05 July 2006

Jasmine + John Berryman + Consolation of Philosophy

Thanks to Jasmine, a poem.

Hung by a thread more moments instant Henry's mind
super-subtle, which he knew blunt & empty & incurious
but when he compared it with his fellows'
finding it keen & full, he didn't know what to think
apart from typewriters & print & ink.
On the philosophical side

plus religious, he lay at a loss.
Mostly he knew the ones he would not follow
into their burning systems
or polar systems, Wittgenstein being boss,
Augustine general manager. A universal hollow
most of the other seems;

so Henry in twilight is on his own:
marrying, childing, slogging, shelling taxes,
pondering, making.
It's rained all day. His wife has been away
with genuine difficulty he fought madness
whose breast came close to breaking.

-John Berryman

I like that. It still seems--and this is a paradigm in which I'm kind of stuck--it seems like jello molds, front lawns, cigarette smoking, smoking jackets, nine to five, those pastel colors: blue, green, pink--Americana, the fifties and sixties. The sixties were deeply conservative compared to today. This poem seems so innocent; but again, and I really like this, it's something of a fetish. What is it that is the object on which you can focus your attention so as not to go crazy with cognitive dissonance, that keeps your spirit together in storms of trauma.

Henry's dim bulb? The consolation of philosophy. The enjambed line ending the first stanza and beginning the second suggests a few things. Philosophy and religion are separated, yes; but there is a fluidity, a somewhat porous border between the two. Already in the first stanza Henry's thoughts are characterized as discursive ("typewriters & print & ink"). The first stanza definitely suggests a collegiate atmosphere (competition, "fellows").

The second stanza (along with linking philosophy and religion) evokes Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Mostly the evocation hinges on Henry's being at a loss, and the philosopher's "burning systems". Losing the natural ease of young life, Henry could be said to be experienced after going to college and reading the great philosophers. What is philosophy? Is it the mirror of nature? Is the tiger, a man-made automaton of war and destruction, simply a mirror of the natural state of nature? The burning systems bring to my mind the Tiger tiger burning bright in the forests of the night. (Or it could suggest something like a heretical character to philosophy. Episteme versus doxa.)

The final stanza is what brings to mind the 50s and 60s. Kind of like Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which definitely bears the stamp of its age. But so, there's some sort of dissolution of the typical mise en scene. There's trauma. The first three lines have stops. "It's rained all day" ends with a full stop. Then this last sentence snakes on, insidiously. It's Henry breaking down somewhat? Madness was overcome. The fetish? Philosophy or religion: Athens or Jerusalem?

I haven't even tried to look at poetry in quite a while. Apologies for a clunky reading.