Why Poetry MattersApr 10, 2022
Some people say they find poetry impenetrable. Yet readership is increasing: in a 2017 survey, the National Endowment for the Arts foun...
I was delighted when Louise Glück, one of the great poets of our age, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. We featured some of her poems on "The Examined Year: 2020" and I wrote about one of my all-time favorite Glück poems, "Ithaca," for that show.
I share my thoughts about that poem again for this week's episode, "Why Poetry Matters," with none other than Louise Glück as guest!
The beloved doesn’t
need to live. The beloved
lives in the head. The loom
is for the suitors, strung up
like a harp with white shroud-thread.
He was two people.
He was the body and the voice, the easy
magnetism of a living man, and then
the unfolding dream or image
shaped by the woman working the loom,
sitting there in a hall filled
with literal-minded men.
As you pity
the deceived sea that tried
to take him away forever
and took only the first,
the actual husband, you must
pity these men: they don’t know
what they’re looking at;
they don’t know that when one loves this way
the shroud becomes a wedding dress.
The background story, of course, is drawn from the Odyssey. Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, is awaiting the return of her husband Odysseus, who’s been at war and at sea for two decades. Since most people assume he is dead, a bunch of suitors hang around in the palace, waiting for Penelope to choose one of them as her new royal husband; she says she’ll choose when she’s finished weaving a shroud for Laertes, father of Odysseus, but she secretly unweaves part of it every night. In Homer it’s a tale of steadfast fidelity and of ingenuity (Penelope is very much the equal of her famously wily husband). In Glück it’s also a meditation on love—and on poetry.
Here the shroud is not so much for Laertes as for Odysseus, the husband presumed dead. “The shroud becomes a wedding dress”: Penelope is married to a ghost, a shadow. She’s married to the image of Odysseus, not to the man himself. So: is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, if “the beloved lives in the head,” then even if he’s away for twenty years, in another sense he’s still with you. That's uplifting… right?
Not necessarily: it also means you’re in love with someone who doesn’t exist. A dead man. You’re married to a corpse. (Just listen to that beautiful hidden rhyme that seals the connection: "lives in the head" / "with white shroud-thread.”)
At a reading of her poetry, Glück had this to say about her writing: “My thinking is characterized by oppositions—I argue with myself, like a courtroom drama.” In “Ithaca” perhaps Glück is arguing with herself about love. Is love better when it attaches to a real person (in which case we suffer when they’re away from us) or when it attaches to our vision of them (in which case we may just be deluded)?
And Glück is also arguing with herself about poetry. The loom is like a harp; the absent man is not just a corpse but an “image.” What’s dangerous, then, is not just imagination but image-making. If you replace real people and things with images—pictures, songs, metaphors, poems—you’re making them evaporate. Turning them into ghosts.
So is image-making bad? The final line seems to suggest as much: “the shroud becomes a wedding dress.” Pretty soon you’re married to something dead, trapped in a world that doesn’t exist, yoked together with no way out.
But wait... that itself is a metaphor! And a great one. A Nobel Prize-worthy one!
So maybe images are good after all; maybe the "literal-minded men,” who "don’t know what they’re looking at,” are the fools. The ability to understand metaphor—to see beyond surfaces, to see things for what they also stand for—is what lifts smart, wily, thoughtful, creative Penelope above these dullard men. Those pictures in your mind are life-enhancing, not life-destroying.
We’re invited to stand in judgment over those dumb, literal-minded suitors, and maybe even to wish them harm. (Lured by that brilliant line-break in the first stanza, did you think for a moment that “strung up” referred to them? Did you hope it?) But somehow we’re also asked to pity them, as the poem suddenly becomes about us, the reader (where did this “you” come from?): “As you pity / the deceived sea... you must / pity these men.”
Which is better, then: a totally accurate picture of the beloved, or a picture in your head? Literal-mindedness, or poetry? Once it gets in your head, Glück’s poem will never stop gnawing at you. In the best possible way, her lyric becomes a wedding dress.
Sunday, April 10, 2022 -- 4:01 AM...
Heathcliff, it's me, I'm Cathy
I've come home, I'm so cold
Let me in your window
... Wuthering Heights - Kate Bush
I liked this show but thought a moment was lost when Josh asked Louise for examples of poetry that stuck. Instead of listing a poem, she mentioned the novel Wuthering Heights. A book is not a poem, and the differences are pithy. It was an opportunity.
A recent novel that points to the pus of that boil of pith is On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Poetry can rendevous with a reader, and a novel can lead you astray. The first hundred pages of Ocean's book are poetry; then, the final pages left me stranded. Poetry is a shot in the dark that hits or misses but seldom leads one on. But Wuthering Heights is another story, so to speak.
Also interesting to me was Glück's inspiration of 'Fear no more the heat of' the sun.' I can't help but think of the coming battles in Ukraine and the mindset of the people in that conflict and the first time I ever saw the play. It was a production that will always stick with me and peg my thoughts of war.
Song and poetry are also genres apart and related. Bob Dylan's 2016 Nobel prize now seems silly to this listener. Poetry, novels, songs… fiction made actual. I would double down on my show post to say poetry is the mentalese of experience and the chunks of art that make literature and song are Poetry in pieces.
Somehow this show has me thinking about Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, which I remember as being sung by Pat Benatar. Sometimes sticking is haunting like Catherine did Heathcliff or Odysseus did Penelope.
I enjoyed this show and blog, and I could use some more poetry. We all could.