June 21, 2017
At college a few lifetimes ago, one of my earliest experiences was reading Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium. Here is the famous last stanza:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
At the time, in those college years, it was well understood that you learned some things for their own sake. You didn’t even have to agree with the sentiment expressed. You could appreciate the expression.
Certain expressions were aesthetic and spiritual and alive in their own way. Argument on that score was unnecessary.
What about the opening lines of Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill? If they don’t take you off your chair, read them out loud a few times:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
No one asked the student how he was going to use those words of a poem when he was working, years later, for a bank. No one asked him how he was going make the words count when he was fronting for a suit filed by a corporation. No one said he had to postpone appreciating poetry because injustices still existed in the world.
Education can expose students to glorious things they will never apply.
Yet, those things can transform their lives.
As civilization declines, an impression is imparted that there are only crises. Every event is some kind of crisis.
If that were true, what would be left over? What inner life would be possible?
What joy could be experienced for its own sake?
All of this leads me back to a theme I’ve covered from many different angles over the years. Reality, ordinary reality is not the end-all and be-all.
Art, for example, proves that.
The thrill of actual poetry proves that.
Why do I bother saying all this? Because part of what it means to have a civilization is part of what it means to be an individual: there is a profound appreciation of human creations. When that goes by the boards, when education ignores that because “more important issues” must be presented and framed and slanted, for purposes of sheer indoctrination, life-force drains away.
Elevated language taken to poetic heights is not a mere distraction.
Many years ago, when I was working at a community college, I started an informal poetry project. I brought together a small group of foreign students and taped them reading poems in their own languages (Portuguese, ancient Persian, English, etc.). I wanted them to hear the sounds of those poems, apart from their meaning. I wanted them to hear the music(s).
Now we’re talking about real diversity, not the fake imposed version. Now we’re talking about great energies that have been injected into, and fortified in, many languages by individual poets from all times and places.
Now we’re talking about the heights those cultures reached, not the depths to which they sank.
Now we’re talking about an authentic level of understanding reaching across bridges and gaps.
There is something very right about that.
Burned flowers of the field
My noon is over, growing old
Everything I have is finally sold
Sewed designs for men with money
Thinking it was duty
To watch them lead the world to war
From my little field of beauty
I wrote that poem when I was 23. It was published in 1966, in The Massachusetts Review. At the time, I was focused on the break-up of The American Dream. Soon after, I had my moment of insight, when it became clear to me that individuals and their minds and imaginations and choices could exceed the negative reach of any civilization and, at the same time, fertilize that civilization. Reality (things as they are) is not the answer; it is the lowest common denominator, which waits for people to sign declarations of surrender.