Sunday, September 9, 2012

News of the World

My lovely lady Cassandra, light and love of my life for, lo, these 28 blessed years—a very personable but stubbornly personal woman who much prefers that I not mention her at all when blogging—today had to make her own wake-up cup of coffee, and her portable second one as well (for the ferry commute into Seattle). Usually I brew separately, singly, each cup and go-cup, allowing her to casually, studiedly prep to depart, but on this sunny September morn my collapsed-spine, pinched-nerves back was boorishly reluctant to reassemble itself.

As she darted back and forth, room to room to room—my own chipper sparrow, loosed and alert and alive—I sat propped up in the library, reading bits here and there in poet Robert Hass’s much-prized essays on the poetry of others: brilliant, beautifully written, elegantly eloquent, astonishing in his ability to find connections, discuss
them in a seemingly makeshift but wise and amusing manner, juggle effortlessly, for example, Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard,” Roethke’s "Lost Son,” and Ginsberg’s “Howl” all at once, without dropping any missed-toss piece relevant to those complex long poems.

Of course, a smooth unwrinkled surface—a carefully assembled piece of writing that shows no seams—hides the hard work that went into its creation. Yeats explains this in his wonderful how-to poem called “Adam’s Curse”:

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all of these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world."

In another essay Hass quotes William Carlos Williams, who could be philosophically obscure when not focused tightly on a red wheelbarrow or other sense image… but not here:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there----

Rather than "unacknowledged legislator," the 20th century's poet became a kind of "investigative reporter"... until there was a further shift, to "spiritual counselor" aiding victims, overstressed common folk, and sensitive confessional poets. (I'd say we're stuck there still, unable to move on.)

Hass is too smart, too canny an artist, his antennae too attuned to the Zeitgeist, to fall into, and be trapped in, some narrow vein of mannered poetry--whether bare bones text or surreal flight of fancy--choosing mind over style, rejecting style over-mined. He rides updrafts of inspiration, glides down currents of workaday existence,
snatching up each poem’s "news," his magpie intelligence and sharply intuitive beak piercing the surface of things and plucking out the significants within, building the nest of the essay bit by bit by bit.

So it's big news that he has just published another book of criticism, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World; and I was dipping into his earlier ones, rediscovering the easily assimilated mixture of astonishments and simplicity that distinguish his essays—and prepping myself to convince the lady of the house (before she departed it) that we really need Hass’s new book as well.

But when I bestirred myself and staggered into the kitchen, as fleet afoot as any Fred Astaire, we were both thinking of my back and wondering what those intolerable bones will demand in months and years to come—reminded, on a wondrously gorgeous morning, that aging and changing circumstances (me retired, she still
commuting to work) have taken away pieces of us. This day’s particular of loss was how we always used to sit together in bed, talking and reading, with our cups of coffee and tea… which I can’t do comfortably now, curse the back.

A couplet phrase popped into my head--invented or remembered, I don’t know—and I said aloud: “God rot/What God wrought.”

Then I tried to explain Bob Hass, attempting to mimic the graceful dance of his mind at work. (“At play” might be more accurate.) Of course I didn’t nearly do him justice, but it didn’t matter really. Cassandra was hurriedly gathering up the load she bears each day, already halfway out the door.

I saw and felt and said, “You’re looking especially beautiful today.”

She gave me her mock frown and, nearly simultaneously, her skittery embarrassed
quick-smile. (This woman in broader terms has the knack of thinking, sorting out, planning, and doing, many things at once; neither Hass nor anyone else can match her there.)

She might have been instantly misty-eyed too, just the tiniest bit, but she countered, leaving, “That’s just your eyesight getting worse.”

But I was thinking to myself, “Don’t play into that Afterlife/got religion/curse God and die stuff.” So I called after her, “Better to say: ‘God rot/What got wrought’.”

So long as I can see her and read Hass and whoever else, it’ll be okay.

* * * * *
Searching for visuals for this sudden piece, I discovered two things: Hass in his younger days vaguely resembled the young Yeats; and the older that Williams got, the more he began to look like Roethke. (Is that coincidence or warning?) As for Lowell and Ginsberg, there was no facial resemblance, but they did both thrive in spectacles. (Burlesque rimshot, ba-da-boom. Blackout.)

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