The goals of any book like this can be summarized as follows:
- To be useful
- To show that poetry is useful
- To present a collection of "good poetry," explicated well
I'll take the second goal first, as it will be the shortest, and the third one second, as I'm least qualified to judge it. The first goal, I save for the end, as--being so direly in need of lessons in how to live, and being sufficiently well-read in such material that I know useless crap when I read it--I am eminently qualified to give my opinion. So.
Practical Poetry, or Everyman's Particle Accelerator
Roger Housden, like so many poets and academics, believes that poetry is useful--a dogma that, you may know, conflicts with my own philosophy. I choose to follow Oscar Wilde, the Dadaists, and other "Art for Art's Sake" enthusiasts. It is enough that poetry is interesting and emotionally and intellectually satisfying to whomever finds it so. There is no need to pretend it's a panacea for all humanity's ills.
Housden's agenda here becomes most explicit in his commentary on Dorianne Laux's poem:
... it felt like an initiation of sorts when I first read it, a baptism into a dimension of being human that I never knew. A poem can do this for us. And of course he's right. Those of us who are sensitive to poetry, the vast majority of us poets ourselves (and I include poor, wannabe poets like me), can gain intense vicarious experience with emotions and sensations that have eluded direct contact through the poet's rich and truthward expression. So it is useful to a few.
But we must be humble enough to realize there are only a few who will find it so. (Not an elitist idea, you must understand. Poets have come from every socioeconomic stratum, race, religion, etc., so there are no bars to anyone inclined to join this group or its admirers. Except lack of interest.)
Perhaps an apt analogy would be in physics. A particle accelerator is a terribly useful thing, but almost none of us knows how to use it. The vast majority of us have no idea what good it does us (just a vague idea that "hey, something important is going on here"). And most of us give up trying to understand it when we get a taste of its technical complexity. So it is with poetry and the world. Useful? Sure, but mostly in some indirect, diffuse way that can't be precisely mapped or predicted. So don't put all your Fabergé eggs in that basket.
A Lively Conversation
Let me confess: I know terribly little about contemporary poetry, and my familiarity with poetry from the latter half of the 20th Century is not impressive. I have read around everything, a bit here and there in the most unsystematic way. So place my opinion more or less firmly in the I knows what I likes category.
Selecting a mere ten poems from the myriad millions published in the 20th and 21st Centuries must be a daunting task. I won't ask whether Housden employed a quota system to create a collection that is minimally multicultural and gender-balanced. I won't ask whether he included singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen strictly for the "hipness" factor. And I will at this time cease entirely to ask anymore questions in this passive-aggressive, backhanded fashion.
Regardless of the snarkiness displayed above, I admire Housden's selection. These poems represent a number of distinct voices, styles, eras, and perspectives on the theme. Opening with Ellen Bass's "If You Knew," a poem that approaches strangers with an intimacy that jarred me into an attentive discomfort:
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line's crease
Mortal, your life will say,
As if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.
There are always flaws, or, more precisely, disagreements with the editors of collections. Housden includes too much of the narrative--almost inevitable with this sort of theme (still, bolder choices could have been made). The collection is devoid of the darker side of goodbye. Through selection and interpretation, every poem fits into the constraining thesis that goodbye is a positive event (although it seems kind of a Procrustean bed in the case of Cohen's lyrics). (Speaking of Leonard Cohen, if you're going to include song lyrics about saying goodbye, why not Joni Mitchell, in whose best works rhythm and rhyme are more subtly executed than in Cohen's?)
As for the commentary on the poems, much of it is worthwhile. Housden presents interesting biographical information to set the context in which the work was written. The use of the poets' other poems, essays, interviews, letters, where it appears, is illuminating. The author's interpretive insights occasionally add to the experience of the poem. For example, Housden's close reading of Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," with which I've been familiar since high school, revealed to me several crucial subtleties of phrasing that I had missed.
Housden's explication, however, more often than not, left me flat, often dwelling on the images and lines that were (to my mind) least successful (Laux's bird, for instance) and skimping on those with more to offer (e.g., Rilke's winter so endless / that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart). His occasionally hysterical infatuation with the works and their authors sometimes elicits an equal and opposite reaction in me: I want to hate the poems, just out of spite.
My main obstacle to fully enjoying the book is that I find it difficult to like Roger Housden--to build a rapport with him as a reader should with an author. It could be that his New Aginess reminds me of my ex-wife #1. It could be that in his relentless optimism he deliberately misses Cohen's lovely bitterness and glosses over Dylan Thomas's rage in a drive-by comparison to Neruda's "Love Sonnet XCIV." It probably stems largely from my perception of him as an authority and a father figure.
But the core of my ambivalence about Housden is his admission that he has never felt deep and turbulent grief. How dare he! Part of me envies his stability--I have lived my entire life with out of control emotions and inadequate language to express them. He explains his bloodless equanimity as a product of his Anglican upbringing in Bath. My own family (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) has given me the twin gifts of the hidden hereditary mood disorder and the traditional closed lips. From the grazing fields of Somerset to the glass factories of Indiana and beyond, my people have refused direct expression to their deepest realities. We are a placid landscape undermined by fissures, waiting to crack. Housden and his are a thick, solid glacier. We have always wanted not to feel, to be like Housden, and we have paid dearly for the effort.
And yet, his frankness about his own (strange) condition gives me a greater appreciation of my own capacity to feel. Provided I can learn to balance it with a more consistent rational perspective and stick it all together with some sort of spiritual glue.
This leads me to the next and final section of this essay.
Any thematic collection tied to a profound emotion or traumatic event is by default a self-help book. I despise self-help books. But I must admit, Housden's book came along unbidden at exactly the time when I needed it. It was invaluable in my own struggles to begin to bid a graceful farewell to my second marriage, lost over a year ago, and to process the anticipatory grief over my dying father. In both cases, I have hindered my own capacity to live by unhealthy reactions, a year's worth of desperate clinging and heart rending in the first, and a withdrawal into numbness in the other. I found the poems of much more use in that regard than Housden's commentary. Each poem in its own way demanded that I go forward in grieving and move back toward life, from Laux's coldly placid reassurance:
You'll be reading, and for a moment you'll see a word
you don't recognize, a simple word like cup or gate or wisp
and you'll ponder over it like a child discovering language.
Cup, you'll say it over and over again until it begins to make sense,
and that's when you'll say it, for the first time, out loud: He's dead.
to Gilbert's celebration of the imperfect and impermanent:
We look up at the stars and they are
not there. We see the memory
of when they were, once upon a time.
And that too is more than enough.
Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.
Rilke's ringing glass that shatters as it rings offers the most striking image of any poem in the book--indeed, any poem I've ever read on the subject. To put oneself outside time, to posit that every end has already happened, is always happening, and so can neither be feared as future event nor mourned as past ... is this it? That condition which allows us to live every moment fully, experiencing every sensation, every emotion, without being crushed by them? Rilke (along with Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams) is one of the only father figures I have (though maybe they're more like favorite uncles) with whom I never argue. When he tells me to ring even as I shatter, well ... I scratch my head in wonder and confusion, but I do not protest and I do not question whether or not it is possible.
Roger Housden, through no fault of his own, cannot bring me to this conclusion on his own, through his scholarly wisdom or personal appeals. Fortunately, for my sake, he brings along others who can--I hope--guide me through my own personal loss into a greater sense of humanity on the other side.
Poems can do that for us.