In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin,"
When I can tell at sight a chassepot rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat,"
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery:
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee
You'll say a better, etc.
W. S. Gilbert
Gerald Stern, a garrulous, savvy, upbeat poet, on his way to do a poetry reading took a wrong turn in New Jersey and at a streetlight was shot for his trouble. Although this might be poetry's threat, there is a more necessary threat in every poem. Threat, to a poet, is a very good thing, a tool, a strategy, a necessary medium. Indeed, no threat, no poem, I tell students. Most shake their heads or gaze away at Nature. They are already enrolled in the audience raised to believe real poetry is beautiful thoughts in rhymed quatrains, or at least the swooping flourish of bright hope even tough Hopkins gave himself to in his 1877 lines "No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion / Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, / Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion." Two years later, Gilbert & Sullivan rocked the house with parody, spoofing the poet's mastery, control, knowledge, and strategies of art. Buyers of poetry, excepting poets, like books with ornately poetic statements that affirm permanent "realities" they need to believe in: God rules like the American president; heaven waits like a country club lounge; each of us is seductive and sublime inside, if not in our plain outward wrappers. Weak poems, pruned of thorns, barbs, and threats console and soothe us; we all want the beatific promise. If it were not so, ever-positive Walt Whitman would have little appeal for us beyond verbal postcards from the travelogue of his imagination. Threat, various as a heartbeat, is the weight, complexity, difficulty, problem, resistance every poem draws energy from as it seeks resolution.
One form of threat is simple tension, controlled within artifice, the glanced-at thing Whitman often juxtaposed to his buoyancy, as the knife-grinder in his 1871 lyric "Sparkles from the Wheel" bears both procreative powers and deadly inflection:
Where the city's ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day,
Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause aside with them.
By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,
Bending over he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,
With measur'd tread he turns rapidly, as he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue then in copius golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.
The scene and all its belongings, how they seize and affect me,
The sad sharp-chinn'd old man with worn clothes and broad
shoulder-band of leather,
Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here
absorb'd and arrested,
The group, (an unminded point set in a vast surrounding,)
The attentive, quiet children, the loud, proud, restive base of the streets,
The low hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-press'd blade,
Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,
Sparkles from the wheel.
A poem is a test of expectations. Like anybody's life. At some age most of us begin to have conscious expectations for a future. We begin consciousness. My father was killed in an automobile accident when I was seventeen. My mother shortly remarried. I went off to the University. The semi-rural community of Churchland, Virginia, where I had grown up, then changed drastically in some respects and in others remained as it had always been. I did not think about that, and I did not think about returning, ever. Within four years I would marry, divorce, remarry, graduate from college, teach high school, go away to graduate school, enter military service, and begin to write poems. It seems to me not one step was predicted by any expectation, though I am sure others would read my life differently. To me, things happened; I responded.
My turn to poems came at the age of twenty-five. I began to want something I will call a life with a shape, a purpose. I had lived, as most people do, through a sequence of crises, lesser and greater, but I had not realized that the formative pressure of threat, as well as any harmful force in fact or potential, already and inevitably shaped in me some unrealized meaning and purpose. Belief, here, would be too light a word, for I mean the tougher, more personal recognitions of cause-effect, contingency, and unavoidable dilemmas each man, if he lives at all, learns on his pulse. I mean what I am certain Gerald Stern felt at the moment he saw that gun in his face. This is what a man is, or isn't, when painful choice arrives.
