I am done bitching in bars. I am pushing my stakes on the table publicly, here and now, and I encourage my colleagues in theatre to do the same. Our stock-in-trade is dialogue. Let's employ its power to discover the way forward towards a world class theatre in Seattle.
This poem’s from around a quarter of a century ago, maybe longer: it is undated. I remember that I typed the surviving copy — and I do mean typed: it still has the little dabs of Wite Out® where I screwed up — from the handwritten original at my temp job at Northern Life Insurance, circa 1993. Suffice it to say that when I wrote this, I was still a kid, though I would have fiercely argued otherwise. (Clearly, I had a tabbing problem.)
One working definition of an adequate poem is “an improvement on silence.” I think that, at that time at least, this was.
Yesterday I posted smart-alecky status on Facebook about April being misunderstood as the cruelest month. In no time, my good friend Michael Doyle chimed in defending the bumbershoot-toting Hollow Man who posited the fourth month’s excessive cruelty. (If you’re not reading Doyle’s blog regularly, here’s why you should be.) The string was quickly unraveling into adjacent subjects, adjacent poets, when Doyle made one of the funnier and more insightful analogies I have ever come across. “Pound is to Eliot what Cheney was to Bush.”
Still, I’m proud of the “Poet’s Bardo”, and believe it sort of stands on its own as a bizarre bit of poetry geek fan fiction. (Plus, any time we can see Ezra Pound returned to his rightful gorilla cage, earned with the nastiest bits of bigoted treason, well, that’s a good time by me.)
I’ve been following threads lately, deeper into the labyrinth. Googling one of my favorite lines ever — “And I said let grief be a falling leaf” — from the Van Morrison song “Raglan Road”, I learned that the lyrics were originally a poem by Patrick Kavanagh. I immediately surfed over to SPL’s site and ordered his collected works, published in 1963. Once it arrived, I began reading selections randomly. Then I knuckled down and polished off all 21 pages of his early magnum opus, “The Great Hunger” which Kavanagh cannily disavows in the volume’s introduction as a “kinetic vulgarity… not fully born.” Truth be told, it stands as an eye-peelingly, soul-splittingly stark masterpiece.
Being obscure, and growing obscurer, allows an artist a wonderful freedom: a privilege I like to think I share with Kavanagh. Of course such freedom can exact a nasty price if one is not careful. My cultural cousin wasted a good portion of his forties crawling into bottles and sucking down smokes. After losing a lung to cancer, he finally sobered up somewhat, and began again versifying in beautiful earnest.
I have my friends, my public and they are waiting For me to come again as their one and only bard With a new statement that will repay all their waitment While I was hitting the bottle hard.
It was in that later period that he wrote the following, which felt just like Marley’s ghost shaking chains at me when I first read it.
Having confessed he feels That he should go down on his knees and pray For forgiveness for his pride, for having Dared to view his soul from the outside. Lie at the heart of emotion, time Has its own work to do. We must not anticipate Or awaken for a moment. God cannot catch us Unless we stay in the unconscious room Of our hearts. We must be nothing, Nothing that God may make us something. We must not touch the immortal material We must not daydream to-morrow’s judgement— God must be allowed to surprise us. We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer By this anticipation. Let us lie down again Deep in anonymous humility and God May find us worthy material for His hand.
Note the shifts in point of view from third person singular to second person ambiguous to first person plural. A glancing critic might attribute this creep to sloppiness, and I won’t argue that it is conscious in any calculated way. What I will posit is that it is a profound tracing of the progressive Catholic perspective: he -> you-> we.
Savor the apparently willful ambivalence of certain lines “God cannot catch us…”. Would it be a good or bad thing if he did?
“We must be nothing, Nothing that God may make us something.”
This line captures perfectly and emphatically the junction of belief and practice where I made my own transfer from happy Catholicism to diligent Zen. And just because I served divorce papers on my Irish faith doesn’t mean I don’t still sit down for coffee or something stronger with it every now and again.
“God must be allowed to surprise us.”
God as dramatist; we as audience, willingly suspending our disbelief. Sure, if you are clever, you might get ahead of God, but why try? Stay in the moment. There are things here for you to apprehend that you are still not looking/listening/being deeply enough to experience. The world is riddled with Easter eggs hidden in the damnedest places.
“We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer By this anticipation.”
The poet chooses his styling carefully here, “Lucifer” instead of “Satan”. Ours is not the already fallen angel’s sin of malevolence, but rather the still righteous pride of the Son of the Morning, the First in Heaven. This is not the pride of “I am better than ______” but that which says, “I understand” when in fact we do not.
This last sentence sounds a lot like a classic ending to a homily given by any conservative pastor of any parish you could name. And perhaps that’s the point. Kavanagh’s opened this poem’s bid by rejecting the Church’s holy sacrament of Penance. Additionally, anyone who knows enough to read Kavanagh probably already has some sense of his long-standing struggle with Roman Catholicism and all the damage it has done to his country and culture. So he does not feel the need to leave us with anything but the truth, even if that should overlay neatly onto some pious platitude. He’s already asked you to dig deeper, think harder, “go down on knees”. If you cannot or will not do so, he’ll give you the truth anyway, for whatever it's worth to you.
American appreciation of Irish poets is a lot like our relationship to leprechauns. We folksify the original darkling threat until it is fit for nothing but cartoon greeting cards. (Of course, we have done similarly to our own great writers. Witness the humiliating post-mortem neutering of the delightfully nasty atheist/pacifist/animal rights activist Mark Twain.) Clever American literati love to love James Joyce above all other Irish poets because he’s nifty and Continental. Ain’t nothing nifty about Kavanagh. Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound expatriated, while Kavanagh, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams stayed put. And that, as faux folksy Robert Frost liked to say, “… made all the difference.”
I was jotting notes for an upcoming episode of Markheim when it suddenly dawned on me that what I had was damned close to a poem. So I polished it up a little and sent it off to the amazing Omar Willey, publisher of The Seattle Star. In his intro to it on Facebook yesterday he called it, “A timely poem … that I've been saving for just the proper occasion.” An approving nod from Omar is worth more to me than praise from any Caesar, but I’d happily swap “timely” for some magic to dampen the vicious necromancy of all the guns we covet and clutch in this country.