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Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves. 

fellini-3I was watching Fellini’s 8½ the other night and found myself weeping uncontrollably at the end. The last 20 minutes of the film make little or no literal sense, and works on purely emotional level — I wanted to say symbolic, but it isn’t really symbol that works here; rather it is a dreamlike series of images that cannot be rationally explicated. They simply add up. One can see the final dance as a riposte to the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, where there is a line of dancers following death silhouetted on the hillside; in Fellini, it is rather a circus dance of life, to the rhythm of Nino Rota’s music, which somehow manages to mix sadness with ebullience. In Bergman, the queue is linear and headed to oblivion; in Fellini, it is circular and continuous.

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But what was important wasn’t meaning but effect. There I was with hot wet cheeks and full heart, profoundly moved, although I could not explain exactly why. In some ways, the finale of the movie is silly, even childish. Somehow, though, it hit some resonant note. I was a wet rag, drained and filled at the same time.

I bring it up because so often our response to art is too little; we are trained — especially if we are professional critics, as I was — to make notes, consider intellectual points, compare and contrast, bring context and place the experience in a historical moment. Yet, if I were to say truly, none of that really matters; what matters is whether I am moved. Art, whether literature, movie, music, architecture or painting, needs to do more than divert us, to entertain or tickle our pleasure centers. It should change our lives. This is not easy; this is rare.

emily-dickinson-daguerreotypeI remember reading a quote by Emily Dickinson, in a letter she wrote to her patron Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

When I was younger, this struck me as schoolgirl hyperbole. Now I am an old man, and I am poorly satisfied with anything that doesn’t take the top of my head off. Through a lifetime of concerts, theater and galleries, I must report that very little displayed therein reaches that bar. Most of the time, art gives us pleasure enough — we enjoy the tunes or the colors — but it does not rip us up, tear us apart and reassemble us in new ways. To justify art in terms of its prettiness diminishes the importance it plays in life and in culture. We must consider it in terms of how it changes us, leaves us weeping and hollowed out.

I have attended hundreds, perhaps thousands of concerts in my life. I have enjoyed most of them, and even in those that have been disastrous, there is almost always some moment of pleasure. (I remember a concert of amateurs attempting to play some Dvorak; they were godawful, out of tune, out of rhythm, unbalanced, a horrendous squawk — but they played with such obvious gusto and enthusiasm, and were enjoying themselves so much, I found I considered myself truly lucky to have heard them). But I can also count a few score times in seven decades, the number of times I was actually transported by a performance. Yet, those few times bring me back over and over in hopes of once again entering that heaven to hear those angels.

I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch blow the hell out of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, with a chorus of eight horns sounding the great heroic horn call. There was a physicality to that blast that cannot be captured in a recording. I felt the music through the seat of my pants as much as through my ears. It made me believe.

Early in my career, in 1964, I heard Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music play the Liszt B-minor sonata. I can still remember it, even to the seat where I was sitting and the angle I viewed the pianist from.

Twice, I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Unaccompanied Suites for cello, and twice I have visited Elysium. He has recorded those suites three times in the course of his career, and none of them captures the lightning of the live performance. Not even close.

apollo-1It isn’t just music, though. I can read and reread Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode and every time, I break down and weep. I have stood beneath the north rose window at Chartres and each time I have done so, I have been transfixed, even transfigured. It is the most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen — a lens to focus a vision of paradise directly into my hypothalamus. I had a similar reaction the first time (and each time) I saw George Balanchine’s Apollo. It is pure sorcery, magic, unalloyed beauty. Not beauty so much as reason-to-live.

I could go on, making a list. But that would be futile, and also misleading. Because the fact I was transported to some ring of heaven beyond the seventh by the Cezannes at the National Gallery in Washington DC, that does nothing to guarantee you will have the same experience. Making a list of the “great works of art” is pointless, because what matters is not the “objective” quality of a piece of art, but rather its resonance in the psyche and like any physical object, we resonate at different frequencies. What opens the floodgates in one set of eyes can leave the next pair unmoved. Chaucer’s short poem, Trouthe, has been a touchstone for me. For others, it may be a jumble of archaic vocabulary. You may melt to a puddle at Musetta’s waltz from La Boheme, and I might think it a catchy tune. De gustibus.