In the engagements with human crises, we discover selves. Each of us needs and seeks identity, the self able to know and act with intention. This "self" acts according to conviction rather than in mere response to the manipulative rhetorics of commerce, religion, politics, any of the one-answer systems. The self is a process, not a nice waistline, a new car, a top medical school admission. Yet we are all walking closets of false selves, living adopted images, eating and drinking to attract others, wearing what our fantasies implore, hopelessly wanting and almost helplessly responding to desires. The consumerism that makes American business and psychotherapy hum has not lacked the worried attention of poets, largely because among its worst effects are the fragmentation of self and community. The Waste Land appeared long before T. S. Eliot possessed it. John Donne, one of Eliot's favorite poets, famously deplored the self exiled where no bell rang. Edgar Allan Poe composed ghoulish parables of men left to live alone. Herman Melville isolated Ahab and Ishmael to frame his moral fable. Whitman spent almost seventy years asserting the indivisibility of self and selves, and he took much of his view from the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and their early New Age saintliness to which Melville, the ex-seaman, said, "what stuff for one who has been around the Horn." Genius that he was, Whitman's Kiwanis good-speak remains to many readers a tainted gassy rambling, little match for the threat of a looming raven or an avenging whale, that Nature reviled beyond anger, according to poet Ted Hughes, upon which we rely for our very breaths.
The story of the imperiled self, social fragmentation, violence, fear, all the good fictive elements, swallows us every day. Texas debates whether a child of twelve may marry the father of her baby. Louisiana passes one law to prohibit minors from buying alcohol and with another permits stores to sell it to anyone; a third law legalizes concealed weapons. You can carry a bazooka in Baton Rouge if you want to, so long as your coat is long enough. One elderly lady from the most elegant part of New Orleans told me, at a summer writers' conference, she doesn't drive to the grocery store without her pistol. Increasingly we cannot remember unlocked doors, neighbors who walk sidewalks or speak openly, and woe to anyone who would willingly help the injured. My son, a lawyer, says that such help is good for the litigation business. What values resist our divisions? What good is the past in a swamp of snapping lawyers?
I don't know a single person who now speaks without apology and cavil about moral behavior. I don't know a man who would overtly praise honor. Ernest Hemingway, who was said to be stripped of faith in big words by the horrors they propelled in World War I, wrote, glibly I think, "moral is what you feel good after." This standard of ethical conduct lies solely in the self, a self which may be only the product of advertisers, consumers, governments, all a mob of ugly actors waiting for the next command. When things go wrong, responsibility for failure is not what we reach for. We phone up lawyers. We whine that we are victims, we blame and attack until it is the only way we know. Neighbor, school, church, race, we blame. I knew a waterman in Virginia who lamented the decline of fish he had spent a life catching. He did not blame sophisticated boats, with arrayed technology as complex as aircraft carriers that made them seagoing vacuum cleaners, or question the wisdom of decimating an industry, let alone the morality of that business, for they were fishermen like himself, just bigger and better. The cause, he claimed with rising anger, was "bums in Argentina." When I asked what he meant, he said "You know, them nuculer bums that's always getting blown up on TV." The Argentinian in his mind was an abstraction, nothing he could see except by the imagination. But not less real for that.
Knowledge, to us, is always partial, inadequate, dangerous in precisely the ways Pope knew it to be, and just as necessary as ever. We have an infinite need to see. Joseph Conrad's admonition to the artist was put as a self's obligation in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus: "My task above all is to make you see." That sight is the obligation of the arts, liberal and applied. Seeing means what it says, too, simply the presentation of pictures, though it resounds as perception, the invoking of all the senses into a harmony of awareness. We are, through poetry, made to feel and to know what feeling is for self and community. The artist restores living and perception; he makes a self emerge from contending selves.
But how does the making of a poem, work that is, as I have implied, moral, ethical, honorable, as well as aesthetic, produce its effect? The simple answer is that the poem gives an honest, recognizable picture of human event, the self and the other engaged. Without such pictures we can imagine no destiny. The nature of destiny is what we yearn for, the source of our beliefs, convictions, superstitions, and expectations. A poem, like all high art, proposes that in dramas of crisis, human the same generation after generation, we are permitted distance and objectivity sufficient not simply to see what happens but also to perceive much more. History, which performs in similar ways but tells less, and less quickly, informs us that some 12,000 American men were left dying on the battlefield at Fredericksburg, Virginia, at the end of December 7, 1862, many frozen in the following days of brutal cold. The historian might add many evocative details, such as the presence of Christmas decorations in houses along the Rappahannock River, where Confederate sharpshooters from Mississippi sang as they assassinated Union boys trying to rig a pontoon bridge, and Union boys not yet assassinated sang along, for the carols bound them even as bullets tore them asunder. Some, on opposite sides and in uniforms of different colors, were brothers. Whitman, who saw firsthand the results of that bloody day, snaps all that and more into sharp focus with "A Sight in the Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim":
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first
just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair,
and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
This dead man, Whitman knows, might have been his brother George. He had traveled as fast as he could by train and boat, more than two days slogging his way from New York, certain it was George, though the name wasn't right, he had seen in a casualty list in a New York paper. The corpse Whitman looked at might have been an "elderly man," for both armies sent men who were the age of grandparents forth to battle, but he would more likely have been one of the younger men that early in the war (Melville wrote "All wars are boyish" because so many of the dead were youths), and even George was younger than brother Walt Whitman, then forty-three. This dead one is old because Whitman is thinking of himself, and of the soul which is the self so imperiled by all that threatens the democratic America he had imagined.
