Monday, January 21, 2013

Life As A Work Of Art, Part Four: "Heroes Of The Sub-Plot"

If Life is indeed a drama or comedy in which we are actors, I will hazard a guess that most of us see ourselves as the leading man or the leading lady in the entertainment.  James Simmons's poem "Written, Directed by and Starring . . ." comes to mind.  But what if we aren't the hero or the heroine? And, by the way, who decides?

            Heroes of the Sub-Plot

Look at us, cursed heroes of the sub-plot,
twisting our faces into plaintive masks
over the footlights -- terror, desire and glee.
For we are lost, as usual at this hour,
in a wood near the front of the stage --
cuckolds and clowns and palace functionaries,
rolling our eyes to pass the time for you
with one or two approved cross purposes.
See -- we have put on character make-up
to distract you from the sound of scenery
being shifted behind our backs.  The principals
are waiting in the wings.  Too soon
our leading man will make the winding sign
to end our moment balanced in the light.
We smudge our eye-shadow with our tears.

Hugo Williams, Writing Home (Oxford University Press 1985).

                                   David Tindle, "Mural (Panel A)" (1978)

But, be we hero or heroine (in our own minds), somebody like Keats brings us back to earth:  "Call the world if you please 'The vale of Soul-making'. Then you will find out the use of the world."  The Chinese T'ang Dynasty poets and the Japanese haiku poets possessed this knowledge (via Taoism and Buddhism) several centuries before Keats.  (Which is not to fault Keats: these messages are timeless, but it seems that we have to discover them for ourselves.)

     Journeying through the world, --
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952).

                                   David Tindle, "Mural (Panel B)" (1978)

For further perspective on this matter, something by Czeslaw Milosz is apt.


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

                                     David Tindle, "Mural (Panel C)" (1978)


Shelley said...

"Harrowing the small field:" what all writers do.

Stephen Pentz said...

Shelley: thank you for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

I'm sure you'll agree that what Basho had in mind (if I may presume to say so) is that "harrowing the small field" is what we all do on this earth -- not merely writers (who are no different than the rest of us when it comes to the harrowing of fields in the vale of Soul-making).

Thanks again.