king-learWhat matters, however, is that we find in whatever art that moves us, some special shattering of the veil of everydayness, a bursting out into the glory, the recognition that the night sky is infinite, that there is some web, some complex knot of emotional string that ties us together as human beings. It may be Michelangelo’s Pieta, Picasso’s Guernica, Brahms’ German Requiem, that moment at the end of King Lear when he carries the dead Cordelia back on stage and we realize his splintered ignorance and madness is our own —  it gives lie to all the feel-good rah-rah about “the arts,” and the chamber-of-commerce support for cultural institutions. It isn’t that the arts are some charming little ornament to our civic lives, but that when that spark ignites in the rare cases it happens, our entire beings are set on fire. There is nothing “nice” about it. It is disruptive, challenging, destructive in the way destruction can lead to new birth. I never want to be subjected to pleasant art. I want to be battered by it (pace John Donne).

What makes it all more frustrating, however, is that it can never be just the piece of art. If I was profoundly moved by Balanchine’s Prodigal Son the first time I saw it, that is no guarantee that I will have the same experience the next time, and not because of a variability in performance, but because the art can seep in and work its power on us only when we are receptive. I may have had a overcooked pork chop before heading to the concert hall, or a disturbing letter in the mail, and cannot receive the gift of the performance. I may just not be in the mood for Sam Beckett that night; or the memory of one conductor’s Beethoven may deafen me to the new one being offered. A thousand distractions block the missive from the gods.

There is also our age: What moves us at 20 may not at 65. We find new depths in things we were once blind to, and outgrow early enthusiasms. This is natural and if it didn’t happen, something would be wrong.

So, we should be all the more grateful when we can open our chests to the lash of what is being gifted us.

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Call me Wordsworth.

When I was in my 20s, strapping and idealistic — i.e., an idiot — I lusted after this landscape. I knew it only in the photos in the Sierra Club coffeetable books, thinking how grand it would be to live in an alpine meadow in the Cascades, Sierras or in Alaska, with distant lightning-zag waterfalls dropping in a pencil-line a thousand feet down the face of a granite escarpment. I could feel the bracing air in my imagination. nuggetfallsb&w copy

The attraction was part a Longinian yearning for the sublime, for the vastness of the landscape; part of the attraction was its isolation, away from the ordinariness of daily life with all its people, some of whom might well be my boss. There was no TV in this idealized world; only bear and moose.

I am older now, still an idiot, and I can no longer feel that fervid longing, at least not directly, but I remembered it keenly visiting the mountains and glaciers of Alaska. They are vast, the air is ice on the skin and the vistas are the kind John Martin might paint.peaks2 copy

The pianist Glenn Gould once made a radio show for Canadian listeners called “The Idea of North.”

For those of us south of his border, the idea of north is Alaska. Endless forests, grizzly bears, rock-cobbled rivers, salmon, snow and rime.

Alaska is an inaccessible place, where no interstates lead, and even its state capital cannot be reached except by air or sea. For most of us, Alaska is important precisely because we cannot get there; it is proof that there is still a moment on the planet that is not yet filled with highways, billboards, Nike ads and grinning tourists. For most of Alaska, to be seen is to be explored; it takes dedication, muscle and energy, just as it did for the Gold Rush prospectors who hiked over the Chilkoot Trail.snow and trees copy

We think of Robert Service poetry or Jack London novels. Perhaps our idea of the frozen north comes from Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” In any case, it is a north that is still dangerous. A landscape that carries with it the final sense of the sublime: beauty that can kill us. And even if we survive, it is beauty on such a scale that our human minuteness shrivels our ambitions and makes us harbor cosmic thoughts.creek copy

Two hundred years ago, European art and literature was chockablock with the frozen Arctic. From paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to “Frankenstein,” it was icebergs and glaciers that told of the vastness and sublimity of nature. Make that Nature, with a Capital N.

The dark, stormy North was inaccessible and remote; humans were pismires in its vastness; danger lurked everywhere. Ice froze on the ship’s rigging and mariners had to chop it away with axes. margerieboat copy

“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed by their conflict.” — “Frankenstein”

Or, from “The Ricome of the Ancient Mariner”:

“And now there came both mist and snow,/ And it grew wondrous cold:/ And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/As green as emerald. … / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,/ Like noises in a swound!”gullclose copy

As green as emerald? Rather, as blue as sapphire.

