Friday, December 30, 2011

Poem of the Week 12/30/2011: Carmel Point

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Robinson Jeffers

Jeffers presents us with a poem that at once divides and unifies man and nature; man no longer realizes his connections with the greater world, which is patient and unyieldingly calm, permanent, confident. Thus the poet interlaces a conception of reality that does not exclude human beings; it is rather a place to which at some point we ought to return.

Man and nature's common essence (one way to speak of their unity?) is apparent in the first few lines. If things are patient, that is a human category - they exhibit a benevolent human trait, something we humans often cannot reach or touch. Then, man and nature seem to take the other's character in the line, "This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses." Nature is "de-faced," or in a way dehumanized, while humans are a "crop," some kind of planted, temporary field of natural products on their way to being born.

Jeffers effortlessly carries us through a narrative - asking the readers to imagine this pace at first glance from man - a field of poppies and lupin, only a few larger beings making their small mark - horses and cows. This is what we besmirched, cut up with our concrete boxes... but nature, he offers, is unperturbed. Unperturbed because it is so permanent as to be living "in the very grain of the granite, / safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff." It is patient and compassionate, nearly, which we can pick up in the gentle tone in the lines about man and the tides. Nature, like a mother or some much greater figure, sees the truth in our works, which is that they are again not separate from her - these works eventually dissolve like everything else, and so man's childish disruption of nature's beauty is no different than a barnacle on a rock.

Indeed, this is in part a statement about reality - the way of things is to be safe, unthreatened, unhurried, and pristine. What is is beautiful, still, even as it is in motion, from the grazing cows to crashing waves to the sudden growth of a suburban "crop."

This regard perhaps provides the impetus for the final section, wherein the speaker recommends a new orientation, a new way for us to be - "We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from."Human views, it seems, are anxious and quick, whereas nature's vaster view is solid, eternal, confident, firm, strong. In dehumanizing and uncentering from ourselves, we may discover that we are and embody the patience of the rocks, the great geologic beauty of a granite cliff. "Carmel Point" calls for us to understand this, to see the way of things, their patience, and to remember again that it is, ultimately, ourselves and not ourselves that we are seeing - because, perhaps, we simultaneously are and are not.

An afterthought: I recommend reading Robinson Jeffers after some time spent at the California coast - nothing puts his words into better perspective than to see this view oneself, smell the air, hear the crashing and stillness. Indeed, important to know about Jeffers is that he built himself a house out of stones, "Tor House," near Carmel, and lived on the beach alone for many years. A vision of starry, wonderful vastness!

Happy new year all!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Poem of the Week 12/22/2011: High Windows

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if 
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life; 
No God any more, or sweating in the dark 

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He 
And his lot will all go down the long slide 
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Philip Larkin

Larkin always seems to leave a sort of ambiguity in his poetry, and in this one it has to do, perhaps, with the viewpoint. Whose thoughts are those at the end? Is it the speaker - the grumpy sort of a-religious, modern man? Or is it the person contemplating a Godless future, without any of the worries from Christianity who then remembers the subtlety and vastness of that experience? Indeed, Larkin presents two versions of paradise - the modern and materialist version, against, the quiet experience of vastness the final stanza suggests.

This stanza, after all, in a way suggests Adam and Eve in the garden, but instead of wearing fig leaves she wears a diaphragm, and sex is regarded not sinfully but practically - as something that can be done so long as nobody is pregnant. Also in counterpoint to Christianity seems to be the "long slide / to happiness;" it brings up images of Jacob's ladder to heaven, perhaps, or the great chain of being. Larkin offers us the endless slide of youthful... delight? debauchery?

And then this perspective gets amplified by the italics in the third and fourth stanzas - picking up on how this new world has dropped "bonds and gestures.../ like an outdated combine harvester." This perspective resents the priests, confession, the worrying about an afterlife about which one can do very little, captured in the lines that are nearly spit out, "free bloody birds."

Suddenly, however, the poem ends with something utterly a-cultural and perhaps truly holy. This is rather surprising considering the resentment about cultural bonds in the italics, but the blast of beauty, stillness, and openness offers a completely different theology, a paradise installed endlessly above the church windows. Indeed, even the height of this is probably symbolic, given that the rest of the poem has been earthy and grounded, from the images of the bed to the slide towards happiness to the "bloody birds" (priests) that are falling to the ground. The high windows show a level that is above all of these cultural concerns, debauchery, and worries - a God not tied to any of the cultural forms that show, tell, do, act, oppress, or "free." This God "shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless," an endlessness entirely different from the endless slide of pleasure posited in the early stanzas. A single moment and a few lines pierce the poem at its end!