I’ve been reading a book of poems edited by Czeslaw Milosz and enjoying his commentary before each poem as much as the poems themselves. Called A Book of Luminous Things, the volume will forever enjoy a special place in my heart because I bought it in a distant town that I was visiting and had never visited before and, as we all know, books purchased on our travels gain pedigree by the memory running through their veins alone. In this case I was in New York’s Hudson Valley in a town called Rhinebeck. The store? Oblong Books & Music, thank you.
Anyway, the poem. It’s brief but memorable, written by W. S. Merwin. In his commentary, Milosz writes, “At any moment in our life we are entangled in all the past of humanity, and that past is primarily language, so we live as if upon a background of incessant chorus, and of course it is possible to imagine the presence of everything which has ever been spoken.”
To see what Milosz means, you need only read Merwin’s eight-line meditation:
Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence
Between the earth and silence. I think that’s where I want to be–today, at least. And I hope, as an important piece of time and humanity, you find a place there, too.
One of the profoundest things I learned in college came from an English professor who was once a prisoner of war during WWII. He said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout the drudgery and misery of his captivity, he would recite poems in his mind – words he had captured himself during schooldays. These poems became his company. His friends and succor. Without that, he said, he would almost surely have gone mad.
This morning, venturing into the crisp, 30-something degree dark with the dog, I was greeted as usual by the cheerful stars. It’s in those darkest-before-dawn hours that they seem sharpest, brightest, as if they save their diamond best as a treat for early risers.
And the friendliest October constellations to greet me? Orion, of course, with Canis Major, his faithful hunting dog, at his heels. I greet both dog and hunter by reciting aloud a Robert Frost poem I memorized long ago. Owning that poem makes me feel good, and the celestial dog seems to appreciate the attention to. Here’s what I say to the dark (“Canis Major” by Robert Frost):
The great Overdog,
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye,
Gives a leap in the east.
He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.
I’m a poor underdog,
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.
Each cloud-free morning, when I recite the poem, I watch the words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. Together they rise in the sky to join Canis Major, and Orion doesn’t seem to mind a bit. (I’m Sirius!)
On days starting like today, I often think of my professor and how right he was. And you don’t have to be a prisoner of war to benefit, either. You might be a prisoner of sadness. Or circumstances. Or boredom. Memorizing a poem will take care of your blues, I promise. Try it!
Nothing sets people off more than the word “free.” You can place furniture, toys, tools, a jar of ketchup, or whatever on your curb, crown it with the four-letter placard “FREE,” and watch it go because, as Solomon once said, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure–and we all treasure free stuff, especially when that ‘stuff’ means books.” (Perhaps Solomon said it more poetically than this. Please see the King James Version for further details.)
All this month, my publisher, Future Cycle Press, is offering up a copy of my rare-to-find (in readers’ hands because it’s poetry) book, The Indifferent World, as part of a Goodreads Giveaway promotion so, if you want one for free (free, free!), get thee to Goodreads some time between now and Halloween.
On that day, at midnight, with a few owls, black cats, and witches’ cauldrons added for effect, some lucky entrant will be in for a treat (treat, treat!). Just be sure, if it’s you, to read the book. In small doses, even.
Oh. And a review would be nice, too. Amazon. Goodreads. Reviews R Us. Wherever your opinions congregate.