Excerpts for Metaphysician in the Dark
The Metaphysician in the Dark
By Charles Simic
University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
In Praise of Folly
Folly is in poor repute even among the greatest fools.
It's almost the year 2000. All the New York City hotel rooms and Ane restaurants are already booked for New Year's Eve. The astrologers are busy predicting the future, and so are the Pentagon and the CIA. Ancient Babylonian princesses and Egyptian priests are sending daily messages through the mouths of housewives in Texas and New Jersey. Many strange occurrences are due to take place, we are told weekly in supermarket tabloids: A huge monument to Elvis Presley will be sighted on Mars. Doctors will bring Abraham Lincoln back to life for ninety-nine seconds. Vintage red wines will be made from plastic cups discarded in fast-food restaurants. With a single wire inserted in the ear, we'll be able to tape our dreams the way we tape TV programs on our VCR.
But what about poetry? What will the poets be doing in the next century? You do not have to be a Nostradamus to predict that the poets will be doing exactly what they've been doing for the last three thousand years: howling and kicking about how nobody ever appreciates them.
Here is a thought I had recently while strolling in New York. Out of the blue, so to speak, I remembered Sappho. I had spent the afternoon in a bookstore turning the pages of new books of poetry, and it suddenly occurred to me that if she were miraculously to come back from the dead and were to see this crowd and this trafAc, she'd of course be terriAed, but if a few of the contemporary lyric poems I had just read were translated for her, she'd be on familiar ground. Astonishing! I thought. I'm an almost three-thousand-year-old poet, and didn't know it! The kind of poetry I write today has its origins in what she started doing back then.
Here then is the story of my life:
When I was still a snot-nosed kid, my name was Ovid, Horace, Catullus, Sextus Propertius, and Martial. My specialty was mixing the serious with the trivial, the frivolous with the high-minded. I was a holy terror. I wrote lines like these:
When she's on her chaise-long, "Better a metropolitan city were sacked," Robert Burton wrote, "a royal army overcome, an invincible armada sunk and twenty thousand kings should perish, than her little Anger ache." That was my plan, too. I had nothing to do with sundry windbags who wrote odes to every two-bit tyrant who came along, tabulated their conquests, gloriAed their slaughter of the barbarians, and praised their incomparable wisdom in peace and war. I poked fun at the rich and the powerful, gossiping about their wives and daughters milking cocks while their husbands' and daddies' backs were turned. I didn't even spare the gods. I turned them into a lot of brawling, drunken, revengeful, senile wife swappers.
Make haste to And a footstool
For those dainty feet of hers,
Help her on and off with the slippers.
I myself roamed the streets of Rome frequently inebriated. I fell in and out of love a thousand times, never failing to tell the whole world about my new love's incomparable virtues and perversities. Then, I got into trouble. The emperor packed me off to permanent exile in a godforsaken hellhole at the farthest reaches of the empire. His guardians of virtue took the opportunity to warn the populace against lyric poetry--which is nothing more, they said, than a call to debauchery and a brazen mockery of everything ever held sacred.
Of course, nobody bothered the ofAcial eulogists-for-hire, who were busy protecting the solemnities of state and church from ridicule. It was the lyric poem, with its exaltation of intimacy, that had been suspect ever since Sappho started the craze by elevating individual destiny over the fate of the tribe, preferring to savor Anactoria"s "lovely step, her sparkling glance and her face," rather than "gaze on all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and glittering armor."
It's true. It was the love of that kind of irreverence, as much as anything else, that started me in poetry. The itch to make fun of authority, to break taboos, to celebrate the naked body, to claim that one has seen an angel in the same breath as one shouts that there's no God, and so forth. The discovery that the tragic and the comic are always entwined made me roll on the floor with happiness. Seduction, too, was always on my mind: if you take off your shirt, my love, and let my tongue get acquainted with yours, I'll praise your beauty in my poems and your name will live forever. It worked, too. Much of lyric poetry is nothing more than a huge, centuries-old effort to remind our immortal souls of the existence of our genital organs.
