The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.
If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.
In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.
I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)
I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”
I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.
Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.
I haven’t been writing much lately, even though Heaven knows I have the time for it these days. I suppose the main reason is because I haven’t had anything positive to say for a couple of weeks. The political outlook, as well as the growing realization that social distancing will become the new norm for the next three to five years, has taken its toll on my usual optimism.
Having said that, I have to add that I must be the most cautious optimist who ever walked the earth. Several years ago, when my mother was facing a fairly dire medical diagnosis, I told my daughter that until there was definitive proof of it, I would continue to hope for the best. Granted, this was a conscious choice on my part; like everyone else, I can always see the worst possibilities, but on this occasion, I had deliberately decided not to panic. “After all,” I added, “I have absolutely nothing to lose by being an optimist.” Immediately after the words came out of my mouth, I started to laugh; I could not think of a more pessimistic way of expressing my optimism. It’s almost as if I was some mashup of Ernie and Bert, of Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore, existing in the same body at the same time.
(Incidentally, I turned out to be right: my mother was misdiagnosed and recovered, but not before a young doctor, visiting her in her hospital room on his rounds, said to her, “You’re doing so much better! And you’re looking very good for a woman who is 70 years old.” My mother smiled and replied, “Thank you! Actually, I’m 80 years old.” He checked her chart and nodded. “Yes, so you are. Well, you’re looking quite good, aren’t you!” It must have cost my mother a bit to have answered him in that way, because she’s self conscious about her age, but I assume the temptation to put the young doc in his place was simply too great for her to resist.)
This is simply a long-winded way of saying that I often don’t write for this blog unless I’m either outraged or optimistic, and I’ve been neither for the past week or so. But now I think I have something good, something positive, to offer my readers–whoever you may be. It’s not entirely good, but it’s a sunny day today, after several days of wintry weather, and for the moment, at least, I’m able to see some bright spots in our landscape.
It comes in a bad news/good news package. So, here’s the bad news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19, trashing productivity, jeopardizing livelihoods, causing mass unemployment. And now, here’s the good news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19. How is that good? Think of it this way: whatever happens from here on out, we should never forget that we were willing to sacrifice a great deal, perhaps as much as any generation has ever sacrificed in so short a time, not for a war, but to protect segments of our population that we might ordinarily never even consider: the aged, the infirm, the immunocompromised. This is remarkable–so remarkable, in fact, that we might think this kind of altruism has never happened before in the history of humankind.
But if we did think this, we’d be wrong, because it has. Over and over again.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said she considered the earliest sign of civilization to be a healed femur, because it demonstrated that compassion and caring existed within a society, since it takes at least six weeks for the thighbone to heal, and during that time the injured person would be totally dependent on others for his or her survival. And, despite our modern tendency to believe, along with Thomas Hobbes, that life in a natural state must be “nasty, brutish, and short,” we are gaining more and more evidence of the existence of compassion in prehistoric human societies. For example, anthropologists have discovered that Neanderthals cared for injured people, nursing them into old age–and this despite other infirmities that would have precluded their useful contributions to the group.
Like many other people, I’ve been taught that nature was a rough business, and that only the fittest survive. Americans especially have been nurtured on that old chestnut, it seems, even before Darwin’s theories were misappropriated and twisted to create Social Darwinism. We’ve been taught to see the world in this way because it fits our view of ourselves as “rugged individuals” who conquer the environment and make their own destiny. But the era in which this view has held sway is about to end, I hope, and we have Covid-19 to thank for its demise.
One thing we have to understand is that, Hollywood blockbusters and dystopian fiction notwithstanding, disasters don’t always bring out the worst in people; in fact, much of the time, they bring out the very best in humans, as many theorists have pointed out. At least in the early stages of disasters, people tend to act rationally and altruistically. In the last two months, many of us have seen heroic and caring actions performed by people in our neighborhoods and communities. It’s these things we need to focus on, I’d argue, hard as it may be when we are supplied with a never-ending supply of fear and anxiety.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m both afraid and anxious. I should, to be honest, add a few more adjectives to the mix: terrified, frustrated, angry, sad, antsy, hysterical. But I am learning to fight against the media, and perhaps my own nature, which has learned to feed on bad news and fear. In fact, this blog post is just my way of sharing my most recent discovery about the way we live now: We have been spoon-fed bad news for so long now that we are addicted to it. Like the teenager who loves to ride the scariest roller coasters or watch the most terrifying horror flicks, we want to scare ourselves with stories of the disasters that lie ahead of us, of tragedies waiting to jump out at us. Fear, it turns out, is just as thrilling in a news report as it is in a terrifying ride which we cannot get off of. I will leave it to another blogger, or to my readers (please comment below!), to explain why fear is so compelling and addictive. My point for now is that many of us cannot do without such fear; it has become, in the last ten years especially, part of the fabric of our lives now.
But it is dangerous to give in to our addiction to fear in the form of news reports and dire projections about the future, for at least two reasons. First, such reports and predictions may be wrong. Media reporting of human behavior in disasters often is wrong, concentrating on the bad rather than the good. Murder and mayhem sells: “if it bleeds, it leads,” according to an old journalistic saw. Second, these dark views, in addition to their potential inaccuracy, feed our desire for the negative, which I’d argue exists in all of us, even the most optimistic of us. If we think of this desire as an addiction, perhaps we can begin to see the danger of it and wean ourselves off of our negative viewpoints. We may not be more productive (and the very nature of productivity will be questioned and redefined in the coming years, I’d guess), but we may be happier, more satisfied, and ready to work hard to create a better world than the one that lies in shambles around us. After all, we have nothing to lose by being optimists about the future.
Of course, the challenges that face us are enormous, perhaps greater than any other generation has faced. And I don’t always feel optimistic about the likelihood that we can change things substantially. But I know that change is possible, although admittedly it sometimes comes at a great cost. And I know as well that in order to create necessary changes, the work must start well before they actually occur, sometimes centuries before. In other words, we must often imagine the possibility for change long before we can expect to effect it. (This kind of imagining, after all, is exactly what Virginia Woolf does so beautifully at the end of A Room of One’s Own in regard to women’s writing.) In other words, incremental change is likely just as valuable as actual change, though it is often invisible, swimming just below the surface of current events. Without it, real change could never occur.
So I will just end by referring you to the last scene of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece of satire, The Great Dictator (1940, though begun in 1937), in which he makes fun of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Chaplin reportedly ad-libbed this speech he gave as the Hitler lookalike, which is perhaps why it rings as true now as it did 70 years ago, when the world was facing another catastrophe, one which it survived and continues to learn from to this day. Take a look at it and see if it makes you feel just a little bit better as you face the future that lies ahead.