Sunday, January 14, 2007

Juxtaposition II

I don't where it was that I first got the idea of asking students to read poems in clusters or two or three. It's easy enough to do, just put several poems on the same subject (or two poems by the same author on different subjects or in different forms) on a page and ask the students to read and discuss them, first individually, and then, as we did in yesterday's post, in terms of how one of them helps us to re-think the other. One of my favorites is a two poem cluster: "Song of the Wandering Aengus" and "Samurai Song" by Robert Pinsky:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had no
Mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

What I like about this particular combination is that even though the poems are formally dissimilar and written nearly 100 years apart, one by an Irishman writing the voice of an Irish mythological figure, and one by an American writing in the voice of a medieval Japanese warrior, they actually seem to exist in a sort of dialogue with one another, the sort of dialogue that has led some of us to talk about literature as a "Great Conversation." I have mentioned before that I often ask students to consider Christopher Clausen's assertion that "All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: 'What kind of word is this?' and 'How should we live in it?'" Each of these poems offers an implied answer to both of those questions, and the interesting thing is that the answers are, at least at first thought, polar opposites. Yeats seems to suggest that there is a certain kind of magic in the world, and that once one has tasted it, that taste will sustain a lifelong odyssey or quest. It does not seem to bother Aengus that he has not yet found his glimmering girl; he is sustained even in his old age by the (gorgeously articulated) vision of what it will be like when he does. Aengus seems to believe that the way we should live in this world is, having found a dream, to pursue it. It's an ethic of acquistiveness. And even if we fail to acquire that which we seek, the quest itself has given purpose and value to his life.

The samurai, on the other hand, has opted for an ethic of renunciation. His answer to the question "What kind of world is this?" seems to be something like "a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, a world in which everything will in all likelihood be taken from you, sooner or later." His strategy, as he says explicitly, is detachment. He has become an expert in substitution, in the strategy doing without by simply working with what is left after what you have is lost: "When I had no eyes, I listened. When I had no ears, I thought. When I had no thought, I waited."

And yet even though these speakers answer both questions differently, there is one important point of similarity: they each do in fact have a code, a philosophy, a consistent way of answering those two big questions. They may disagree with one another on matters of principle, but they are both principled people. Similarly, even though the language—the diction and the syntax and the figures of speech—that they use is quite different (we would talk about how if this were a class), in each case that particular kind language is consistent with their personal and philosophical orientations. Which raises another interesting question for us as readers: if we think of these two as models of a sort, in that they have each come up with a language that is unique and true to their own belief and experience, how do we as individuals do the same? The fact that these are invented voices adds another dimension to the question: not only might we wish to find our own true voice, but we might aspire to be able to speak as truly in the voices of others. Sidney Pollack, at a graduation speech I cited in an earlier post, argued that that effort—the effort to imagine and speak in the voice of others—helps to shape the kind of person you become: "It's a way of understanding the world that functions beyond intellect and it teaches and touches through feeling and experience even when the experience is purely that of the imagination (My italics). Fiction, and by that I mean the aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds, must persuade you to interpret the world through compassion." It seems to me that that is what both Yeats and Pinsky are up to here, and the juxtaposition of their two narrators not only allows me to feel some sense of understanding for both of them, but to see each through the other's eyes.

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