In the so-called Dark Ages, when mud was everywhere up to the knees, the common folk made their bed for the night on the dirt floor, cozy and blissful in one big embrace with their pigs and sheep; hens perched on the rafters over their heads; and only the dogs slept with one of their eyes open, on the lookout for roaming poets. For centuries, not only yokels but also ladies and gents had little to amuse themselves with but a few strains of Gregorian chant and the daily earful of a lot of bad cussing about the hard life and the weather. I was a lone, bummed-out, lice-ridden monk, reduced to roving the countryside and begging every night for a few crumbs and a bit of straw to sleep on in some rich man's drafty castle. There, in gratitude for the hospitality, I would offer a gamut of racy love poems, pious legends of saints' lives, drinking songs, funeral laments, faithful-wife poems, and sly satires on the way of kings and popes. At the same time, I had to be extra careful to make the murderous and drunken company at the table laugh and even shed a tear at how hungry and cold, how skinny and forlorn I looked now that--oh the sweet voice of the woodland nightingale --I'd even lost my cloak and breeches at dice!
I turn to you in misery and tears You get the idea? Oh, the guises I had--more aliases than all the con artists of the world put together. I was that petty felon Villon, who almost ended up strung by his neck; Guillem IX, Duke of Aquitaine, who wrote his poems while he snored away in the saddle; Shakespeare, who some scholars tell you was not really called that but something else; Signor Dante, who gave us a Arst-class tour of hell to prepare us for the horrors of the twentieth century; and so many others. My fondest incarnation remains Thomas Bastard, who lived from 1566 to 1618 and whose life and career my anthology of Elizabethan verse describes, more or less, thus:
As turns the stag, when his strength gives out.
A country clergyman who made pitiably small headway in life, Bastard published his book in 1598. It was much ridiculed. Bastard died, touched in his wits, in debtors' prison in Dorcester. My life was like the history of costumes. One season I wore a powdered wig, rode in a glass coach, and scribbled sonnets on the cuff of my shirt between duels, taking time out to praise classical measures and restraint; next I was a wild-haired revolutionary shouting encouragement to the crowd while standing on some real or imaginary barricade, assuring my listeners that we poets are nothing less than the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Some nerve, you must be saying to yourself. Ha-ha! Just wait till I tell you about my American adventures.
No sooner had Columbus sailed back to Spain than I started scribbling poems. It must have been the climate in the New World--hot and humid in the south, bleak and cold in the north--that for years kept me from getting a decent poem written in this vast land of mystery. How many still remember that the Arst explorers and settlers expected to run into the Chinese over the next horizon? The Frenchman Nicollet even went and provided himself in Paris with a robe of Chinese damask embroidered with birds and flowers, in order to be properly attired while crossing the prairie and Anally sitting down to sip tea and schmooze with some old mandarin. In any case, it took me years of sleepwalking before I could open my eyes and see where I truly was.
Forget about El Dorado and New Jerusalem. Forget about the devil in the forest and the comely witches stripping to frolic naked around his campAre. Forget about Oriental spices and jewels. Here were grim little towns with factory walls blackened by age. Here were crowded tenements with men and women huddled against the weather, lying on their sides, knees drawn up, their heads touching the roach-infested floor. Here were seedy rooming houses populated by an assortment of loners, eccentrics, bad poets, and a dozen other kinds of losers.
How quickly the New World got old for me. Some days it felt like being buried alive. I was weary, resigned like Bartleby to staring at walls. Yet on other days the windows were wide open, the sun was shining, America still remained to be truly discovered.
The poet is the eye and tongue of every living and every inanimate thing, I told everyone I met. Poetry is nothing less than a divinely appointed medium. God himself doesn't speak prose, but communicates with us through hints, omens, and not-yet-perceived resemblances in objects lying around us. Unfortunately, American life storms about us daily, but is slow to And a tongue. I looked in vain, I shouted like a street preacher, for the poet whom I describe.
It didn't take long. I grew a white beard and made the announcement that Americans, of all people at any time upon the earth, have probably the fullest poetical nature, and that the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.
How do you like that? I said to myself.
This is what you shall do, I wrote. Love the earth, the sun, and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, reexamine everything you have been told in school and church or any book, hate tyrants, and dismiss whatever insults your soul. Do these things, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.
I tell you, I felt right at home in America.
All truths wait in all things to be discovered, I proclaimed. The number of unknown heroes is equal to the number of greatest heroes known, and I will name them all. The cow with its head bowed and munching the grass surpasses any statue.
I went on to make a poem of things overlooked, slighted, and forbidden. Still and all, my exuberant praise of all matters sexual was a permanent scandal in a country founded by the followers of Calvin.
