February 20, 2014

From Books and Culture Section of Christianity Today.....

Interesting review of the poet Jack Gilbert's life and career:
A different kind of revaluation of romantic attitude occurs in a poem entitled "The Abnormal Is Not Courage." Compared with the above examples, it is altogether more surprising and memorable, and remains one of the most widely cited of Gilbert's poems. Here is how it begins:
The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers.
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it's not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn't that. Not at its best.
It was impossible and with form. They rode in sunlight.
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act …
This striking opening image stands as equivalent, in a military key, to Gilbert's own personal vibe of high-minded resistance to the mechanistic and modern (his heroes are instead the medieval love poets Dante and Arnaut Daniel, and—in a more complicated way—Ezra Pound). Those Polish cavaliers also represent, as we consider them in this context (as an image in a love poem), the traditions of courtly love and Liebestod. In the end, however surprisingly, the horsemen resemble Romeo and Juliet: elegant, noble, beautiful, fleeting, and doomed—or, better yet, to resort to a different Shakespeare play written in the same year as Romeo and Juliet, they are "quick bright things" that come to confusion. How wonderfully daring of Gilbert, then, to reject so resolutely that opening image, and every admirable thing it stands for: "But I say … " That declaration is characteristic of Gilbert, and this poem is stylistically in character with its short sentences or clipped speech.

That staccato effect becomes more pronounced in the final lines, but first Gilbert constructs a series of antitheses that allows him to declare, again and again, his preferred mode of love. "Not Macbeth with fine speeches," not the "bounty of impulse," but "Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh. / Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope. / The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo." Hearing a recording of Gilbert reading this poem once, I noticed his emphasis on the "Then": "Then the crescendo," as in "only then," and it is a revealing choice. Gilbert in this poem rejects shallower displays of love, which value drama but cannot sustain, as he says in the poem, "even small kindness." What he presents instead is a love grounded in genuine human regard, and what it lacks in not being meteoric or dolled up, it gains in quiet strength and commitment. It is not sub-romantic, but hyper—it asserts the necessary conditions for a higher form of lasting, deepening romance. It rhapsodizes on steadiness and clarity.

I continue to marvel at the paradoxes of this poem: how it mounts a defense of a stable marriage—"The marriage, / not the month's rapture"—yet sails sublimely above accusations of being reactionary, conservative, bourgeois, or, most damningly of all, unsexy or without passion. On the contrary, it remains a passionate poem, a celebration of a more durable, adult love, so valuing of itself and the beloved that it eschews those intensities that might burn it out. It also disdains grand shows of romance that are, in the end, bereft of love that is clear-eyed and firmly held. It favors instead, with its own charged language that nevertheless is rational and discursive,
… The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

In my few years sharing this poem with students, I have been struck by how it so easily can become an anthem for any number of male upperclassmen, at the height of their youthful ardor but with a wish to temper their own exuberance and idealizations for the sake of a vision that offers, somehow, long-term marital happiness, with passion still residing there and resilient to mere contentment and concord. Gilbert, you might say, was way ahead of Mumford & Sons. His poem is a heady potion.


"A Brief for the Defense," one of the collection's most regarded poems, finds Gilbert again occupying his high declarative mode:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because it's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. …
Some lines in this powerfully affirming poem strike a note for human endurance, and for whatever it is in us that allows us still to embrace the world in which we often suffer, or, if we're lucky, in which we can settle for a knowledge of others' suffering. As the speaker says later, "We must admit there will be music despite everything." This line enjoys authority because of its begrudging quality—"We must admit … " Another pair of lines troubles me, though, and I may as well use them to illustrate a contest that Gilbert's poetry and the example of his poet's life have demanded from me as a reader over the years. In the poem, Gilbert mentions laughter in Calcutta's terrible streets, and women who laugh in cages in Bombay. He next writes, "If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, / we lessen the importance of their deprivation." I resist this formulation in a visceral way, not only for the initial connection between one's own happiness and another's suffering, but also for the further implication that we, in seeking happiness, in any way reduce the plight of those suffering. It feels, to put it plainly, grossly self-absorbed, and with an ethical sensibility that is gauchely out of perspective.


[One] of the joys of rereading is for an admired text to be again put to the test, and, conversely, to see if the older self can live up to the sympathy and passion, the fresh eyes and impressionable mind, of the younger reader that he was. Other great works operate in reverse: the greatness of Lear, it increasingly seems to me, lies in the fact that it always seems far ahead of you, no matter the age or circumstance of reader or reading. A work like that is always waiting for you to catch up. Its deigning to look back at you constitutes both an act of mercy and a most intimidating challenge.

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