walks through life, trying to find words for what he sees that are exact, “Not, exactly, green,, closer to bronze,” and he’s describing ruin, from a wreck, an ended life, guts gulped by gull, a broken shell:
“What color is the underside of skin? Not so bad, to die, if we could be opened into this– if the smallest chambers of ourselves, similarly,revealed some sky.”
Now wait a minute here. We were on the beach examining a green crab shell, this was not anything to do with us, and thoughts of our own mortality, yet the end of this poem is about us, “we,” he says, and he’s pondering Stanley Kunitz’s imagining, “not so bad to die,” a way to think of our own ending that is not a closure, but an opening, even in the “smallest chamber of ourselves,” to sky—what is infinite, what is beautiful, what is shining, what is endless.
We consider Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” ending, “You must change your life.” Whoa—slow down! What does that mean? That whatever is in us that is seen—something shining and wild—means that we must change our life? That’s not an ending, that’s a whole new beginning! On that note we shall begin again after our break from our wonderful sponsors.
In Part Two, we hear “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” by James Wright, which ends, “I have wasted my life.” Whoa, what does that mean? Indeed, thinking for yourself, what do you make of this ending, I have wasted my life? I didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s James Wright, and he’s doing a selfie of himself lying in a hammock, making us see the scene as he lies, the visuals, overhead, on this afternoon, and it’s sort of lazing around with us. . . then, his last line, leaving us like this, with a 911: I have wasted my life. What does he mean? How can he just bring this up and then leave us? James? Is this a way of wasting his life, is this poem a critique of himself, lazing his days away. Or is this time of being aware of the butterfly, the sound of cowbells, this slowing down—I’m just sayin’—so momentous, bringing his soul to the fore, the most mundane, represented here by horse manure,
made shining, golden, alchemy in the light, does it make him realize he has NOT been spending his days right, i.e., like this . . . and in a way I see a companion to this poem as Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day:”
“Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
So James Wright would say, swing in a hammock, notice everything. Wright ends his poem shocking us, with his own realization; Mary Oliver ends her poem with a challenge to us, a question, a demand: tell me. Tell me, she says twice. We read this poem, and we’ve been pretty safe, she’s over there, on her knees, looking at a grasshopper, you go for it, Mary, we are saying, and then, she turns the tables on us. You, she says. We’re looking around, who, me? I’m just the reader of this poem, but no, she’s after us. She’s ambushed us, into a reflection now of just what IS the plan, how are we going to spend our times, what is our New Year’s resolution? We didn’t even KNOW we HAD a wild life, a precious life. That is a lot to gulp down. So with poem’s end, the work now begins, and it seems the end of the poem, its purpose, is precisely to inspire and motivate and command, in the sense of Rumi’s bossing us about, to contemplate our lives in a much more deliberate way. Our work has just begun.
This is how poets use endings of their own creations, the semantic border, the sign off. As James Wright turns the camera on himself to make us ponder his life and by extension ours, we see Robert Frost do the same in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
This ending is another whoa. Someone’s telling us about being in a snowy landscape in the woods outside of town—he’s describing the scene—it’s quiet—sweep of easy wind and downy flake—woods lovely, dark, and deep, but then he says, BUT I have promises to keep, as if he wants to go into these woods, and only his obligations keep him—how far away he is from his
destination on this journey, AND miles to go before I sleep, all right. We get it, no time to dally, get a move on, he’s got work to do. But then he repeats the line, exactly, And miles to go before I sleep. Now this second and miles to go before I sleep is different, a new ball game. He’s taking this to the next level, backstage of a philosophical crisis—sleep the first time around may be sleep, but the second time, is it the sleep from which we do not wake in this bodily form? Some say yes, it is death. So then, is his wistfulness about not being able just yet to go into those lovely deep and dark woods about woods, or . . . is he talking about yearning towards death? Meanwhile, he faces a long, long journey and he’s no where near the end. So this ending is about there not being an end in sight. Keep going!
This is the spirit of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish
I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine to the bailer rusted orange, the sun-cracked thwarts, the oarlocks on their strings, the gunnels- until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go.
So we get this ending, a surprise, of sweetness, of relief, of respite. I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat. Already a happy ending is going to be larger than the objects the poem describes. There is going to be something beyond the squalor and decrepitude, of the rust, the pool of bilge, “until everything was rainbow—“ now if she had stopped here, it would have been a sober lyric, but two more rainbows, as if we are seeing it and it is vibrating, it is
filling the whole field of vision. The last line, AND I let the fish go. . That “and” as if she is telling us a story, and so, a casualness, about the magnitude of her act, reprieving a life of an old crusted scarred fish—this godlike power singing in a calm matter of factness as the topic is glory and grace. It is such a redemptive poem of humanity. Thank you, Elizabeth Bishop, for writing this and redeeming us.
