Testy Delirium, Starring Robert Penn Warren and Great Granddaddy Moore

 

Robert Penn Warren

I’ve been trying to slow down, to be a better Buddhist, which means paying more attention, e.g., to things like the sway of sunlight and shadow on the bookcase to my right, what my friend Leopold Bloom would call “a phenomena.”

 

 

The fellow in the daguerreotype is one of my late wife Judy’s ancestors. In those days, posing for a photo was serious business. You had to be very still. Very few people sit still nowadays. I don’t know his name, but I can see a resemblance between him and Judy’s sister Becky around their eyes. Judy knew who he was, I think.

 

No one thinks about this man anymore, except for me, and now, for a second, you.

* * *

Thirty something years ago, a newlywed living in Rantowles, I ran across a poem by Robert Penn Warren, still alive at the time, a poem about old age in which he mused that when he would die so would all living memory of his grandfather.

I sat in the same room with Robert Penn Warren once in the early ‘70s when he met with about 20 or so students to answer our questions. David, the TA who taught me fiction writing, asked Mr. Warren the first question, if he thought a formal education would have “ruined”[1] Ernest Hemingway.

“How in the hell should I know,” was Warren’s rude answer, barked loudly, in a tone bordering on exasperation.

* * *

Although I was only five or so, I remember when my great grandfather Luther Moore died. There was an article about him in the paper because he had been some minor elected official and ridden a bicycle all over Bishopville in his 90s. I met him once at my other great grandfather’s house in North Charleston.

When he arrived, Grandfather Luther, shouted, “I’m blind and deaf so there’s no need for any of you to come and try to talk to me.”

After their opening salvos, I didn’t engage with either Robert Penn Warren, a fellow redhead, or Grandfather Luther, who may have had a thick head of white hair or been as bald as an emu egg – I don’t remember and there’s no one alive to ask. Both old men were scary, angry about something, maybe simply about about being old.

* * *

What shall I do with this absurdity—

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

If Yeats had been a better Buddhist, he wouldn’t have written these lines. We would be more impoverished but he more content.

Which is ultimately more important? Does it matter?

But then, here’s how the poem ends:

Now shall I make my soul,

Compelling it to study

In a learned school

Till the wreck of body,

Slow decay of blood,

Testy delirium

Or dull decrepitude,

Or what worse evil come—

The death of friends, or death

Of every brilliant eye

That made a catch in the breath—

Seem but the clouds of the sky

When the horizon fades,

Or a bird’s sleepy cry

Among the deepening shades.

Oh. Yes. Om. Amen.


[1] He pronounced it “rue-int.”

 

Blood-Dimmed Tides

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

In the misty pre-Darwinian year of 1818, William Cullen Bryant published his oft-anthologized poem “To a Waterfowl.” In the poem via apostrophe, he addresses a somewhat generic migratory bird. His vagueness in pinpointing species is probably a good idea here, because the titles “To a Duck” or “To an Egret” or “To a Wood Stork,” not only sound a bit cacophonous, but they also create concrete images that might distract from the poem’s high-minded contemplations. The image of an egret awkwardly lumbering into the air might call into question Bryant’s central message: Don’t worry; God’s in charge.

“[W]ither [. . .] dost though pursue thy solitary way?” the poet asks, addressing the waterfowl.  “Seekest thou [. . .] weedy lake [. . .] or marge of river wide” or “chafed ocean side?”

Dangers abound – “Vainly the fowler’s eye/Might mark [the waterfowl’s] distant flight to do [it] wrong.”

However, not to worry, “There is a Power/Whose care/Teaches [the waterfowl’s] way along [the] pathless coast” towards “a summer home” where it can “rest/And scream among [its] fellows.”

Bryant concludes the poem with this stanza:

He, who, from zone to zone,

Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,

In the long way that I must trace alone

Will lead my steps aright.”

Flash forward 101 years:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Forty-one years after the publication of Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl” and sixty years before Yeats’ composition of “The Second Coming,” Darwin published the Origin of the Species. Now, very few would buy into the concept that a micromanaging deity orchestrates the flight of migratory birds.[1]

What Darwin did was to thrust randomness and happenstance into the forefront of the scientific version of how human beings came to be human beings, which, of course, suggests that randomness and happenstance play roles in our petty lives from day to day for better or for worse.

No wonder, then, that Yeats’s poem resonates more with modern readers than does Bryant’s.

This, via, The Paris Review:

“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography.

[. . .]

In the wake of Didion’s success, publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats’s lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray. Thus Elyn Saks’s 2008 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, concerning her bout with schizophrenia. Though these four words from Yeats surely resonate with Saks’s feelings, the “center” in question here isn’t the moral authority of the Western world, it’s one person’s sense of stability. The trend has held for art books (David Gulden’s photography collection The Centre Cannot Hold), politics (The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies), alternate history (American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold), popular history (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It), reportage (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East), religion (The Second Coming: A Pre-Mortem on Western Civilization), international affairs (Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa), right-wing moral hectoring (Slouching Toward Gomorrah), memoir (Slouching Toward Adulthood), and even humor (Slouching Towards Kalamazoo; Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy). It seems that for every cogent allusion (Northrop Frye’s Spiritus Mundi, anyone?) there are a dozen falcons that truly can’t hear the falconer.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Well, as matter of fact, the polarization of our own politics plus the utter disregard for human life of those who strap on suicide vests do suggest that “the centre cannot hold’ and “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Virtually, every day we’re confronted with slaughter, whether it be at a bistro in Paris, a luxury hotel in Mali, or a African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The blood-dimmed tide has been loosed. No wonder incorporating a quote from “The Second Coming” into a title has become cliché.

[1] Of course, many still reckon that God micromanages our human existences, His making sure, for example, that Judy Birdsong’s application to her first choice graduate school was rejected so that she could meet up and marry me at USC, her second choice. (Not to mention how He later saw to it that teachers misbehaved at my present place of employment so that they would be fired to make room for me). Cf., Dabo Swinney’s “Game Plan for Life.”