I was the first in my family to go to college. I had wanted to become an auto mechanic. Like the men of my family before me, I knew the names of no painter, violinist, architect, and certainly no poet. The men of my kin were mustang engineers, railroaders; their women were cradlers of babies. None of either kind spoke of having entertained dreams. They would have scoffed at Whitman saying, "I loaf and invite my soul, / I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." But then they weren't likely to encounter Walt since there were no books in our houses. If I had been asked about the function of arts, I would have said it usually replaced study hall. That arts enable us to seek out destiny, to consider identity, to affirm a relationship of community and meaning would have been as strange and foreign in my family as an actual oil painting hung on a wall. I recall no such pictures. Almost.
There were, actually, two pictures. One hung in each of my grandparents' houses. My father's father, a lifelong ticket salesman for the B&O railroad, slept nightly under a nude more flawless than a Botticelli, her bright red nipples and matching lips impervious to days that slowly bent him. This was an early color photograph. My mother's father, a hunter who taught me how to sit silent in dark woods and wait for squirrels to appear and be killed, kept an oil painting of a deer above his television, a creature so badly made it looked like Lassie pretending to be Bambi on steroids. Miniature pine trees grew up through its clearly drawn toes. When I had gone as a boy to their houses, I had stared. Were women really like that? Why would a man paint a deer so different from those I'd seen in the woods? Did I ever ask why those dour men kept these images on their otherwise blank walls? When you are young, you question everything. But I did not. I accepted the world as it was. Robert Penn Warren's poem says, "Man lives by images. They / Lean at us from the world's wall, and Time's."
Warren does not, I think, mean specifically images of art but there, heightened and focused, we see who we are, and we speculate why and how we fit into the natural scheme, and we may learn how dreams unfold and kindle us. My grandfathers were men who believed in themselves and not much else. They held to no philosophy, no church, no political party. Each had once joined social organizations, belonging desultorily to the late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century fashion of belonging they'd been Masons, Elks, and such but each had settled into job, house, family, hobby, and that was that. Government, they thought, was useless except to keep crime in check and fight necessary wars. Plainness of speech, dress, and action was almost to each man a Puritan principle, though neither would have known a Puritan from a Raritan. They believed in progress that invented gizmos and better medicines, but redemption and transformation meant burdens they had no wish to lift. They worked and left dreams, as they would have said, to the next man, meaning the romantics. I doubt either had entertained one thought in his lifetime about the arts. Each would have nodded in agreement with Richard Nixon who said in his famous tapes, "The Arts you know they're Jews, they're left wing in other words stay away." But these Appalachian mountaineers had hung an odd, soft image where their lives passed daily, a nude woman and a deer. Why?
Representatives of Nature, some goodness manifested, these creatures loomed wholly benign, nonthreatening. Life supports, we might even say, surely more than charming, images of a greatness to which, however tentatively, each man wanted to be linked. Still, as my grandfathers must have known, whom I knew to be reasonably perceptive men, each was a false image. No woman had ever been so hairless, unblemished, perfectly, innocently sexual as that nude. No deer was, well, whatever that one was. I think they reminded my grandfathers of something yearned for. The sweetness of poetry I will call it, although they would not have. Both of them died before poetry became my life's purpose. If I had mentioned poetry to either one, I would have been glared at like a man who has pissed himself on the street. But in those days I would never have mentioned poetry, having no idea what poetry might be or that I might want it, or even that I had begun to want to know my destiny, or that thinking about one was thinking about the other.
