A Question of Politics

If the best poems are the ones that convince you of something you didn’t see clearly before you read it, than Wistawa Szymborska’s “Children of Our Age” would be my best poem in this collection.

CHILDREN OF OUR AGE

We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—-yours, ours, theirs——
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one?

Meanwhile, people perished
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

I suspect my 30 years of teaching high school convinced me to become apolitical because I felt it was my job to teach kids how to think for themselves, not to indoctrinate them with my liberal values (of course, I suspect that was, in itself, a “liberal” value).

Even though this blog started as an attempt to protest the Afghan war, I have long since given up stating my political beliefs directly here, preferring, instead, to share them on my Facebook account because once I turned back to writing about poetry, flowers, and wildlife political beliefs didn’t quite seem to fit here, though I occasionally indulged in a political rant when it seemed absolutely necessary to preserve my sanity.

However, just reading the line “Whatever you say reverberates,/whatever you don’t say speaks for itself./So either way you’re talking politics” made me realize that this blog screams “Liberal,” if not radical environmentalist. Although I’ve long thought of adding a list of causes I support to the margin, I’m not sure that would add anything to my political message because everyone except the casual visitor looking for an easy answer for his homework would realize that I’m pro-environment and, more than likely, a political progressive.

Like most people I would prefer not to be involved in “politics” because politics “troubles the digestion,” and I’ve always had a tendency towards ulcers. It’s hard to see politics as anything but unsavory, as well-documented in the reference to the months-long debate over the shape of the negotiating table near the end of the poem.

In the end, though, my concern for the people who are perishing and the animals who are disappearing probably dictates that I continue to be involved in politics, at the very least to the extent of donating money to causes I believe in. How could I not sign online petitions and email my congressmen when so much is at stake even if it seems futile to do so?

Being Sad Really isn’t that Bad

I’ve been spending considerable time lately thinking and reading about “happiness” and what it takes to attain happiness, so it’s probably not surprising that these two poems by Wistawa Szymborska jumped out at me since they offer a rather different view on the subject than I’ve found from most modern psychologists.

Although the image in “Experiment” is quite shocking,the questions it raises about how we define “happiness” might be even more telling.

EXPERIMENT

As a short subject before the main feature—
in which the actors did their best
to make me cry and even laugh——
we were shown an interesting experiment
involving a head.
The head
a minute earlier was still attached to . . .
but now it was cut off
Everyone could see that it didn’t have a body.
The tubes dangling from the neck hooked it up to a machine
that kept its blood circulating.
The head
was doing just fine.
Without showing pain or even surprise,
it followed a moving flashlight with its eyes.
It pricked up its ears at the sound of a bell.
Its moist nose could tell
the smell of bacon from odorless oblivion,
and licking its chops with evident relish
it salivated its salute to physiology.
A dog’s faithful head,
a dog’s friendly head
squinted its eyes when stroked,
convinced that it was still part of a whole
that crooks its back if patted
and wags its tail.
I thought about happiness and was frightened.
For if that’s all life is about, _
the head
was happy.

The image presented here reminded me why I didn’t continue to take psychology classes at the University of Washington when I was an undergraduate, even though I enjoyed most of the undergraduate classes I had taken because of the sight of electrodes sticking out of the brains of lab rats. That image palls in comparison to the image of the disembodied dog’s head in this poem.

It’s the contrast between that image of a disconnected head attached to a machine and the head’s positive reaction to the smell of bacon and to a pat on the head that makes the poet, and the reader question what “happiness” really is. If good food (bacon) and other’s admiration (pat on the head) are really all it takes to make you happy, you might want to question your definition of happiness.

Wistawa continues to question whether happiness should be the real goal of life in the very next poem in the collection.

SMILES

The world would rather see hope than just hear
its song. And that’s why statesmen have to smile
Their pearly whites mean they’re still full of cheer.
The game’s complex, the goal’s far out of reach,
the outcome’s still unclear — once in a while,
we need a friendly, gleaming set of teeth.
Heads of state must display unfurrowed brows
on airport runways, in the conference room.
They must embody one big, toothy “Wow!”
while pressing flesh or pressing urgent issues.
Their faces’ self-regenerating tissues
make our hearts hum and our lenses zoom.
Dentistry turned to diplomatic skill
promises us a Golden Age tomorrow.
The going’s rough, and so we need the laugh
of bright incisors, molars of goodwill.
Our times are still not safe and sane enough
for faces to show ordinary sorrow.
Dreamers keep saying, “Human brotherhood
will make this place a smiling paradise.”
I’m not convinced. The statesman, in that case,
would not require facial exercise,
except from time to time: he’s feeling good,
he’s glad it’s spring, and so he moves his face.
But human beings are, by nature, sad.
So be it, then. It isn’t all that bad.

Having been told most of my life that I “need to smile more,” I can’t help but love this poem. It’s hard not to question the broad smiles of our politicians, especially when there seems so little reason to smile. In fact, the amount of smiles seems to be in inverse proportion to the bad news reported. I haven’t heard from many “Dreamers” lately, but “Human brotherhood” doesn’t seem on the immediate, or distant, horizon. Like many introverts I score rather low on “happiness tests,” and often find myself wondering if “human beings are, by nature, sad” or whether my many years of reading post-modern literature makes me see humans as sadder than they really are. I may not be an optimist and I may not be as “happy” as some psychologists think I should be, but like Wistawa I’m convinced that being sad some of the time isn’t “all that bad.”

Szymborska’s Poems: New and Collected

I’ve nearly finished Wistawa Szymborska’s Poems: New and Collected, a book featured recently by Wood s lot. Even though Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996 I’d never heard of her before. Although I’ve 220 pages I’d be hard pressed to name any major themes in her poetry, though I’ve marked over 30 poems that I liked and considered worth further study. I suspect in a few years I’ll still remember a few of her poems but will be unable to remember much more. She reminds me a lot of W H Auden whose poems like “The Unknown Citizen” have stuck with me over the years. I suspect poets like Auden and Szymborska could sit down and write a poem on any topic that caught their interest, which might be exactly what they did.

One of the earliest poems that caught my attention was:

NOTHING TWICE

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
you can’t repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with exactly the same kisses.

One day, perhaps, some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me
I can’t help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

This wasn’t a new idea to me; in fact, it reminded me of Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel I read several years ago and hadn’t thought of since, even though I was quite impressed when I read it. Looking back, the theme of this poem seems quite similar to Kundera’s, “We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

That’s a challenging concept for a perfectionist like myself who used to, and occasionally still does, obsess over getting things right. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that failing. Being a high school teacher for 30 years it was hard not to realize that fear of mistakes often caused students to making more mistakes while making it harder to improve. I’m less demanding of myself now, though, because in retrospect it’s easier to see it was impossible to get through life without making mistakes.

The bad news is we're bound to make mistakes; the good news is we don't have to be preoccupied with those mistakes. Instead of feeling stupid or guilty, we have to continue to make the most of our lives because "this course is only offered once.” What’s the use of torturing ourselves with “needless fear and sorrow?” Leave guilt and regrets behind and focus on making the most of the moment.