The Purpose of Poetry: Wendell Berry, Czelaw Milosz, Jack Gilbert
Lines of thinking easily ride the river of consciousness, below or above our level of awareness. Talk about live streaming! When the proverbial dots are connected, if they are at all, we may see patterns and relationships in our lives that appear new and emergent; then, look behind to find fresh tracks from one idea or place to the next and marvel at how they were made.
Outside my Antioch office, there’s a framed illustration of the writer Wendell Berry with a “best wishes” inscription from him to the College. I’ve passed it a thousand times, read the words at least ten times, and even subsequently went home on occasion to read some of Berry’s writings. That’s a an aware connection of dots.
But several weeks ago, after looking at the Berry picture for a moment, I recalled for no reason I could think of, Jack Gilbert”s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” which for many years I struggled to understand or accept what I saw as its harshness. I made a mental note to re-read it and now I find and feel new resonance. That in turn led to notes I had made on Wendell Berry and this line from him:
“You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.”
And from there I was carried to recalling a mission statement for poetry itself, offered by Czelaw Milosz,
“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to be one person. “
How difficult and, according to Jack Gilbert, ultimately redeeming, indeed it is to be human.
Four pieces by Jack Gilbert that I think unabashedly fulfill the mission of poetry follow.
(The poetry of Jack Gilbert was introduced to me by Doug Anderson, a poet, former colleague and formative tutor of mine decades ago. Doug was a student of Jack’s and it is to his ear that I often write. I look forward to sharing some of his work in LoT soon, but you can easily find him in bookstores or at most poetry sites.)
Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came
there was no way to be sure which were
hers and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
this long black hair tangled in the dirt.
I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody's dalmation. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on their lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other's eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.