In College Fjord, the glacial ice is blackened at the margins with sooty dirt and rocks, but the central part — the “filet,” as you might call it — is pure and clean. It is there, in places where deep fissures in the ice let you see into the glacier, that the ice shows bright, clear blue. The color is brighter when the sun briefly shines on it. It is Tarheel blue, as bright as a new paint block in a watercolor set. Blue ice

One of the vertical slices of the glacier has been worn through, leaving an icy natural bridge. In its donut hole, the blue is intense. Ice, it turns out is blue. It is not the mere reflection of the sky that makes it so — if proof be needed, there is no blue sky most of this day — but rather that the ice is not clear. Turns out, water is not clear, either. octopus fingers mask copyIt really is blue, although so thinly colored that a glass of it looks transparent. Put enough of it together and the blue is apparent enough. And the ice made in this giant Frigidaire is also blue where it is pure enough, although much of the surface is roughed up with layers of snow, to make them white and glistening.

Crack and boom, and some more ice falls off the front of the glacial wall. Most of the calving involves an avalanche of small ice cubes and snow balls rather than the giant heaving chunks we see on the nature TV shows. The center of the glacier’s face is where most of the action is happening; a certain section is concave and its upper surface, overhanging its lower, keeps dropping bits like plaster falling off a wet ceiling. It crashes into the water in big ice slides and sends up waves that circle off toward the boat. They peter out into wide ripples before they reach us, so we can hardly notice them as they pass.BW09

When a bigger chunk falls off, it drops below the surface and immediately pops back up, like a whale breeching. Sometimes, as it reappears, it also turns over on its back, like a restless sleeper, before settling back down into the water. Seabirds rush to the spot to seek food.ketchikan totem 2 copy

It was the north that attracted Amundsen, Nansen, Peary. Parkas of animal fur made their heads three times normal size and they walked about in a stiff-leg shuffle in the ice and snow. The sky was always gray and the air always frigid. Snow blew sideways.

It was the ice and isolation that drew Byron’s Manfred, Jack London’s White Fang, Robert Service’s Dan McGrew. In Finland, it is the snow and ice of Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” the thin, remote trombones of his Seventh Symphony.

The problem is, that for most Americans who venture to Alaska now, they do so on a cruise ship, eating rib roasts and sherry triffle, looking off the taffrail for the spout of a friendly whale, or the antics of a sea otter. The cruise industry has turned the sublime into Disney ride. Whee!

It can take some concentrated effort, but for anyone who wants to invest the psychic and emotional energy to do so, the Alaska of vast spaces and endless emptiness is still there. But unlike the days when leathery men packed mules to go across the passes, we have to make that journey more in our heads than on our feet. It is an act of imaginative will to see the skull beneath the skin, the rocky sublimity under the coating of easy tourism.cruise ship in the fjord juneau copy

I went to Alaska to find the wilderness I fantasized about when I was 20. It was the allure of the Sierra Club coffeetable books, with their glossy photos of deep glacial valleys and snow-capped sierras. I imagined living on some Cascadian mountainside with mountain goats and bear grass.

Which brings us all back to Wordsworth and the “Intimations Ode.”peaksb&w copy

We gain a good deal as we accumulate experience like barnacles. We are stronger, less easily angered or driven to political excesses, and we certainly have learned something about love that we could never have guessed when our hearts merely wanted. But, we have lost a good deal, too.

“I know, where’er I go,/ That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.”lowsun copy

Now that I am past 60, it is no longer a life I want, but one can never cease wishing to be 20 and longing for the heart’s desire.

TS Eliot
This year is the centennial of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And the long view is that Eliot was the greatest, most influential poet of the 20th century, at least, in the English language.poetry june 1915 2

But oddly, he seems to have written only seven poems.

Along with “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” there are the “Four Quartets” and “The Hollow Men” — the last surely one of his weakest poems, whose popularity appeals to the shallow cynicism of pimpled adolescence. Beyond that — and not counting the ubiquity of the “Old Pussum” poems, for which the posthumous Eliot must be sorely embarrassed — the rest of his oeuvre is something read by graduate students. How many, after all, have actually read “Ash Wednesday” or the Choruses from “The Rock?”

It isn’t that these poems aren’t good, or aren’t worth studying or reading, but they haven’t stuck with us, while everyone can quote or misquote, “not with a bang but a whimper” and “April is the cruelest month.”

This isn’t to denigrate Eliot or his importance. I love reading through “Burnt Norton” over and over, or “The Dry Salvages.” But rather to illustrate a common point of art and culture.

