I visit the zoo.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Lion: Hey, you wanna see something really good?

Visitor: Sure.

Lion: Hey, Zebra! See that cloud? What do you think it looks like?

Zebra: A bit like an antelope, I guess? Why?

Lion: OK, good. What about that one?

Zebra: Maybe a bird. A buzzard? What's the trick?

Lion: Bear with me. What about this? RRROARRRRRR!

Zebra: *faints*

Lion: Heh.

Visitor: What the hell was that?

Lion: A roar-shock test. She passed.

Visitor: Christ.

Lion: Which reminds me. I read a couple of poems about clouds lately, clouds and sky: "Pleasure" by Carl Phillips (BAP2004) and "Clouds" by Wislawa Szymborska (Chwila). I'll read you some of the Phillips:
This far in--
where to say the sea
and mean impossible

makes sense,
why not--you can
almost forget

what brought you here,
the water it started with,
a life that has sometimes (admit

this much) seemed mostly
an only half-wanted because
finally unruly

animal you'd once hoped
to change by changing
its name: from If Only to

How Did I
to In Spite of Everything--
but nothing sticks, that doesn't

have to. Not memory;
not the naming--which, if a form of
remembering, is also

a form of to own, possession,
whose lineage
shifts never: traced

far enough, past hope, back across
belief, it ends always
at desire--without which

would there have been
imagination, would
there be folly,

one spreading itself
like a bay tree, the other
a green olive tree in the house

of God?
This far in, sky
is everything. Clouds cross it

like ships,
sheer will, regret
itself cut abruptly

loose. Lovely, when you say so,
--and when you don't.
It was never for you.

Lion: Well, I guess I read all of it. Got carried away. Anyway, then there's Szymborska's. Might as well read all of hers:
I'd have to be really quick
to describe clouds--
a split second's enough
for them to start being something else.

Their trademark:
they don't repeat a single
shape, shade, pose, arrangement.

Unburdened by memory of any kind,
they float easily over the facts.

What on earth could they bear witness to?
They scatter whenever something happens.

Compared to clouds,
life rests on solid ground,
practically permanent, almost eternal.

Next to clouds
even a stone seems like a brother,
someone you can trust,
while they're just distant, flighty cousins.

Let people exist if they want,
and then die, one after another:
clouds simply don't care
what they're up to
down there.

And so their haughty fleet
cruises smoothly over your whole life
and mine, still incomplete.

They aren't obliged to vanish when we're gone.
They don't have to be seen while sailing on.

Visitor: Very nice.

Lion: Of course, Szymborska was writing in Polish, but it won't do us a lot of good to talk about "Z opisywaniem chmur..." here.

Visitor: So, we have an old white Polish woman and a middle-aged black American man, but they both look up at the sky and write a poem that ends with the sky not bothering to look back at them.
Lovely, when you say so,
--and when you don't.
It was never for you.

They aren't obliged to vanish when we're gone.
They don't have to be seen while sailing on.

Lion: But Phillips worries, and he worries his words, at least in comparison to Szymborska. He's still regretting, or getting over it: "regret itself cut abruptly loose" sounds like regret blowing away with the clouds. Szymborska's past regret, if she ever had any, and she has a clearer view and a plainer, lighter style. I imagine her smiling when she reads, not putting on the serious poet face.

Are they any good, these two poems? It depends what you want from a poem. People who need difficulty (even impossibility) from poems will not like his very much or hers at all. If these were rocks, Szymborska's would have a very low Mohs number and Phillips's wouldn't be much higher.

Visitor: What on earth are you talking about, lion?

Lion: Think of Arnold's old line about the touchstone. Ahem:
Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. Of course we are not to require this other poetry to resemble them; it may be very dissimilar. But if we have any tact we shall find them, when we have lodged them well in our minds, infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality, and also the degree oft his quality, in all other poetry which we may place beside them. Short passages, even single lines, will serve our turn quite sufficiently.

Well, I'm suggesting that we could develop a scale of difficulty, not excellence, based on the geologist's trick of rubbing unknown rocks with known rocks to see which scratches which. The one that scratches the other is the harder, and with this knowledge you are on your way to knowing the unknown. It's something like paper rock scissors, but really rock rock rock rock rock rock rock rock rock rock. Diamonds scratch everything. Talc is scratched by everything. Szymborska's is something close to talc. "Pleasure" scratches "Clouds" but "Pleasure" is still pretty soft. And harder doesn't mean better. I prefer Szymborska's, even if the Mohs number is low.

Visitor: So now you're a fucking geologist, too?

Lion: The ladies always did all the work for me. And now here, there's not much to do at all. So I read. Anyway, I was going to say that we could identify well-known poems, the diamonds and the talc and everything in between, on a scale of difficulty, and we could use them to say how hard other poems are by scratching the unknown poem with the knowns.

Visitor: Oh, look at the time!


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