The imagination, Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, maybe the toughest mind among the Romantic poets, is different from the Fancy, an act of the mind that seeks escape from reality, creates false images, panders to us. Imagination, he argued, dives down into the dark heart of experience and returns with knowledge necessary to selfhood. No form of art does this better than poetry. I do not mean poetry of manipulation, of advertised sentiments, but the poetry that scares those who pay attention. It delivers the truth we find hard to live with, the news, as William Carlos Williams said, men daily die for the lack of. Most of us, most of the time, don't want that anyway. Not long ago North Carolina's Senator Jesse Helms said he lay awake nights in fear of what the arts could do. In my local news, a high school has suspended a child for composing and reciting a rap song someone thought was an overt threat to good order. The imagination's power is precisely to confront, comprehend, and redress threat. That is why the imagination is threat.
Great art intends threat. Those images it hangs on the world's wall may appear to take our breath away with pastoral consolation and moral serenity, but that happens only in contrast to the deeper weave we see and learn and respond to. Poetry is subversive of untested, unexamined feeling. There is nothing instructive in a Hallmark card's verse; it has no complexity and none of life's stymies. Most of what people take for a poem is only words substituting for what we are too lazy or too afraid to articulate. Real poems resist the smug, easy, glib, and superficial. The good poem destabilizes, unbalances, stirs up, digs down, demands feeling in exact circumstances. It refuses mass idea, mass truth, mass reality as false to its only client, the individual. No poem succeeds without threat, implied or explicit. Threat manifests what is important to know. Threat engineers the struggle of self to come into being.
Films can be more overt about this redemptive process than poetry sometimes is. Scrooged, Bill Murray's wickedly funny remake of the Charles Dickens Christmas fable, touches most of modern poetry's themes, consumerism and greed, isolated selves and social illness, petty principle and transcendent reality, childish innocence and the hardened ignorance of age, the uncertain nature of love and the crippling effects of its abuse. Because Dickens is at the stage, evils will be reversed, the self will shine, the community will be protected. Murray's film, heavy on cynicism and surreal characters, wired with humor, presents scenes in which a determined angel, played charmingly by actress Carol Kane, tries to show Scrooge (Murray), a selfish but successful businessman alone in a community of desperate but loving others, how he had better change his ways, and when he will not she resorts to vaudevillian slapstick, banging him hard with someone's Christmas toaster. The film dramatizes what hurts in life poverty, relentless labor, indifference, illness, time, greed, lovelessness but reserves as worst the isolation of self from community, a drama of deprivation and contingency. It's all about threat. Normal life, whatever normal is, sucks. We so want to believe in something better, a progressive destiny, that we are cheered when Scrooge turns beneficent patriarch loved by all near him. Even so, when this stability is everywhere triumphant, the inner eye, Melville's eye, squints in suspicion. Threat that has made meaning refuses to sidle offstage.
In poems, threat has many forms, all composing value. We applaud subtlety in motivation that threatens and subtlety in how threat is dramatized. Dickens liked sinister bullies and board-stiff matrons. His style was exaggeration, as it is in the movie Jaws where the white shark is so cunning it defeats the worst and most manly opponents, but in both arts the tone is comic in order to signal the threat is, potentially, maybe, probably, but not certainly, manageable. That's why Sheriff Roy Scheider tells drunken shark-hunter Robert Shaw, "You're gonna need a bigger boat." The threat has to be big enough to make action worthy, and the meaning of action memorable. Threat is resistance, pressure creating drama, suspense, intensity. Good readers have no respect for a poem guilty of "unconditional surrender" to the fantasia of its desire. Such a poem resists nothing, overcomes nothing, and wins nothing; it fails even to marshal contending factors in any struggle for definition of a life moment. Limp poems often unload message political statement, religious opinion, sexual fantasy as lineated propaganda, ignoring the reader who is knee-deep in experience to the contrary. This poem requires a reader to ignore what he has lived, what he knows of the world. The reader may turn his nose up, as I do, before Billy Collins when he writes:
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
Resisted motion succeeds by imitating the world we know, even in distortion and dream exaggeration, where what happens is whatever happens. The poem wants to make the reader a conspirator, not a judge of the poem's accountability. Any reader counts most in a poem its life on the pulse. There is no pulse without threat.