We hear from Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” with its anthem ending:
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission
I mean…I…can fly
like a bird in the sky…
Claiming one’s own heroic happy identity as an epic destination, Nikki Giovanni ends on a triumphant note: she pauses to let us know she is talking to us, telling us: I mean . . . the spotlight it turned on her as a literary creator. She uses rhyme here in a simple image, I can fly like a bird in the sky, to make the reader, reading with her and cheering her on, in an empathic act of narrative comradeship, soar . . .a happy ending where the speaker is just getting started.
Another ending that shows the poet’s ends of reprieve and deus ex machina is Shakespeare’s use of the sonnet form to make the ending of the poem turn us around. One of my favorite examples is SONNET 73
“ That time of year thou mayst in me behold.”
You’ve heard me talk me about this poem as this pity party, three quatrains of poor me, an aging wreck of a man, carrying on in one flamboyant image after another of his bodily deterioration, of his ruin, of his ENDING, a withered tree in winter stripped of its leaves, abandoned by birds, shivering . . . to this pathetic image he adds the dying light of a day, the black night, Death’s second self, and finally the dying embers of a fire, losing its heat, turning into ashes. This is devasting imagery, boo hoo country. That’s the first 12 lines. Then he has two more: a rhyming iambic couplet, with which he flips the whole poem. He stands it on its head. You can see all these things, he says, but it only makes your love stronger. Then in the last line, he is going to eke out the poignancy for all its worth—To love that well which thou must leave ere long. I’m not going to be here that much longer, so not only love me but love me love, better, get with the passion, we don’t have that much time! Let’s get going! Another ending that is about, in this case, a life ending—eventually—but whose end is about not ending, keeping the love going! Especially since, when Shakespeare wrote this, he was at the most 36 years old! I know.
The end is near, of this year, our human punctuation of time like a poem with a last line to send us forward, and we are musing about how poets end poems and if there is any ideas in this for us in how we can end this year, and come up with some resolve if not also resolutions for moving forward! I’m thinking of epic endings. Think big! For all of us who have read The Odyssey, where we get the expression, an odyssey, for a trip, a journey, an adventure, anything that takes us somewhere, that involves amazement, terror, frustration, delays, despair, tears, feasts, feats, finding yourself lying on a beach, monsters, tempters, people behaving swinishly, being tied up, in other words, a typical family vacation, just kidding!—we say, it’s an odyssey, on the way to a certain destination. So Homer’s version, thousands of years old, our first recorded literary work, that’s poetry, I’m just sayin, not counting Gilgamesh scratched in cuneiform, is presumably about the effort of Odysseus, of Iliad fame if you saw the prequel, to get home after the Trojan War, to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus’ whom he left for the war when Telemachus was a baby. It
has taken ten years trying to get from one island to another in the Mediterranean, and it’s one thing after another, what with Poseidon the sea god mad at him for blinding his one-eyed son—and the point is, the goal presumably is getting back to Ithaca. But he lands on the island half way through the book, then the rest is having to fight his way back to his kingdom—his wife has been fending off suitors who are literally eating him out of house and home—his dog is on his last legs, so is his dad, his mom killed herself with grief over his absence, he has a mess on his hands. Finally, he kills the suitors, 117 of them, he and his son, convinces his wife it’s truly he, and they fall into each other’s arms on their marriage bed which is an olive tree rooted in the earth. But that’s not the ending, after all the commotion and passion and action . . . the ending is this narrator saying the families of the slain suitors want revenge and are gearing up for war, and Athena says to everyone, let’s get along—here it is [we discuss the ending}.
Now readers and critics have said, What’s Up With the Ending? Isn’t this sort of anticlimactic after all the journeying, after the opening, sing in me muse, but it seems that—well, we could say that the Iliad is a book about war, and the Odyssey about peace, so that even though it ends with horrific violence, the ending is a gods council saying there will be peace, but how? Everyone’s bitter and mad and wants revenge—
so they are coming up with a way for people to carry on, move on, beyond impasse . . . the gods’ words for it is forgetfulness, so that is one strategy—forgetaboutit—but in profound ways, practical ways, the interest of this first poem that has been told over and over for thousands of years, is about an ending that is not an ending, that encapsulates all kinds of things that have happened in the past year, and enables people to go on . . . all we are saying is, give peace a chance . . . everybody be friends . . . –oh! Are you thinking of Bobby Burns’ anthem to New Years Eve, Auld Lang Syne? Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? –we’ll drink a cup of kindness then, to old lang Syne—Interesting! It is also sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending to other occasions. The international Boy Scout youth movement, in many countries, uses it as a close to jamborees and other functions. And that seems to be a theme of epic endings . . . even Tennyson, writing almost two thousand years later, who rejects the peaceful domestic ending of Homer, writing as a young whippersnapper, not able to imagine Odysseus happy in a peaceable kingdom, instead imagines Odysseys hunched over, despairing at the peace and quiet, so his poem Ulysses starts, it little profits that this still hearth. . . . things are bleak . . . Tennyson gives us an ending to this famously heroic inspiring poem, that is about how do we carry on, given everything . . . how do we move forward
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
It’s an ending that’s about not ending; it’s an ending about carrying on and moving forward. Peace, and kindness, and resolve, in this kind of ending: Rumi’s Zero Circle, ending, after the violence and wounding, people are coming with stretchers from grace, and we shall be a mighty kindness. And there is a certain je ne sais quoi about how we philosophically end—the opposite of epic is Dorothy Parker’s First Fig, four lines, and those lines, my friends, are not long . . . .
