It’s Sunday night, and were it not for the laundry, I’d be tucked up in bed, as I’m sure many of you on EST and GMT are right now. Instead of addressing the insurmountable pile of papers that need to be graded, I’ve opted to share with you a modern view of poetry that is particularly widespread today: that poetry is depressing.
I recently taught a trio of death poems to my sixth grade students: “The Mower” by Philip Larkin, “Stop All The Clocks” by W.H. Auden, and “Psalm and Lament” by Donald Justice. Admittedly, they share a theme that young mines might easily view as depressing. Nevertheless, I fought tooth and nail to draw the attention of my students to the merits of the three poems – of which there are many – and tried to maneuver the discussion away from the idea of poetry as depressing.
I could easily dismiss the complaints of my students by arguing that for the most part, eleven-year-olds cannot comprehend true depression. Instead, I could argue, they merely bandy the term about, quick to attach the epithet to anything with a tone that might be categorized as negative in some way. I could do that, but I also think that they are onto something. This view extends beyond pre-teens, and, in my opinion, is quite valid. After all, effective poetry must deliver intense meaning in a short format. The intensity of human emotions, from depression to elation, stands there exposed for the world to see, like a confused old man exposing himself on the platform of a train station.
Who knows where that simile came from. The point is that poetry poses a challenge to its creator. Compare poetry to the novel, for instance. Instead of having at least one hundred pages to develop character, theme, emotion, and conflict, poetry must do the job in several hundred words. There is no relatively normal and mundane chapter one of poetry. In this way, it is similar to visual art. Both have drifted out of the limelight of popular culture in recent decades as they have struggled to maintain an audience through the shock of novelty. A novel or film may deal with disturbing themes such as racism, rape, or drug addiction, but in most cases, these themes only gradually reveal themselves. Most novels and films start off by giving the audience a reference point – something to draw them in. Even in novels and films about wizards, dystopias, and aliens, the average audience member can ease into the crazy world in question through something – a fraternal squabble, anxiety about a job, or a parent’s attempt to protect a child.
The similarities between poetry and fine art bear significant relevance to the poem I’ve chosen here. “A Story About the Body” by Robert Haas features a painter revealing an intensely personal detail at an artificially early stage of her relationship with a young composer. She provides that shock quality that mainstream society has come to expect from both visual art and poetry. Yet even after this painfully awkward revelation, she creates a stereotypically modern work of art and leaves it on her admirer’s doorstep.
Before I leave you with the poem, I’d also like you to consider a similarity between Haas’ poem and Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” In both cases, the audience is privy to a private moment that deals with a woman’s problem. Haas shocks us with a double mastectomy, while Hemingway opts for unwanted pregnancy. However, these private moments arise out of seemingly innocent and tranquil territory. Hemingway chooses a beer break in Spain, while Haas deals with a summer romance at an artist’s colony. How idealistic, they want us to think.
Enough from me. Have a happy Monday, enjoy the prose poem, and revel in the painful delaying effect of those…things at the bottom of the bowl. Read it for yourself.
A Story About the Body – Robert Haas
The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy," and when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts." The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl--she must have swept them from the corners of her studio--was full of dead bees.