I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.
Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).
Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].
No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).
The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.
When Judy was dying, I distracted myself by doing algebra, solving equations, but now she’s gone, I’ve been reading elegies, reminding my selfish self that losing a loved one is what happens here and all the time, as this link to a Facebook page abundantly demonstrates.
The old famous elegies don’t do it for me, not “Lycidas” nor “Adonais” nor “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” nor even Tennyson’s heartbreaking but morbid “In Memoriam.”
Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.
O, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:
And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.
Auden, on the other hand, is closer to my taste, not his hokey “Funeral Blues” elegy quoted in Three Weddings and a Funeral, but this one called “The Cave of Making” for his friend and fellow poet Louis MacNeice:
Seeing you know our mystery
from the inside and therefore
how much, in our lonely dens, we need the companionship
of our good dead, to give us
comfort on dowly days when the self is a nonentity
dumped on a mound of nothing,
to break the spell of our self-enchantment when lip-smacking
imps of mawk and hooey
write with us what they will, you won’t think me imposing if
I ask you to stay at my elbow
until cocktail time: dear Shade, for your elegy
I should have been able to manage
something more like you than this egocentric monologue,
but accept it for friendship’s sake.
But the elegy that has – forgive the phrase – slain me is Donald Hall’s “Without,” which captures so beautifully – an awful word to use here – captures the horrors of dying of blood cancer and the empty feeling for who’s left over.
If you need a poem to help you cope with death, Emily Dickinson is your gal. I’ve read Richard Sewell’s 2 volume biography, and she was, as Robert Frost famously put it, “acquainted with the night,” or as my now-over-a-decade-dead friend Tommy Evatt used to say, “no stranger to heartache.”
During Emily Dickinson’s 56 years, lots and lots of people she dearly loved died.
She spoke from experience:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
In my case, I’m not at the “formal feeling” stage yet, probably somewhere between “Chill” and “Stupor,” but by having read Tennyson and having read Dickinson, I know someday I can look forward to “the letting go.”
I can’t stress vigorously enough to my former students how the best poetry can prepare you for (in my case, the second worse thing I can imagine happening to me) by vividly making concrete the pain of loss before it actually happens and by underscoring the universality suffering.
Metaphors fail me – dress rehearsal, inoculation?
Anyway, Miss Emily, please accept this thank you note.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . .
In his long life, Richard Wilbur has never lost his Wordsworthian sense of childlike wonder. Wilbur’s heart leaps up, not only when he behold[s] a rainbow in the sky, but also at such overlooked mundane wonders like the turbine-vent [that] natural law/ Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof.
Many of his poems grapple with the relationship between metaphor and perception, suggesting that poetry works its magic in casting the commonplace (by the way, that diner is located on a planet swirling around a star hurtling in concert within a galaxy spinning into the vast abyss of space/time) – [ahem] casting the commonplace in strange ways that paradoxically help us to shake off the staleness of familiarity so that we suddenly can perceive the spectacular it-ness of the whatever.
Here Wilbur in an English sonnet called “In Praise of Summer” wonders why we need the distortions of jazzy description to jar into seeing:
Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?
Wilbur, as it were, offers poetic language as a sort of perceptual slap in the face, awakening us to the unseen wonder right there before us while at the same time lamenting our inability to see freshly in the first place..
Nevertheless, in Wilbur, our consciousness is both a wonder and a curse – sometimes in the same poem. For example, in “A Question from Milton,” the poetic speaker dismisses prelapsarian consciousness as boringly 2-D:
In Eden palm and open-handed pine
Displayed to God and man their flat perfection.
Carefully coiled, the regulation vine
Submitted to our general sire’s inspection.
Yet in the very last stanza of the same poem he suggests that Adam should
Envy the gorgeous gallops of the sea,
Whose horses never know their lunar reins.
Wilbur as a young man studied under the mighty Robert Frost, who echoes this post’s epigraph in the first line of his poem “Directive:”
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather . . .
The past, a simpler time, childhood.
All three poets – Wordsworth, Frost, and Wilbur wish we could chill, notice the glint of sunlight on that discarded aluminum soda can up ahead (rather than focusing our life force somewhere deep down in the mine shaft of self-absorbed work-based anxiety), that is, to have our childlike vision and sense of wonder restored.
However, if the office below is your workspace, good luck with those mind-forged manacles.
Chances are after 40-hour week cooped in your cubicle, you’re probably looking for something a little stronger than a shot of chiasmus and splash of synecdoche to get away from it all. It’s going to take something stronger than Wilbur or Wordsworth to appreciate the it-ness of the StickyNote slapped on the particle board next to your computer. But you gotta eat, right; the kids need braces; it’s the price we pay.