After all, we hold William Wordsworth up to be one of English literature’s most exulted poets, maybe the greatest since Milton, yet, beyond the “Intimations Ode” and “Tintern Abbey,” and a few sonnets and Lucy poems, and maybe some notable passages from the interminable “Prelude,” how much of the vast output of that poet ever gets read outside of class?

I have a special place in my heart for Coleridge. I read and reread with intense pleasure a handful of his poems. “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” “Kubla Khan,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Tale of the Ancient Mariner” — but beyond that, how much of his work comes off as fustian.

Even Shakespeare, who wrote some 40 plays, is known to most of us through the “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” we studied in high school, and the “Hamlet,” “Lear,” or “Henry IV, Part I” we read in college. And perhaps there was that “Twelfth Night” put on by the college drama department. The bulk of his output languisheth in obscurity.

It’s not just in poetry. How many of us have read Melville’s “White Jacket” or “Israel Potter?” Or Thoreau’s “Week on the Concord and Merrimac?” Vitruvian Man

And not just in literature. Leonardo drew and painted many things, but the “Mona Lisa” and the Vitruvian Man outweigh all the ladies in Ermine or Madonnas of the rock.

Beethoven has his Fifth Symphony and his “Ode to Joy.” Warhol has his soup cans and his Marilyns. Even Springsteen has his “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA.”

The life and work of almost everyone gets boiled down to a few most characteristic and often the few best works. The rest, like the Latin poems of John Milton, are left to specialists.

In the preface to his “Collected Poems,” Wystan Auden makes this point with some clarity and poignancy.

The work of every author falls into four classes, he wrote. In the first is “pure rubbish,” which he regrets ever having conceived. (Although, I would say from experience, he doesn’t always recognize this at the time). auden

Second, Auden says, are the good ideas that come to naught through incompetence or impatience.

Third, are “those pieces he has nothing against except their lack of importance: these must inevitably form the bulk of any collection.”

This is the journeyman work, competent, even pleasing, and certainly better than lesser talents could accomplish, but still, it is the “filler” portion of a life’s work.

Finally, there are “those poems for which he is honestly grateful,” which, if he were to limit his publication to these alone, “his volume would be too depressingly slim.”

And, I would add, an impoverishment to doctoral students everywhere.

There are higher and lower batting averages among artists and writers, but, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 tries. It is humbling.

More to the point, it isn’t just the author who feels gratitude for the home runs of his or her production, but we readers, listeners, seers and participants. We are those who feel our inner lives buoyed by the “Intimations Ode” or Chaucer’s prologue, or Van Gogh’s wheatfields.van gogh wheatfield

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

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College is where the majority of attendees do the most reading of their lives. Indeed, surveys consistently record that at least a third of college grads never read another book after graduation. One must assume that these are the people who become politicians.

For the rest of us, college is where we encounter the first books that we recognize as opening the doors of our minds and either forming the adults we become, or providing reinforcing arguments for the personalities we have already developed: Really, both.

Coursework reading is where we first discover that other people have had the same thoughts we have had, and what is more, have been entirely more articulate about those thoughts. And those writers have considered issues that had never, as yet, occurred to us.

It is a four-year span in which we are, for the second time in our lives, slapped awake.

As for me, I couldn’t wait. College was an escape from the oppressive banality of suburbia. I was told by my parents that upon entering second grade I asked if that meant I could “go to college next year.”

I really wanted to get away and enter what I imagined to be the real “adult” world of intellectual pursuit.

However, when I got there, I proceeded to waste most of my time and my parents’ money. I was a terrible student. Oh, I worked hard and made excellent grades in those courses that interested me, but in courses that didn’t interest me, or in which I felt contempt for the professor (being the know-it-all that we all are as adolescents), I hardly attended class and instead slept late, drank beer, or spent time in the company of the serial list of women who let me into the mysteries for which I was such an eager sleuth.

There were, nevertheless, a few things from early-morning classrooms that have stuck with me. I want to mention four of them.shelley

The first, and probably most indelible, is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.

There are many for whom art, whether poetry or TV sitcom is essentially a branch of entertainment. These people includes highbrows as well as low. But there are some — and I am unfortunately one — who see a more serious purpose for art. It is probably just a genetic relic of the Norwegian Lutheranism I was born into, but boy, did I ever suffer from it.

This is a position that it is difficult to maintain in part because of the solemn piety of its adherents: easy to make fun of. And the grand claims made by Victorian do-gooders and Modernist manifestos are often preposterous, even laughable, and further undermine any effort to find a moral purpose to scribbling on paper, whether with pen or brush.