At the very same time I was saying all that, however, I had a secret other, someone reserved and suspicious in the face of my utopian grandeur and self-conAdent rhetoric. We live in a magic prison, a haunted house, a dark labyrinth, an inscrutable forest, my other said; we are trapped in a Anite inAnite, an uncertain certainty, caught in a maze of oxymorons and paradoxes in a universe whose chief characteristic is its ambiguity. That other America came with a large graveyard. In it, the poet is a recluse, a secret blasphemer, and a heroic failure at best.
What my two sides had in common was an inability to submit to bounds and limits. They both aimed to join heaven and earth in their poems. What an ideal pickle to And oneself in, especially as an immigrant: Poetry as the place where fundamental epistemological, metaphysical, and aesthetic questions can be raised and answered. Poetry as the process through which ideas are tested, dramatized, made both a personal and a cosmic issue. I liked that. The poet's struggle may be solitary, but it is an exemplary struggle nevertheless.
American poetry's dizzying ambition to answer all the major philosophical and theological questions is unparalleled. Grand inquisitors, philosopher kings, totalitarian cops of all stripes would have plenty to do with me after a pronouncement like the following: "The poet--when he is writing--is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it."
Spiritual adventurer is the name of the game, folks. In America I bragged that I was starting from scratch, naked, without history and often without any religious belief, climbing an imaginary ladder up to heaven to And out for myself what all the fuss is about. I made American literature into a great paradox factory. On one hand, I desired to embody and express rare visionary states, and on the other, I wished to give my readers a hard and dry look at everyday reality. Literalists of the imagination--that's what I wanted us to be. Finding a place for the genuine in this artiAce we call poetry (which I myself admitted disliking) was my great project. My most original achievement may very well have been my odd insistence that the only way to tell human beings about angels is to show them a blade of grass.
Ah, the three-thousand-year-old poet! You've got to see the nightmares I get from all the bad poems I've written. A day doesn't go by without some professor wagging her Anger at me. Why, only recently I was described as a self-pitying little fascist, peddling his phallocentric, petit bourgeois claptrap. Twenty centuries of ridicule, my friends! Pedants poring over my poems, then teaching them to the young in such a way that the children are guaranteed to hate poetry for the rest of their lives. Some mornings, when the weather is damp, I get a sore neck, as if I were still Sir Walter Raleigh, convicted on charges of blasphemy and sedition, awaiting the executioner's ax in the Tower of London.
Here's my view of these long centuries:
One century's no worse than the other, if you ask me. A break in the clouds once in a while, an afternoon nap in the shade in the arms of your one and only, maybe a kiss or two, and that's about it. Sooner or later, the meal gets eaten, and we're left with just some chicken bones on our plate. The rest of the time it's plagues, wars, famines, persecutions, exile, and hundreds of other calamities and miseries that rule the day.
I suppose, dear readers, you think I am exaggerating? You imagine yourselves, of course, in a palazzo attended and closely fussed over by numerous servants while you argue with princes and highborn floozies about the paintings of Titian and the metaphysics of Campanella's City of the Sun. Don't make me laugh. All I see is open sewers in a street, reeking with the stench of horse and human excrement, while nearby a twelve-year-old witch is being burned at the stake by the Inquisition.
The true poets always know the score. Happiness, love, and the vision of the Almighty and his angels come and go. The moment we taste a morsel of bliss, begin to savor it and lick our lips--oops! Our house catches Are, someone runs off with our wife, or we break our leg. Poetry is best, therefore, when it Ands itself at the heart of the human comedy; there's no more reliable reporter of what it means to be in this pickle. My view is that poetry is inevitable, irreplaceable, and necessary as daily bread. Even if we were to And ourselves living in the crummiest country in the world, in an age of unparalleled vileness and stupidity, we'd And that poetry still got written.
I know what troubles you: all the hyperbole poets are prone to, all that monkey talk and bizarre imagery we are forever hustling. Poets allege that the only way to tell the truth is to lie plenty. They put trust in their metaphors and in their wildest flights of the imagination. Poetry, they argue, is the only place where an incorrigible liar can have an honest existence, providing he or she lies really well.
My dear reader, don't you see?
Life would be perfectly pointless if I, the poet, didn't come and tell you--in so many ingenious ways--that all your amours, all your secret sufferings and fond memories, are potentially signiAcant, deeply important, and even intelligible, and that you, when all's said and done, dear reader, really have no cause to fret about anything, as long as I'm here, night and day, doing the worrying for you.
Excerpted from The Metaphysician in the Dark
by Charles Simic
Copyright © 2003 by Charles Simic.
Excerpted by permission.
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