Threat may be only the nuances of tone, the shifts of voice a deft poet can signal. It may be so immediate and familiar that we fail to notice, as if threat is only breathable air. Indeed threat is evident in a lyric's brooding awareness of bad weather, a weather we find so conventional in the expression of our spirits, exactly the method of the famous medieval quatrain "Western Wind":
Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
The word threat, Old English in origin, probably more than 1,200 years in use, has from the start meant to force or compel action. Harms, we see in reading, are imminent and depend on certain things done or not, to be done or not. Thus, threat is contingency. Driving toward knowledge in the poem's progress, threat forces change; it shapes response as dilemmas unfold, its own unfolding proceeding swiftly or in delicious retardation according to the need of the poet to make us wait. When the German poet Rilke, having mounted a cloud of tension, writes you must change your life, the reader is ready to add the "or else" and is prepared to entertain meaning.
Flannery O'Connor, short story writer and novelist, favored the use of threats as large and symbolic as possible. A devout Catholic, O'Connor regarded fiction as an instructional art. Her characters, all of them outsiders in one way or another, are exaggerations in the same way as those of Dickens, and mightily funny; they include the Misfit, a cold killer of Granny; a Bible salesman seducing Hulga so he could steal her artificial leg; a grandfather, Mr. Head, whose racial bigotry seems, like so much in O'Connor, sheer cartoon buffoonery. When asked about her style of distortion and threat, O'Connor said she spoke louder for the hard of hearing and drew larger for the poorly sighted. She made her threats seem irrational, illogical, outside ordinary expectation that permits us to drive a car casually because we think other drivers will stay in their lanes or the expectation that nothing will, today, fall from the sky under which we stroll. Her intention was to immerse recognizable selves into symbolic crises. She liked to quote the prayer of St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "The dragon sits by the side of the road watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." O'Connor was clear about what this meant to her: "No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller." To Miss O'Connor, life's sweetness was dependent on what threatened it and upon the size of the threat. Without threat, the road of life is only a pastoral walk in the daisies. That is why poetry that fails to reveal and risk the life of a real self is no good to us. The dragons of cheap art are only little lizards.
The corollary does not, however, hold. Bigger threats do not necessarily make better art, as soap opera, melodrama, and television dramas show. Successful threat in a poem is proportionate force and release leading to credible statement made or implied, for any poem is finally discourse. The threat begins by affecting the self and ends by shaking the community. When we do not feel the poem bears such power, all the intricate tatting and experiments in the world cannot save it from uselessness. In Othello, jealousy threatens the hero. Desdemona, his wife, is then threatened not only by his jealousy but also by her innocence. That destabilized relationship in turn places the state in peril. A chain of cause-and-effect, each link perhaps a manageable struggle, draws into attention how fragile are even the best selves. We watch, projecting ourselves onto hero and villain, never certain how things would turn out for us, though we enter the theater knowing the already-composed ending, and we have the security of expectation. We know, too, the purpose of narrative is to develop contingency and confusion, then to unsnarl everything. That is what defines a good story. It does its job well without alerting us how the unsnarling will come about precisely. In turn, the presence of a good story prepares for the poem whose purpose, reductively stated, is to make meaning of action and to lodge it in memorable words. We might say in images hung on a wall. There, it repeats as often as we need repetition for the delight and instruction of our natures. I do not mean, of course, the platitudes and bromides distilled to commercially pedaled plaques, put on T-shirts, or abstracted like one-minute Shakespeare plays. The images I mean are those which tell us what is the most durable, which we admire and call Beauty because they summon from in us the will to do and to be good, and in Beauty we see the sorrowful diminishing of what had seemed to us permanent. With the poem, as in the play, when threat is overcome, the durable stands forth, found. For the individual that is always consciousness and when it comes there is new stability in community and the self stands reoriented.