So it may be that the gulfs will wash us down, but we’re in this game. The ending is it’s not an ending. On that note, the last poem I’d like us to consider as we head into New Years Eve, called Hogamany, in the Bobby Burns’ crowd, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, We’ll take a cup o kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
In proper Hogmanay, we should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky. As we think about endings, let’s hear it for Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Did you hear, we hear, about the night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind/and another/--? His mother called him wild thing, and Max said, I’ll eat you up, so he was sent to dinner without eating anything./ And then we see Max go on an odyssey, in and out of days, into the land where the wild things are, and they roar their terrible roars, and they gnash their terrible teeth, and roll their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws/they make Max king of all the wild things, and he says let the wild rumpus start. And they carry on. Finally he ends it: oh please don’t go, we’ll eat you up, we love you so, and Max says No! –in this operatic whoosh–and like Odysseus makes his way back home, his Ithaca, and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him –this is how the poem ends, his dinner is on the table, and it was still hot. And it was still hot: that is a powerful ending, a message of peace, and reconciliation, and forgiveness, and grace, and a mighty kindness, and redemption–. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, fraught with an upsetting world in which she is seen as a misbehaving misfit, her odyssey of imagination, encountering monstrous forces, enables her to return in a transformed way—now able to appreciate home, her Ithaca, on her own terms of dignity and respect, and in Where the Wild Things Are, That is also how we are left, with this offering, on the part of an invisible mother, a dinner for the prodigal son, who despite behaving like a “wild thing” is so loved: and it was still hot. That says it all. An ending that opens the way to go forward. The poems we have considered today all seem to give us this ending, this tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? And miles to go before I sleep . . . to strive to seek to find and not to yield. . . carry on, O Poetry Slow Down: proceed! As we say in our family, with joy and vigor! And so I now pronounce you ready, to make resolutions, to face this coming new year, totally a creation of the human mind, this idea of twelve months, January the year’s beginning, not always the case in human history–but Hogmanay, how can we not? Let’s do it, friends—get out your whiskey and shortbread and friends to sing Burn’s poetry.
On this note, Stay tuned for next week’s show, when we consider poetic beginnings, ways we begin a new poem, a new year, a new stage, a new page . . . Five days into the New Year, we’ll already have broken our resolutions, so over it, we’re already post remorse even, still we hold out hope . . . that we may yet redeem ourselves and be of shining use to this world. . . so we turn to a bossy plaintive poem telling us, no one but us, a truth we need to know, Listen my children and you shall hear, in the beginning was the Word, there’s a certain slant of light, loveliest of trees, I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree, be thinking of first lines that speak to you, we’ll hear it for ways to begin again, and meanwhile, as we sing Auld Lang Syne think of Bobby Burns– our Bobby Burns Poetry Slow Down is coming mid January just in time for your Bobby Burns dinners, and Peninsulites! next Saturday
on the Peninsula, in Pacific Grove, we’re celebrating him at the Little House in Jewell Park 4-6 pm with shortbread and whiskey pudding!); as we sing Auld Lang Syne on New Years, we shall be a mighty kindness, drink a cup of kindness, a rousing ending to carry us forward, so like the sun we can begin again . . . as Thoreau ends his two year sojourn in Walden, saying he has more lives to live, there is more day to dawn the sun is but a morning star. And so our Poetry Slow Down, making our mornings last, glad tidings, friendship, kindness, and our acquaintance shall never be forgot, and so we’ll reconvene next week, with our Poetry Slow Down . . . thank you listeners, for your love and loyalty and panache, I’m Professor Barbara Mossberg, and remember, this is not the end: happy Hogmanay . . . remember what Rumi said: We alchemists look for talent that can heat up and change. Lukewarm
won’t do. Halfhearted holding back, well-enough getting by? Not here.—yeah—not HERE, not HEAR, you Poetry Slow Down!~ not you! You are the best! And shall not be forgot. We think of our own Chuck Tripi’s “Agencies of Grace:”
Yes, the everlasting song of us/How amazing to think it ends, important to think it doesn’t.” Toast!
© Barbara Mossberg 2013