These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing, I wish I was more cheerful

Darcie Dennigan
October 25, 2010
Comments 9

Look at how notfunny this short poem from The Shadow of Sirius is:

Lights Out

The old grieving autumn goes on calling to its summer
the valley is calling to other valleys beyond the ridge
each star is roaring alone into darkness
there is not a sound in the whole night

Look at that frightening poem, with its themes of isolation and ineluctable death. I couldn’t stop laughing when I read it. And you know why? Because it’s on page 103 of the book, and after 102 pages of serious, high-minded, mysterious orphic utterances, when I got to another serious orphic utterance like “the old grieving autumn goes on calling to its summer,” I was either going to throw the book onto a pile of burning (autumnal) leaves or let myself laugh at W. S. Merwin online–if only for a second, and if only to demonstrate my own idiocy.

Yes, he’s a great poet. A serious and seriously great poet. There’s a lot to admire in such a man, and in such work. But his consistently quiet, grave, hushed tone undoes the book. His utter consistency makes it hard for me to take him seriously. I wish he would undermine his own authority. I wish he would contradict himself. (Not that I can imagine the speaker of these poems raising his voice, but it would be great if he would cling to the top of a rare palm tree and yawp “I am large! I contain multitudes!”) Instead I have before me this book, which is large and contains Merwitudes. e.g. I have come back through the years to this / stone hollow encrypted in its own stillness

I’m not asking for jokes (What did one black dog say to the other black dog? –I never laugh. I’m Sirius.) No, absolutely not. But humor, yes. In this book especially, which sometimes reads as a compendium of losses, humor would have provided another, an alternate release. Byron: If I laugh at any mortal thing / Tis that I may not weep.

In the end, maybe what we love to read is as personal as who we fall in love with. I have loved some unwaveringly serious people, and poems, for days. But over years and hundreds of pages, it is the people and poets meeting serious subjects in varied voices, in more humorous and therefore more human ways whom I love. Stevie Smith.

And it’s also maybe not simply a question of personal taste. Can any modern book of poetry with such a narrow register be truly great? Can we take a modern body of work that has little or no humor seriously?

9 thoughts on “These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing, I wish I was more cheerful

  1. When reading this it came to mind that every poet is different in what they do and what they write about. Merwin talks about depressing things but I think that the reason he is like this is because of his life experiences. When researching his life I think that a lot of the events in his life has had a huge affect on what he writes in his poetry.

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  4. Wow–Chaucer’s death and Berryman’s birth–thanks, Cody, for that.
    And that reminds me of a counterpoint to what I said above, something I should maybe have considered:

    Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no/Inner Resources.

  5. Darcie, Zach — Three quick things:

    1) On my desk right now: A New Yorker cartoon that shows two men walking through a park. One’s a businessman with a briefcase; the other’s a weathered bohemian-type, puffing on a pipe. The caption (spoken by the businessman): “I enjoy poetry, but only if it’s funny.”

    2) Auden, from “Notes on the Comic” (in The Dyer’s Hand): “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”

    3) Darcie, your post was written on John Berryman’s birthday! And on Geoffrey Chaucer’s death-day! Comic vibrations, clearly, were filling the cosmos.

  6. PS Of course all of the above meant as thinking aloud, or thinking along…and maybe my (2) imports too much of how one reads “stars” et al as poem-y words in a poem at this point, which is more me than Me(rwin)…

  7. Hi Darcie,

    Oh, lots to say–

    1. But do we care about “greatness,” really? I’m never sure what that means. I picture the alligator-faced < that wants to eat whichever number is bigger on an elementary school chalk board. "How consumptive greatness makes us..." 2. But also, of course--most of the greats are surprisingly funny, ribald, tonally varied, suddenly cutting--I see some aspects of humor in Merwin (dark turns, willfully naive folly and fallibility, twists on and truncations of parable), maybe in other of his books more--but, yes, it seems to be poetry that speaks from, asks for, and is received with types of reverence...maybe sometimes received with more than it asks for or speaks from more than one receives it with? 3. Can we admire a pose/posture that seems unimpeachable, of higher frequencies, even though it can hone away the live ruffles that seem part of what it loves, that composed the pleasures we now see lost? Is such a honing clarity? 4. But (final but) I mostly wanted to say: oh, you are right--that poem does read like a joke! The set up which (cartoonishly?) has the night loudly roaring and calling, then says there is no sound. Wrong to imagine this as conscious, wry, sly humor?

  8. p.s. Maybe this is getting too off topic, but driving to work this morning I was really worried that my poetry idol Brigit Pegeen Kelly would also somehow fail to be considered great if humor is one of the criteria for greatness in modern American poetry. But I think if we define humor more loosely–maybe go back to its etymological origins as “flowing” moods, temporary states of mind, or maybe humor as incongruity– all of which get to the idea of varying voice and tone and personas–then Kelly would not fail to be considered one of our greats, which she is.

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