Sunday, March 23, 2014

Perspective, Part Thirteen: No Choice In The Matter

Something obvious:  in the aftermath of the sad and painful events that life inevitably brings our way, one may gain some perspective on what really matters during our time above ground.  Which is not to say, mind you, that the gaining of perspective outweighs, or completely compensates for, the pain and sadness.  No, I'm not willing to go that far.  I need to think that one over for a while (and live longer) before I accept that proposition.

I'm reminded of the final five lines of Randall Jarrell's "90 North" (which appeared here in full a few years ago):

I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness -- that the darkness flung me --
Is worthless as ignorance:  nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness.  Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom.  It is pain.

Randall Jarrell, Blood for a Stranger (1942).

My view is not as bleak as Jarrell's:  I'm simply offering his view for what it is worth.  I'd say that, while I don't wish to engage in wishful thinking, I'm willing to learn while I'm here, with sadness and pain as part of the package.  Not that I have any choice in the matter, of course.

John Brett, "Southern Coast of Guernsey" (1875)

This much I do know:  one mustn't be seduced by the many Siren songs of false security the winds waft to us.


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
          'Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
          You could get them still by writing a few cheques.'

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
          They certainly don't keep it upstairs.
By now they've a second house and car and wife:
          Clearly money has something to do with life

-- In fact, they've a lot in common, if you enquire:
          You can't put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
          Won't in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing.  It's like looking down
          From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
          In the evening sun.  It is intensely sad.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

The final four lines are, I think, among Larkin's finest:  that inimitable plain-spoken and elegant combination of matter-of-fact honesty and sheer beauty that he often achieves as a poem comes to an end.  Of course, I say this as one who loves Larkin's poetry.  Others may find that the lines exemplify exactly what they don't like about him.  Perhaps one test of whether Larkin is your cup of tea is how you react to:  "It is intensely sad."

John Brett, "Forest Cove, Cardigan Bay" (1883)

Yes, better pain and sadness -- for they are direct evidence of love and affection -- than false security.

                 Remembering Golden Bells

Ruined and ill -- a man of two score;
Pretty and guileless -- a girl of three.
Not a boy -- but still better than nothing:
To soothe one's feeling -- from time to time a kiss!
There came a day -- they suddenly took her from me;
Her soul's shadow wandered I know not where.
And when I remember how just at the time she died
She lisped strange sounds, beginning to learn to talk,
Then I know that the ties of flesh and blood
Only bind us to a load of grief and sorrow.
At last, by thinking of the time before she was born,
By thought and reason I drove the pain away.
Since my heart forgot her, many days have passed
And three times winter has changed to spring.
This morning, for a little, the old grief came back,
Because, in the road, I met her foster-nurse.

Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (1946).

Do not be taken in by Po Chu-i's affectation of a gruff manner in a few places in the poem:  he is never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and he is always wary of sentiment.  For instance, I think we know that this is whistling in the dark:  "By thought and reason I drove the pain away."  As is this:  "my heart forgot her."  Hardly.

John Brett, "The Norman Archipelago (Channel Islands)" (1885)


E Berris said...

Looking for something to mark World Poetry Day, I realised your blog says it all. I keep thinking of G.M.Hopkins' poetry, which I always find expresses what I feel and prompts me to what I would rather feel, so is unexpectedly soothing. But you may not like Hopkins?

alice c said...

Dear Mr Pentz,
Forgive me - it is not my habit to intrude into another person's grief but I have found some comfort in the following quotation and it seems appropriate in the context of this post.

"If I know what love is, it is because of you." Herman Hesse

Stephen Pentz said...

E Berris: that's very nice of you to say -- thank you very much. I feel that I've barely skimmed the surface of what's out there. But I'll keep at it.

I do like Hopkins's poetry, but I confess that I don't return to him as often as I ought to. For instance, nearly every spring and fall "Pied Beauty" pops into my head. (And, yes, of course: "Spring and Fall.") I realize that these are sort of his anthology pieces, and that there are depths far beyond them. You have now prompted me to visit my copy of his Collected Poems this evening!

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

alice c: of course you are not "intruding" -- far from it. The problem on my side is being able to adequately express my appreciation for you and others being so thoughtful and kind over the past few weeks. I shall never forget.

And thank you for the lovely quote from Hesse. You are exactly right: it is comforting, and it does articulate (better than I can) thoughts that I have been having, and tried to get at (inadequately) in the post.

As always, it is very good to hear from you.