Threat tempers the poem whether it is obvious or hidden. Each poet decides; each reader judges. Poems have, finally, few rules; there are no reliable poetry police. Some poems hold the threat close, as a gambler plays his cards; some flaunt it openly. Milton signals threat in his titles, Paradise Lost and "On His Blindness." Emily Dickinson's #435 begins with a muted threat as thesis: "Much Madness is divinest sense." A paradox much employed by seers, wizards, prophets, druids, and bards, the unknown, she implies, lies couched in the familiar. This poem's province is ultimate reality, knowable in the most eccentric evidence.
Much Madness is divinest sense
To a discerning Eye
Much sensethe Starkest Madness
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail
Assentand you are sane
Demuryou're straightway dangerous
And handled with a Chain
Dickinson's gently rational tone in evoking her paradox causes us to think she means only that ersatz madness maybe be actual wisdom until that final line. Cruelty, utterly irrational malice, a violent chain-whipping waits for the person who proves not like the rest of us, though as far from mad as a house cat. There had appeared to be no self in this poem, though the final line changes that. Here threat is not the absence of a self but the presence of self's individuality that offends the community average. The poet has inverted the more usual process of the poem's movement whereby an anecdote of crisis leads vision outward to reexamination of self and community. She moves from abstract idea to the self in isolation. In this she tells the god-awful truth; the only resolution she offers is a sudden, literal anger. Be too different, she says, and you are screwed. Dickinson, with paradox, wit, and playful pace, allows the poem's threat to build expectations, apparently to satisfy them, but she doesn't dismiss the threat. Poems help us to that point when we transcend trouble and self-redemption begins. That's why Robert Frost assures us a good poem will tell what we know but didn't know we knew. The best poems have no choice but to recognize St. Cyril's dragon.
Randall Jarrell, who never flinched from threat or truth, bore Dickinson's courage in a world of Dickens-sized monsters. Said to have thrown himself under a passing truck, he died in 1965. Often in treatment for severe depression, Jarrell had a child's sensitivity to harms. He knew what any B horror movie knows, that the obvious threats are usually not the most dangerous. Jarrell, like his teacher and friend Allen Tate, happened to be a fan of professional football which, in the early 1960s, was exploding with television's coverage. The Baltimore Colts were soon portrayed as America's team, each of its players acquiring legendary status that announcers embroidered weekly. One of the Colts was the very large, very imposing black defensive tackle, "Big Daddy Lipscomb." Sports writers portrayed him as devastating Bluto, the bulldozer who knocked down any runner, but he was also described as a "caring" man who always helped his victim rise up. Bigger than life, tougher than time and the fears that whittled the rest of us, he stood with the day's heroes, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Wilt Chamberlain. But Big Daddy had a secret drug habit; he had his own self-image problem, his human confusion, and it killed him. Jarrell saw the threat to Lipscomb was not football's brutality, not even drugs or too much money or too much stardom. It was being afraid to fail at living, so Jarrell inscribed the problem of the self who descended into isolation and stood outside the community, the big man in "Say Goodbye to Big Daddy" who finally and helplessly admitted, "I've been scared / Most of my life. You wouldn't think so to look at me. / It gets so bad I cry myself to sleep..." Poetry, people think, ought to turn things to the pretty ends we want instead of the blunt reality we mostly suffer. Jarrell understood the sinister well enough and the truth-telling power of the poem that was its ultimate value, and that drew him to the pity and beauty in a remarkable and representative man, a player like all of us in the only game that matters:
Embarrassed him, so that he was helped by smaller men
And hurt by smaller men; Big Daddy Lipscomb
Has helped to his feet the last ball carrier, Death.
The black man in the television set
Whom the viewers stared atsometimes, almost were
Is a blur now; when we get up to adjust the set,
It's not the set, but a NETWORK DIFFICULTY.
The world won't be the same without Big Daddy.
Or else it will.