As one highly successful minstrel put it: They dope you with religion and sex and TV. To evoke a cliche that the cubicles pictured in the above office suggest, contemporary corporate life is a competitive and repetitive rat maze where functionaries (what Marx called workers) glance repeatedly at digital clocks’ counting down the hours and minutes until 5 o-clock liberation and the slow creep of gridlock home.
Day after day, each missed sunset and rising moon are subtracted from the finite number of future possibilities.
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
And, of course, the soulless dissatisfaction with getting and spending isn’t limited to the corporate world. Stroll down the halls of any Monday-thru-Friday workplace on the fifth day PM, and you’ll hear folks murmuring psalms of praise, not to Jesus, Yahweh, or Allah, but to Odin’s wife Freya/Frigg.
Day by day our world becomes more complex, and it sometimes seems that somehow there must be some diabolical conspiracy among the top 1% – the they in Lennon’s song – who have hypnotized us and led us onto this dizzying not-so-merry-go-round of consumption. Even in rather seemingly slow paced professions like teaching, the proliferation of voicemails, emails, committee meetings, etc. means longer school days and school years.
Yet, truth be told. We have only ourselves to blame for falling lockstep into the ranks of the conventional, sighing TGIF zombie corps. A brave few souls, sons and daughters of Blake, refuse to conform.
Take my former student and now friend, David Connor Jones, who for the last few years has been living out of his car roaming the North American west “like Caine in Kung Fu. meet[ing] people, get[ting] in adventures” and encountering gorgeous vistas that would raise the hair of Richard Wilbur “[l]ike quills upon the fretful porcupine.”
photo by David Connor Jones
It, of course, takes great courage to be free. When I was in the USSR in ’89, the citizenry wasn’t digging perestroika, preferring the safe status quo.
At any rate, we should at least try to take Wilbur’s advice, to remember always the miracle of our being, to savor this very second, no matter in a cubicle, a jail cell, or worse. We should strive to attain Buddha-consciousness in this here very life now, so as Wilbur puts it a bit more eloquently, we can find ourselves
Every spring I teach Victorian poetry, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins.
Like a turreted mansion, ornamental to the max, Victorian verse can seem to us more than a little too too much.
Take Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.“
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
The yellow-leaved waterlily
The green-sheathed daffodilly
Tremble in the water chilly
Round about Shalott.
If you recite that out loud, you want to sing it, wonder if there might be an accompanying melody. Not only do we have the singsong meter, but the rhymes are also laid on as thick as marmalade.
I suspect that our president, though not old-fashioned, would like Tennyson — that is, if someone were to read Lord Alfred out loud to him. President Trump has a soft spot for rococo, admires elaborate wainscoting gilded with gold. I read recently that he wants to ride in a gold carriage when he travels to the UK to meet the Queen.
Tennyson just might be Trump’s cup of tea.
At Mar-a-Lago, West Palm Beach
The nuclear code within his reach
His hair the color of a peach,
the mighty Donald Trump.
With his golf clubs by his side
In a cart he takes a ride
With a guest he can’t abide,
The mighty Donald Trump.
Robert Browning, on the other hand, is easier on our ears. Although the mad men in his gallery of monologists employ rhyme, the pauses in the middle of the lines – caesura is the technical term – and the fact that a line often tumbles without pause onto the next line – enjambment – mean that the reader swallows the rhymes, softening them.
Here is one of Browning’s characters making sure his lover will be spending the night.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.
As Lord Byron might put it, “So soft, so calm, yet eloquent.”
Let’s give Robert Browning a shot at the Donald:
I’ll make things so great, so great,
You’ll grow way tired of winning.
I promise, I can’t overstate
The good that I will do. Spinning
Jobs back from China. Building
A wall. We’ll have reason to celebrate!
Matthew Arnold, though a far lesser poet, is like Tennyson, depressive. If Arnold were alive today, he’d be a frequent contributor to Pantsuits Nation.
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Published post-Darwin in 1867, “Dover Beach” describes a world where, like the pebbles flung to and fro, we are subject to elemental forces beyond our puny control.
If he were alive, Arnold might lament
Oh, progressives, let us not stay home
Or vote Green next election, for time
Is running out as the planet warms
And oceans and tensions rise.
Alas, we are here as on a hijacked plane,
Piloted by a churl devoid of shame,
Loving only his riches and his fame.
Hopkins doesn’t sound Victorian, though he is. He sounds like he’s tripping on two-way windowpane while getting sucked through a wormhole to another dimension.
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off.
Warning: Hopkins is hard to imitate.
His tweets, tangerine-tinted, trumpet, tattle, boast, brood,
My great aunts on my father’s side were Victorians, majestic, bejeweled, sherry-sippers who considered procreation a necessary evil. So I dedicate this silly post to them – Tallulah and Lila – and to those porches upon which we sat so long ago.
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.
 Both were grammar mavens and big on table manners.