Friday, September 29, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: W.B. Yeats

I had a hard time choosing a poem today; I don't know why. Too many thoughts crowding in, too much to do. So I'll give you this classic, still good after all this time.

When You Are Old

by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Lives of Quiet Desperation

We’ve all seen memes like this circulating social media, encouraging us towards kindness. We’ve read stories about the waitress with a sick child at home, the elderly neighbor who has no visitors, the special needs child excluded from dance class. These nuggets of inspiration and these stories, be they true or not, serve to remind us of our shared humanity. They remind us to take a real look at that person at the gas station, in the park or restaurant, and to imagine what struggles they may be facing, what heavy burdens they might be carrying.

Running is a mostly solitary endeavor and when I’m out on the sidewalks of my neighborhood, most of the people I pass are alone too. I find myself often thinking about a phrase—lives of quiet desperation—and I’ll come home and look for the quote again. It’s from Thoreau, the literary world’s expert on solitariness.

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things."                       –Henry David Thoreau

This is, of course, from Walden, Thoreau’s writings about his two-year experiment living in the woods near Walden Pond. His goal: “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” What Thoreau found, after comparing life in the city to that of the country, was that men were basically the same everywhere. His “quiet desperation” refers to man’s desire to accumulate more and more material things, which requires him to work, worry and want, and to lose touch with not only the natural world but also with any chance for inner freedom.

This seems reasonably argued, but I think the whole idea of a life of quiet desperation can be embraced in a much larger context. In a universal, meme-worthy context. And while empathy is certainly a useful human function, it’s essential for a writer. When I pass an older woman walking, head down, hands shoved in her pockets, I imagine what types of problems await her back at home, behind closed doors. When a driver speeds around a corner, tires squealing, I wonder what drama is about to unfold when he gets where he’s going. What has he forgotten? Whom is he angry with? Whom is he avoiding?

Sometimes this tendency to look for trouble feels pessimistic, even condescending. What if that older woman is perfectly content, basking in some wonderful memory as she walks along? What if the driver is hurrying home to see his newborn daughter? It’s what we do, I guess, we writers. We’re constantly on the lookout for human problems, for people whose lives we can imagine as quietly desperate. Does that make us empathetic or selfish? Insightful or unrealistic? I’m not sure. If Thoreau were alive today, he’d most likely be using terms like centered and presence, and he certainly would be writing about taking time to observe the world around us. Maybe some of us just have a peculiar way of doing that.

"I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” ---also Thoreau, from Walden



Friday, September 22, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Ronald Stuart Thomas

Considered to be one of the most important modern Welsh poets, Ronald Stuart Thomas was an ordained Anglican priest, and much of his poetry reflects his time serving the farming population of rural, rugged Wales. Often compared with Robert Frost, "Thomas is making a universal statement... This pared-down existence, in a land of ruined beauty belonging to the past, is more human than any educated sophistication. Or perhaps one should say, it is more truly symbolic of the human predicament."

You can find more information about Thomas and his life and work here.

A Day In Autumn

by Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)
It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening

In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: John Ashbery

This week, many people are sharing their favorite lines or poems written by John Ashbery, one of our very best poets, who passed on September 5th at the age of ninety. He had a long and prolific career, and touched a great many lives; find his biography here.

The New Higher

by John Ashbery (1927-2017)

You meant more than life to me. I lived through
you not knowing, not knowing I was living.
I learned that you called for me. I came to where
you were living, up a stair. There was no one there.
No one to appreciate me. The legality of it
upset a chair. Many times to celebrate
we were called together and where
we had been there was nothing there,
nothing that is anywhere. We passed obliquely,
leaving no stare. When the sun was done muttering,
in an optimistic way, it was time to leave that there.

Blithely passing in and out of where, blushing shyly
at the tag on the overcoat near the window where
the outside crept away, I put aside the there and now.
Now it was time to stumble anew,
blacking out when time came in the window.
There was not much of it left.
I laughed and put my hands shyly
across your eyes. Can you see now?
Yes I can see I am only in the where
where the blossoming stream takes off, under your window.
Go presently you said. Go from my window.
I am in love with your window I cannot undermine
it, I said.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka