Bob Schwartz

Tag: poetry

The Second Coming at 100: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

It has been 100 years since William Butler Yeats wrote his poem The Second Coming, in the wake of World War I and in the early days of the Irish War of Independence. It is an unsurpassed observation of a descent into societal darkness, as order passes and chaos reigns.

It is no wonder that its phrases are some of the most borrowed by writers over the past century: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”; “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”. Once we have read the poem, the lines force themselves on us when our lesser attempts to describe the most dire circumstances fail.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats (1919)

Thunder and Lightning, Fire and Ice

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will
Jerry Garcia, The Wheel

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

Raindrops

Raindrops

Is there pattern
to raindrops
splashing in the puddle or
do they fall at random?
The birds sing:
there is they do.

© Bob Schwartz

 

Mike the Squirrel

This is a picture of a metal squirrel in front of a cactus. The squirrel was a gift from a beloved friend to mark our departure as a neighbor. I named him Mike. That was one of our many departings from friends and neighbors and Mike goes with us. He is never banished to a closet or storage room. He currently lives openly in a desert backyard. This friend and I do not stay in touch much. Mike the squirrel does not mean to nag but he is a reminder of missed opportunities for more moments with cherished friends. After posing for this picture, Mike returned to his usual spot on the back porch. I return to my chair where I can see the cacti and palm trees backed by mountains here before me and here after me. Maybe I will reach out to that friend and tell her how Mike is doing.

Cargo

For RJ and EB

They loaded all they owned, all life had collected, on a cargo ship. The ship crossed the Atlantic. Before it reached Liverpool, they stood on deck and one by one threw the items overboard. Big heavy things that sank immediately. Small light things that floated and stayed afloat as long as they could see. After they threw the last thing over, they embraced.

The captain was watching, concerned that they might be polluting the ocean, concerned that they might throw a crew member or themselves overboard. He asked why.

Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer.*

I do not speak French, the captain said.

And now you will never have to. What does that matter anyway? We wish to be married again. Will you perform the ceremony?

I would be pleased to, the captain said.

And so he did, with the Atlantic sky and the Atlantic sea as witnesses.

*Free man, you will always cherish the sea.
Charles Baudelaire, L’Homme et la Mer

Decent Americans Are Suffering from Learned Helplessness

American Psychological Association:

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available. Essentially, individuals are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events, which, in turn, undermines the motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations….In the 1970s, Martin E. P. Seligman extended the concept from nonhuman animal research to clinical depression in humans and proposed a learned helplessness theory to explain the development of or vulnerability to depression. According to this theory, people repeatedly exposed to stressful situations beyond their control develop an inability to make decisions or engage effectively in purposeful behavior. Subsequent researchers have noted a robust fit between the concept and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Every day, I see those in the news and those in personal life expressing serial frustration at the latest outrage from national leadership. After repeating the sordid details of cruelty and immorality, they then ask, increasingly rhetorically, why those who could do something don’t stop it. Yes some try to fight, yes some succeed or at least delay the worst, but mostly the answer seems to be to wait until the possible, though not certain, election of a new president.

Learned helplessness is, for example, at the heart of abusive situations, such as being married to a narcissistic monster. We didn’t need research psychologists to clinically identify the phenomenon of people being beaten down to the point of powerlessness and just giving up. We know it happens.

And yet…

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas

The Canyon

The Canyon

the thief Grand Canyon
stole breath and words dropping them
into the river

©

Dream in Love

Dream in Love

Years and days
Drain the sense of love
An embrace even in a dream
Brings it flooding back
It is still you and me

©

Note: If you have loved for a moment, or been loved for a moment, or for years, or not yet, you may forget exhilaration, but it never disappears. You will dream it.

Neighbor

Neighbor

the next door neighbor
never visited
will live forever
but not you

©

Note: It is literally true that we might live next door to someone we never meet or talk to. It is a missed opportunity, the extent of which we will never know.

But the mention of a neighbor who lives forever takes this out of the literal. Matters we are familiar with—spiritual matters for example—might have a close neighboring tradition or school that we learn late about, if ever. That too can be a missed opportunity, or if we knock and walk in, a new and enlightening discovery. Just one door away.

Don’t Read Poetry

I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong.
Stephanie Burt, Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems  

Some people reading this read poetry. Some people reading this write poetry. I read and write poetry, as people reading this may be aware. Poetry sits at a special place near the top of our experience as individuals and cultures.

Everyone is entitled to write poetry, while others may say it is good poetry, it is bad poetry, or it is not poetry at all, whatever any of that means. Everyone is entitled to read whatever poetry speaks to them, whatever others may say.

If you write poetry, poetry belongs to you. If you read poetry, poetry belongs to you.

In her new book Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, Stephanie Burt takes on these and many other matters concerning the reading of poetry. A brief excerpt follows.


From Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt:

READING POEMS

Of all the kinds of art that people make, poems are, or should be, the easiest to share, maybe even the easiest to find. They need not be read live, or on stage, or by their authors, or even aloud (though it helps); they require no musical instruments or playback devices. Some can be memorized; most can be collected, reprinted, copied out by hand, or shared via email; and most of them don’t take very long to read.

So why don’t more of us read more poems? Why do some people care so much about poems that baffle the rest of us? Why do the same people often loathe poems others like? Are poems from five hundred years ago really the same things—can they work on us in the same ways—as poems by living authors now? Do all sorts of poems work the same way? Have they always? How can the poems that are out there all deserve the label “poetry” when they seem so far apart?

This book tries to answer those questions. It gives not just ways to read poems but reasons to read them, and ways to connect the poets and poems of the past, from Sappho and Li Bai to Wordsworth to some poems being written right now. And it starts from the idea—which took me a while to realize was not obvious, or universal, or widely recognized in schools—that poems are like pieces of music: by definition they all have something in common, but they vary widely in how they work, where they come from, and what they try to do. Various readers like various poems for various reasons, just as various listeners like various genres of music, various artists, and various songs. And the same listener (you, for example) can care about different songs for different reasons, at different times in your life or even at different times of day….

Until about two hundred years ago the word could mean “imaginative literature,” anything made up, or not real, or not true in prose or verse. Now it means verse, or prose that feels like verse, or (sometimes) anything that feels elegant, moving, sublime, above-and-beyond, not quite of this world: athletes’ shots and politicians’ speeches and dance moves are said to be pure poetry, meaning that we admire their beauty or their sublimity but wonder if they have any practical use. Much-noticed and much-debated essays, going back at least two hundred years, with titles like “Can Poetry Matter?” and “The Four Ages of Poetry” (gold, silver, bronze, and iron), have argued that poetry is in decline, has long been in decline, because fewer people love Shakespeare or Dickinson or Homer or Robert Frost. Other essays, some with surveys to back them up, show that poetry is coming back, or never left: after all, look how many people now write it!

Look, too, at the communities that have formed, some within universities, some far outside them, around particular poems and ways to read poetry, from classrooms where kids love The Odyssey in new translations, to self-conscious avant-gardes in urban centers, to immigrant communities refreshing a heritage language and its verse forms. These readers and writers are not all reading the same poems, or reading in the same way, or for the same reasons. They’re not all reading the same kinds of poems, and they may not agree on what counts as poetry, much less on what counts as good poetry.

And yet some of them—some of us, many of us; not just we readers of poems but we Americans (since I’m American), we readers of English, of anything at all—are caught in a myth about what counts as poetry and how we might learn to enjoy and to read it. The myth says that poetry is one thing and that poetry matters to us, or should matter, for one big reason. Maybe it introduces us to other people and other cultures, opening up our minds. Maybe it makes us more authentic and opens us up to ourselves. Maybe it brings us together as a country or as a community; maybe it used to do that, but it doesn’t now, so poets had better change how we write poems….

I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong. Poetry, the word, has many overlapping meanings, most of them about composition in verse; there are many such compositions, and many ways to write them, and many reasons to read them, and if you want to find or like or love or write more of them, the first thing to do is to start to tell them apart. Many people read poems for many reasons, and yours may not be your uncle’s, or your best friend’s, or your daughter’s, or your professor’s.

I started to write this book because I got frustrated with books that told their readers, and teachers who told their students, that poetry was one thing. Sometimes the readers and the students learned to love that thing; sometimes they tried it and decided that this one thing—this major poet (say, Robert Frost), this reason to read (say, mystery and the sacred), or this style of poetry (say, modern conversational free verse)—wasn’t for them. That’s like hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it and then deciding you don’t like music. There are other kinds of music and other ways to listen to music out there, and if you look and listen and ask the right people, you can probably find one that works for you.

So: don’t read poetry. Don’t assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words, as music means a set of tools (beats, rhythms, harmonies, textures, instruments) for making things with sounds. Instead, find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons to read poems, realized in various ways by various poems. In this way, if in no other, poetry is like the New York City subway (albeit in slightly better repair). The subway system is always running and can take you almost anywhere in New York, but not all trains run at all times, and each train goes only to certain destinations. In the same way, lines of poetry can take you to many emotional places and to many parts of history and of the world today, but each line of poetry goes only to certain places, and what line you take depends on where you want to go.