Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evenings

As usual, I’ve long since forgotten which blogger enticed me to buy Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evening in November of 2017, but if I did I would write them a “Thank You” note.  I love this collection of poems; I can’t remember marking so many poems to reread in a single volume since I started using Post-it Tabs. I wonder why I never heard of her before.  

I suspect, however, that if I had encountered her poems long ago when I was in college I wouldn’t have appreciated them nearly as much as I do now.  Heck, I might not have appreciated them as much in 2017 as I do right now during this Covid-19 lockdown.  Like all “good” poets Pastan helps you to recognize things in yourself that you already knew but didn’t recognize until you discovered them in her poems.  The view expressed in 

The News of the World

Like weather, the news
is always changing and always
the same. On a map
of intractable borders
armies ebb and flow.
In Iowa a roof is lifted
from its house like a top hat

caught in a swirl of wind.
Quadruplets in Akron.
In Vilnius a radish
weighing 50 pounds.
And somewhere
another city falls
to its knees.

See how the newsprint
comes off on our once
immaculate hands
as we wrap the orange peel
in the sports page
or fold into the comics
a dead bird

the children found
and will bury
as if it were the single
sparrow whose fall
God once promised
to note, if only
on the last page.

is not exactly original, and, in fact, seems like some long-forgotten cliché.  Like most clichés or stereotypes, though, it contains a kernel of truth — and never more so than in today’s 24-hour news cycles. The only real question is whether the city where you live will be the next one that “falls to its knees”  — and, if so, will it ever get back up?

The line that really makes the poem for me, though, is “See how the newsprint/comes off on our once immaculate hands.”  Perhaps no one under 30 would understand that line, but I still remember having to wash my hands repeatedly after delivering the newspapers on my route. They just felt dirty.  Does reading the news just increase our awareness of injustice and sin, or does knowing that evil exists (and doing nothing about it) make us guilty, too? 

The poet’s view of the “news of the world” becomes even more complex at the end of the poem when she references Matthew 10:29:  “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent” (Christian Standard Bible translation). Somehow the “real news” we are constantly fed seems less real, and less newsworthy, than the small tragedies we face in our personal lives.

Perhaps my favorite poem in this collection, and one that is much more representative of the volume as a whole is:

The Obligation to Be Happy

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.

And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice--
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.

Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again-
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
would understand.

Although I suspect that my overall outlook on life is a little more optimistic than Pastan’s, I can certainly identify with the narrator of this poem.  I’ve had evaluations where it was noted that I needed to smile more. And I would have been more than willing to do that if I had honestly been happier.  I’ve always been suspicious of the modern obsession with “happiness.” I’m even more suspicious of “obligations.” Being obliged to be happy definitely makes me unhappy.   

I know very little about the “rites of beauty,” but I do know that it was much easier earning my way through college as a janitor than it was to be “happy” all the time.  Love, too, always seemed to come naturally.  I couldn’t imagine having grown up without my parents’ love,  just as I can’t imagine not loving my kids and grandkids as I’ve grown older.  Happiness, depending on how you define it, of course, is much harder to attain, which probably explains why I don’t take it as a given or think of it as a goal.

Like the narrator, I can manage to smile when its demanded of me, but I’m pretty sure I’m more apt to look somber or, hopefully, pensive.  I like pensive. I first got serious about  Buddhism when I read that 

The First Noble Truth is the existence of sorrow. Birth is sorrowful, growth is sorrowful, illness is sorrowful, and death is sorrowful. Sad it is to be joined with that which we do not like. Sadder still is the separation from that which we love, and painful is the craving for that which cannot be obtained

I don’t think I have a “fidelity to sadness,”  am not entirely convinced that “existence is sorrow,” but do believe there is more sorrow in the world than happiness, that sorrow is as essential to our existence as happiness is.  

Trying to be happy all the time is definitely too much of a burden to bear. You’d have to have superpowers — or drugs — to be happy while performing all the mind-numbing chores that are required around the house.  I suspect (like the author does) that we would soon discover, as Midas did, that too much of a good thing is even worse than not having enough.  

4 thoughts on “Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evenings”

  1. I think I generally forgive artists in whatever medium for lacking in originality. My own view is that one has two options: Either say something new, or say something old in a new way. What is verboten is saying something old in an old way. I think “The News of the World” passes Option #2 quite nicely, and I’m impressed enough with what you’ve highlighted and a poem of hers I coincidentally stumbled across earlier this week (having never heard of her before) that I’ll go searching for at least one of her volumes now.

    Besides which, I have myself experienced enough times in my life getting excited about some topic or other that felt “new” to me only to discover, after the usual and requisite digging around, the topic was first explored in depth or rendered into some kind of verse, oh, 5,000 years ago…

    And also: I’ve grown rather fond of vacuuming over the years, I must say. You not so much???

  2. Reading your comments on LInda Pastan’s poems reminds me that each reader has a reaction, personal, emotional, intellectual, and that is what makes poetry such a living, breathing experience. I remember the smell of printer’s ink and the black fingerprints that marked the latter pages of the paper as I read it, and got to the crossword, and filled in the smudged squares with bits of knowledge and the right words. The news seemed so . . . difficult and dangerous, and yet I still read it but looked forward to the challenge of the puzzle in a way I did not look toward the news.

    I wonder if we are actually obliged to be happy, and who creates that feeling of obligation in us. Maybe we think happiness is the norm and when we are not happy we are straying from what is . . . normal, and that sorrow is an interruption of that state. But is there not sorrow in every day the same way there is happiness . . . two states that cannot exist in isolation. Most truly beautiful things bind sorrow and joy with unbreakable chords, and there is beauty to be found in every day. I am lucky to live in a green and lovely place, but I have lived in the desert too and found beauty there, in the vivid sky, in the light that changes everything. It seems there are always elements of sorrow and joy, and what we pay attention to is what decides our life. Is contentment only an aspect of happiness, or in giving up wanting more, are we just deciding to pay attention to what in our life brings us joy, letting sorrow stand but in the shadows where it is easier to dismiss.

What do you think?

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