In college, back in the fall of 1972, my sophomore poetry teacher assigned our class the task to compile an anthology of contemporary poems that revolved around a common theme. I chose despair because I reckoned that depression might be a common theme for poets, a notoriously withdrawn and navel-gazing lot. I figured poems of despair, unlike, say, political poems or poems dealing with domestic bliss, would make for easier harvesting because they would exist in greater abundance.
So, I checked out anthologies and skimmed poem titles and promising poems hoping to amass thirty or so specimens to satisfy the minimum requirement. In 1972, Auden and MacLeish were alive, Sylvia Plath less than a decade dead, Anne Sexton about to kill herself in a couple of years, so many of the poems I looked at had been written mid-century.
Of course, I have lost my anthology, which was hand written and received a B (likely the lowest grade given), but I do remember two of the poems I included. One was Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” whose rhymes and rhythms I liked and whose rather childish message was right up my cynical alley:
I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.
‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
The other poem I remember including, a much better poem, is Archibald McLeish’s, “You, Andrew Marvell.” As it turned out, the very next year I would hear MacLeish read the poem in person, he who was born the year that Tennyson died.
You, Andrew Marvell
And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:
To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow
And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change
And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass
And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on
And deepen on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown
And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls
And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land
Nor now the long light on the sea:
And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …
Sometimes, like this morning, when sleep has stood me up and I don’t feel so hot mentally, I seek a dark poem with which I’m not familiar as a way to commiserate with a stranger who might have it worse than I-and-I.
And lo and behold I discovered this poem by Jane Kenyon a couple of hours ago. Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia, was the subject of the superb book-length elegy Without by her husband Donald Hall. I read the poem in the New Yorker in the mid-Nineties right after I had recovered from a serious case of clinical depression. You can read one of the poems from the collection here, but I would love to share with you Jane’s poem, which I find profound and beautiful:
HAVING IT OUT WITH MELANCHOLY” BY JANE KENYON
FROM THE NURSERY
When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.
And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.
You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”
I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.
- SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND
You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.
Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.
- ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
- IN AND OUT
The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.
Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.
There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.
- WOOD THRUSH
High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
Happy Hump Day!