Jarrell, as Dickinson had done, portrays one self mourning another self's harm, and here the community from which the self is exiled turns out to be the harming actor. Big Daddy is defeated by isolation, by hypocrisy, by bad judgment, but mostly by fear any child would recognize, the fear of being unlike the others, of being unable to become like others. Today, of course, the networks would broadcast a brief documentary at half-time, eulogize him in his social context, make him appear a triumphant hero, and spin-doctor out with a photographic smiling face of the child he was once. We almost see technicians grin as they make sure we are awash in life transformed, onward and upward, then, into commercial break. But Jarrell doesn't buy easy resolution. His chanted fragments, satiric language, tongue-in-cheek portrait of the big hero lead to the only permanence anybody can expect: Death. In its face, Jarrell adopts the glib final remark of the boyish announcer warbling as the documentary dissolves: "The world won't be the same without Big Daddy." Exactly what was said of Hamlet. A lot of lesser poets would have left it there. Not Jarrell, who deadpans, "Or else it will."
Fear and death, threats whose power is addressed only by Jarrell's framing, resisting words, appear to leave us hopeless. But hope is what poems bring, offering awareness, turning us to read those images on the wall of memory where the struggles of our kind are foretold, where we may understand the aspiration to become a self is beaten down all too easily and all too invisibly. Jarrell knows what literary theorists have newly discovered, what poets always know, that language is the most formidable threat, for it makes reality and semblances of reality with the same skills, in the same images. Like Jarrell's television viewer blinded, so it appears, by NETWORK DIFFICULTY, we have to learn not merely to look but to see, which is what threat does in "Say Goodbye to Big Daddy."
My two grandfathers are long dead. Many poets I have known are dead, poets whose work I watched as it emerged to become images of guidance past the dragon's house, Warren and Dickey and Hugo and Wright and Matthews and Levis, all dead. I imagine now I may live some years yet, though the sum is always ungiven and destiny is untold. Except, perhaps, in the images art places before us, in threats contained by and shaping those images. The two pictures my grandfathers kept hang only in my memory, inexpressible without words recovering what they were. Still I find myself gazing back there, speculating about what they offered those old men. They would have said just pictures to look at, meaning some pleasure taken. That is almost enough, of course. I think the pleasure must have been a kind of deep memory, a recognition of the self reconnected to a community fecund as the dream of beginning; it must have been a feeling of peace linking to Nature, that woman, that deer. Maybe even innocence. Those images gave them the nearest thing they could know to poetry, a sweet fable of life permanent among the diminished and vanished, all that they had loved. If art is anything, it is love and memory and union that we call knowledge. The greatest American poet, the most revolutionary poet, Walt Whitman, opens Leaves of Grass with a bold and democratic claim of continuity: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
Then he adds, for the poet, what the poem exists to do: "I loaf and invite my soul." He asks for the soul's narratives, its threats, its gambles and wiles and strategies and successes. The soul is the self, the sum of character, a process of knowing to be courted, nourished, prepared. Paintings, dance, music, poems give image to the flow of time in which we float, encountering threats that would compromise, confuse, prevent our destiny. In the poem's colloquy of self and community, in tales of how it has been and what pleasures and sorrows being has, we create the patterns, stories, myths, the destiny we hunt for because we cannot survive without it. When I think of those grandfathers and their pictures, I allow myself to dream threats they endured and surpassed. I think of poems that chronicle the passage of men through the place where the dragon always waits. Beauty and Passion and Knowledge and Courage are the names of the roads each poet travels. The horse each one rides is called threat.
About the Author
The Elliot Coleman Professor of Poetry and Chairman of the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Dave Smith was from 1990 to 2002 coeditor of The Southern Review and Boyd Professor of English at Louisiana State University. Poet, novelist, and literary critic, Smith has published most recently The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2000 (Louisiana State University Press, 2000) and Little Boats, Unsalvaged: Poems, 1992-2004 (Louisiana State University Press, 2005). Twice runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John S. Guggenheim Foundation, the Lyndhurst Foundation, and the John D. Rockefeller Foundation, he is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. (Photo by Lael Smith)
Louisiana State University Press