Things are never good enough. Many of my favorite artists seem to have fallen and can't pick themselves up. Most modern art is, frankly, boring. New music is more noise than music (and this coming from an avid ex-Punker). Contemporary poetry is repeating the mistakes of the last ten years, and the ten years before that, and the ten years before that.... I seem to have a bad word to say about everything.
At the same time I can almost hear myself saying defensively “but I still like so-and-so...” or “such-and-such wasn't too bad....” But there's no real consolation in the words.
The fact is I wasn't so quick to judge when I was younger. It was all new to me and I took it all in like a hungry man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Mind you, I didn't like it any better then than I do today. But back in the day I'd cast off what I didn't like or couldn't understand with a shrug and move on. Perhaps it was too deep for me, too shallow, not my type of thing... Whatever. It was tried, discarded, and the next item taken up. I was in love with the search for something fine, something that captured the essence of truth and beauty.
My ability to suffer the search quietly has left me. Now I rail against the poseurs, the time wasters, the annoying wannabes. But still in the back of my mind, there is the fear that my anger and hardened skin not only protects me from failed art, but blinds me to the quiet presence of something beautiful. Something I won't recognize and will step on in my ignorance.
This feeling can be so pervasive, that it comes as a bit of shock when you get proof to the contrary.
The other day I was reading Ploughshares, one of the better poetry journals. If reading poetry is dangerous for the curmudgeon, reading poetry magazines is practically suicidal. The ratio of good poems to mediocre is always low. And because of the varying styles and voices, you really need to be open minded to sort the wheat from the chaff. (Unlike a single author's book where you have the time to recognize and learn to appreciate the poet's voice, for example.)
So, I was reading Ploughshares (Vol. 32, No. 4) and came across the poem “Recognitions” by W. S. Merwin. Now, I have a soft spot for Merwin's early work. It is cryptic, difficult, but very rewarding. However, in the latter years he has been one of the targets of my what's-wrong-with-older-poets rant. His mind seemed to get rich and soft somewhere around the 80's-90's. (Merwin is one of the few poets who seemed to achieve a comfortable and consistent level of fame through his ongoing publication in the likes of the New Yorker.)
The poem starts with an unsupportable premise:
This is the sort of statement drives a wedge between the author and the reader, forcing you to confront your “willing suspension of disbelief” head on. Why? How? And Merwin doesn't let you off the hook. He keeps up the fairy tale, straining the thin line of probability with each new image:
a wave and an ash tree were sisters
Even when the story attempts to draw a connection, it remains purely within the realm of fairy tale:
they had been separated since they were children
but they went on believing in each other
though each was sure that the other must be lost
And then the narrator interrupts to juxtapose the real and imaginary still farther:
they cherished traits of themselves that they thought of
as family resemblances features they held in common
the sheen of the wave fluttered in remembrance
of the undersides of the leaves of the ash tree
recalled the wave as the breeze lifted it
Unlike reading Charles Wright's poem and reluctantly having to reject images that ultimately have no support, here Merwin is deliberately – and charmingly – holding the bizarre image of the wave and ash tree up to your face and not letting you forget it.
and they wrote to each other every day
So what is the outcome? While you as reader are busy struggling with the initial coupling of force and nature, Merwin secretly leads you to a part of the story you do recognize, understand, and believe -- the letters:
And we do believe. We believe in the wave and the ash and – more importantly – we believe that the possibility of these tales and believing in them is more important than the tale itself.
some of which have come to light only now
revealing in their old but familiar language
a view of the world we could not have guessed at
but that we always wanted to believe
Unlike the poem by Wright (and I am just using that one poem as an example, since Wright is an excellent poet and the poem is not really characteristic of his work) which leaves us questioning whether the poem is true, Merwin has challenged us, teased us, tricked us, and led us to believe in a poem of only 17 lines. It is sheer genius.
This is the type of poem that keeps you going for weeks, lets you forgive – even forget! -- the hundreds of bad poems you read to reach it. It is a work of art. And I guess I am not such a curmudgeon after all.