Too often, moral purpose in the arts has led to boring, didactic works, espousing this partisan view or that, whether Christian or Marxist — or in the case of that great fashioner of doorstops, Ayn Rand, unreadable tracts.

But Shelley makes clear in his argument that it is not the modeling of behavior that makes art moral, but the very act of imagination: The ability to conceive of thoughts, emotions, pains and motives not our own. Imagination fuels empathy.

“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.”

At the heart of great art is compassion. Not as a subject matter — that is left to the preacher’s sermons — but through opening each of us up to the multifariousness of experience and the variety of responses to experience. A great work of art must make us understand even that which we abhor. Humbert Humbert, for instance.

As Yeats wrote, “From our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; poetry from our arguments with ourselves.”

The class where I read the Defence was one in English Romantic Poetry, and it left me with a trove of things I return to over and over, from Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode (which I re-read at least once a month), to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to the psychedelic fourth act of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which is my substitute for bong and hash: “With a mighty whirl the multitudinous orb/ Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist /Of elemental subtlety, like light.” Flashing, man.greek myths 2

The second lingering from class is Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. I took several courses in classical literature, including a blunted attempt to learn the language of the ancient Greeks. En arche hen ho logos. I foundered on the aorist voice, among other things, including my growing dislike of the word-games and fascistic tendencies of Plato, whose Euthyphro I was tasked to translate.

But, I came to love the classics. They have enriched my life from then to now (more about them in a later blog entry). But Graves gave me a deeper and richer appreciation of mythology, and upset any naive notion I had that it was all a coherent, organized system of gods and goddesses (as it was made to appear in Edith Hamilton or Hawthorne’s Wonder Book), but rather a welter of conflicting local stories, changing over time and mixed into a stew that no one ever held onto in a single grip. Again: multifarious and complex. robt graves

One of the underlying messages of any important reading: Everything you know is wrong. Or at least, no single idea or ideology can adequately describe the world. It is always more complex than that, and we should beware of anyone who tells us they have the answer.

It is true that Graves had his hobby horse and you can’t take everything he avers as solid truth. But the underlying mash of malt and hops captures the brew pretty well.

Third, there was E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, which I read for a Shakespeare course. Tillyard covers several aspects of that world view, but most essentially, the idea of hierarchy, the sense that God created a world in which everything exists on a rung of a ladder of which there is always something above and something below. Thus, lions are the “king of beasts,” the way gold is the most noble of metals and the oak is the top tree. Further, that trees as a whole top minerals, and animals top trees, and man is atop all this, yet under angels, which in turn, are under God, who is the end of the line, very like Canarsie. descent of man

It can get quite silly and convoluted: arguing whether a siamang or white-handed gibbon is higher on the chain, or whether a peach is more noble than an apricot, since clearly, one must rank higher. Medieval literature is chock full of such debates: Who ranks higher, king or pope? But we still have these arguments, all over the place.

Becoming aware of this persistent trope in our culture turned the lights on: We are still suffering from this idea, and it is all around us, unexamined. Tillyard made me see and examine it: Every time someone talks about something being “higher on the evolutionary ladder,” one must counter that such an idea is a misunderstanding of Darwin. But that misunderstanding drives so much policy and inflames so much political rhetoric.

Tillyard made me re-examine many of the axioms and assumptions of our culture in a way more direct and concrete — and easier to understand — than all the horse-hair stuffing of the French Post-structuralist philosophers and deconstructionists. prolog canterbury tales

Finally, from class, and by no means least, I came to love Geoffrey Chaucer. I have become a fair reciter of Middle English, with a credible accent. And I found that reading Chaucer out loud enhances his comprehensibility. It become very like getting used to a thick Scottish burr or the sing-song of English spoken in the Indian subcontinent. When you get used to it, it disappears. Outside of some arcane vocabulary, Chaucer’s language isn’t all that difficult.

What is more, the poetry itself is overwhelming, whether it is the Wife of Bath’s prologue or the short poem, Trouthe, the language is as delicious as can be found in our mother tongue.

“The wrastling for the world axeth a fall.”

“Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse.”

“Much wele stant in littel businesse.”

My wife periodically asks me to recite the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I have fairly well committed to memory, and I can’t think of a greater or more pleasurable chunk of poetry in the English language.

NEXT: The years in the wilderness