Here we are at the nearing end of another year, the shortened days, the street lights coming on early, the bundling up against the cold, the season of hearth fires, and – farewell Norman Rockwell – IPADS, 3D TVs, Ninetendo Wiis, and the barrage of bargains you cannot not (double negative) afford not to pass on. The advertising assault weighed in at two pounds minimum with the Sunday Washington Post – BLACK FRIDAY was the starting gun for the season of Buy! Buy! Buy!
“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” the poet Wordsworth wrote more than two hundred years ago. In “The World Is Too Much With Us,” he was bemoaning our blindness to the enchantments – the wonders – of the natural world, that in rushing about as we do, we rarely see the beauty that is before us and are poorer for our blindness. He doesn’t specifically say “spiritually poorer” but that’s what the poem is getting at. “This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, / The winds that will be howling at all hours, / And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers.” For this and everything like this, “we are out of tune; / It moves us not.”
Poets long before Wordsworth have been calling our attention to what is before us, what we take for granted. Here is a small example, “Grasses” by Po Chü-I, a ninth century Chinese poet:
Boundless grasses over the plain
Come and go with every season;
Wildfires never quite consume them –
They are tall once more in the spring wind.
Sweet they press on the old high-road
and reach the crumbling city gate . . . .
O Prince of Friends, you are gone again . . . .
I hear them sighing after you.
The grasses are consumed by fires but they will return “tall once more” – not so the friend who is gone and will not return. The poet could have written simply, “you are gone again / I am missing you.” Affective, yes. But even more so is Po Chü-I’s “hearing” the grasses “sighing” his friend’s departure. Poets, artists, and composers – Charles Ives and John Cage immediately come to mind – have been calling our attention not only to the natural world but the most common things, the beauty even in what we might ordinarily dismiss as ugly or not worth our attention.
I think of Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) “To a Locomotive in Winter”: “No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine.” No! “For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,” wrote Whitman. (As modern readers, we have to get past the “thees” and “thys” – it’s a 19th century convention.) Like Ives was to do, Whitman’s poetry reveled in the rough-hewn music that was especially American. Here, the music of the locomotive’s ponderousness: “Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swimming lamps at night, / thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all.” Read these lines aloud and their seemingly “unpoetic” words (underlined):
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance,
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels,
Everything is subject for poetry, wrote William Carlos Willliams in his epic-like poem, Paterson – not just the natural world: “Things, things unmentionable / the sink with the waste farina in it / and lumps of rancid meat, milk-bottle tops: / here a still tranquility and liveliness.” Many of you will remember his small poem “so much depends,” enigmatic if you try to interpret it, not so if you take it as it is – no symbols, no hidden meaning:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Do not neglect the things of this world in all their singularity, Williams like Wordsworth is saying: so much depends on it. What is “it”? Our own sense of being in the world, not rushing around blindly, let alone mindlessly, and being apart from it. Even a piece of broken green glass, Williams wrote in “Between the Walls”: “the back wings / of the // hospital where / nothing // will grow lie / cinders //in which shine / the broken // pieces of a green / bottle.” Or the seemingly insubstantial — “Smoke” in this delicately-rhymed poem by Ann Slayton:
Tissue of smoke chuffs
from a neighbor’s chimney, blows
out a skirt under the eaves, puffs
along a windshaft scissored by crows.
Smoke bolts, then stretches a net
of epithelium for bodied space,
lays against all impediments simply met:
tree trunk, ground, the skin and face
of Earth, structures in stone, in brick.
Receptivity is all. And smoke is not so
insubstantial that it cannot trick
its way through snow
or thickest glass to decipher
in the mouth and throat its praise
of musty attic, root cellar,
leather trunk, release of rainy days.
No poet has called attention to the things of this world more consistently than Pablo Neruda in his Odas Elementales/Odes to Common Things. Neruda wrote his thin long Odes to scores of the most common things, manmade – the table, the bed, the violin, a bar of soap, a pair of socks, a box of tea – and of nature – the onion, tomato, gillyflower, violets. The opening poem to Odes Elementales is itself an “Ode to Things.” In one improvisation after another, he makes the language (and us) jump, personifying and creating marvelously outrageous similes and metaphors, for example, in “Ode to a Pair of Scissors”:
you are as polished as a knight’s
Two long and treacherous
crossed and bound together
for all time,
thus was born a creature for
a fish that swims among billowing linens,
a bird that flies
when their vacant
to the neighbors
about our thefts of plums and kisses.
So here is a suggestion for giving the iPhone or Blackberry a rest and writing a group ode, one that you could do with your family or with friends, at the table after dinner, or in your living room, with or without drinks. Read a couple of Neruda’s Odes (you can find them on the Internet) – look at some of the distinctive images and sounds, the changes in voice, the direct address. Have everyone agree to one or two things you’d like to write an ode to. Give everyone a sheet of paper or index card and a few minutes to write a line or two (or more), whatever comes, no censoring. Collect the lines and read as one poem – a celebration of whatever it is you’ve all chosen and of simply being together.
I’ll close with a poem that could have been inspired by Neruda. Mary Beth Hatem’s “Food for Thought” is alive with the spirit of attentiveness to the most ordinary things, of gratitude for them, and of the deep pleasures of community and communion:
The onion does not want to be a carrot
The potato is not troubled by its status
There are no parsnip plastic surgeons
The pumpkin is not watching its weight
Soup or salad, they exhibit no preference
Raining their best on all beings
How they enjoy our moment of silence
Our bowed heads, the unspoken communion
before we take up knives and forks.
Featured photo by Eric Bond