“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,/ I meet my shadow in the deepening shade” — these are the opening lines to “In a Dark Time,” a poem by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) that deals with his descent into “pure despair”: “My shadow pinned against a sweating wall, / That place among the rocks.” This is not greeting card poetry – it is a poem that descends into the poet’s interior to confront its anguish. The unconscious is a strange thing, Roethke once said: “You can take a dive in and come up with all kinds of garbage around your neck or you can come up with something beautiful.” In this rhymed stanzaic poem, Roethke comes up with that something beautiful – here is the last stanza:
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Roethke’s exploration of his despair through the poem enabled him, paradoxically, to begin to see clearly, and to rise up from desperation. Writing the poem must have consoled him – poets write to cheer themselves up, critic John Bayley wrote, and sometimes they cheer the reader as well.
You can summarize the poem in prose but how paltry that would be. It is the rhythms, the sound, the rhyming, all working together, that bring the poem to life. “In a Dark Time” is lyric poetry at its best: it concentrates meaning in an utterly memorable way. It is a poem you want to memorize, or feel you need to. It is a companion – perhaps, as Alexander Pope wrote in the 18th century,
“What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
In writing this, I think of Chris Hedges’ “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” in which he writes of his capture in 1991 by the Iraqi Republic Guard: they took everything from him, including the several books he was carrying. All he had left “to cling to,” he writes, “were lines of Shakespeare and poems by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats that I had memorized in my youth.” During his long captivity, says Hedges, “I pieced them back together, phrase by phrase, line by line . . . In the misery of fighting . . . and uncertainty, these passages at once consoled, pained, and protected me, often from myself.”
While few reading this column will have suffered imprisonment as he did, Hedges’ experience of turning to poetry in his dark time may still ring of familiarity. Another example:
Several years ago at one of the Favorite Poem evenings that the Takoma Park Maryland Library has been co-sponsoring with the Friends of the Library – ever since former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky conceived the idea – a man in his 60s, a research scientist who said he rarely read poetry, came for the first and only time. He spoke briefly of his son who had died violently and how he himself had been nearly inconsolable. He had found comfort he said in a poem that a friend had given him and that he read over and over. The poem was Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a dramatic monologue in the voice of the aged Ulysses who after his adventures that we know of from The Odyssey returned home to Ithaca, which he governed for many years – there he grew old and increasingly dissatisfied with the stasis of his life. This is not a poem about the death of a child but about the feeling of spiritual death and the yearning not to give into the frailties of age and inactivity.
“How dull it is to pause, to make an end. / To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!” Tennyson has Ulysses say. Though “made weak by time and fate” he wills himself to go on. Handing over the scepter to his son Telemachus, he calls to his old mariners:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
What is it about poetry like “In a Dark Time” and “Ulysses” that can evoke such deep feelings and bring us consolation and in doing so lift our spirits? It is difficult to say – it just does! Or in a wholly different vein, poems like Mary Beth Hatem’s “The Best Abs” that understatedly satirize the marketers of washboard abs and our own gullibility:
The best abs you’ll ever see
are not on tv.
South of your chest
north of your sturdy thighs
Look to your mid
section: it’s you
you, all you –
different, maybe –
a product nonetheless
and your life so far.
You want tv abs
abs for drumming
abs for the beach
but what you find is pillow-like
soft in the way
you – the you that gets on
with what needs
There is a delicious wryness here that has something to do with the surprise of metaphor: “South of your chest / north of your sturdy thighs” as though the stomach, “pillow-like,” were a geographic destination. Or Henry Allen’s meditation on September days where the “s” sounds evoke summer’s passing into autumn – the poems soundings are so insistent that only afterwards your realize that this is a Shakespearean sonnet that Henry has vivified in a modern idiom.
September, now, a stillness, summer still
the same, though stiller, and that’s different,
but still . . . old flowers on a windowsill. . .
in light that angles lithe and insolent.
The world in its September stillness stares
at me, not me at it as when it was still spring.
The different stillnesses each season shares —
look out, look in, the restless seasons bring
new stillnesses, and slants of light through glass
indifferent to flowers old and new,
to angles and to attitudes that pass
for restlessness, but still are stillness too.
a restless stillness in the present tense —
past, future too, the same old difference.
Poems of course draw on the same words that make up the mindless chatter we live amidst each day, the terrible clichés and abstractions of political discourse that batter the airways and Internet, let alone the euphemisms no longer surrounded by quotations that have crept into everyday language– ethnic cleansing, information extraction, waterboarding, surgical strikes, collateral damage – how obscene.
The best poetry, like all art, implicitly rejects cliché, abstractions, plug-in ideas – its allegiance is to itself. That is why poems are so essential in our lives – they say “No! in loud thunder” to the conformities and pieties that are so much a part of our culture. How does poetry do this? Can anyone say? My friend Herman Taube reminded me of these lines by Dylan Thomas: “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick. But finally you’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words.”
And no matter the subject or theme – from confronting personal despair as “In a Dark Time” to the deliciously cockeyed word play of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (“Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe / All mimsy were the borograves / And the mome raths outgrabe.”) – poetry is an engagement with language for its own sake. For the poet, it is “getting it right.” And in that engagement as D.H. Lawrence wrote, it is not decorative, it is not a pastime, it is not a recreational activity – at bottom, it is “a passionate implicit morality.” But that is the subject for another column!
Merrill Leffler can be reached at email@example.com. Or look for him under VOX POETICA at voicenewspapers.com.