Some of the earlier Dream Songs were vexing because they were so obscure. The challenge was in deciding what to make of such an impenetrable thicket of words and allusions. Different challenge today: ennui. I’m in the midst of nearly two weeks of lamenting over the death of a poet, Delmore Schwartz, that B. claimed as friend, who succumbed to alcoholism and a mental illness that led to a paranoid withdrawal and rejection of everyone he knew, until he died alone in a hotel in New York, no one knowing who he was. In this poem B. remembers an incident when he drove to B.’s apartment, on some mission, which he forgot, they had a drink, Schwartz kind of wandered off, and B. never learned why he came or what he wanted. It would be utterly banal and boring, except that B. remembers that once Shwartz had been “alive with surplus love.” In the end, despair for the world and what existence in it leads to is all that arises out of this wilting, slack-jawed “poem.”
That could possibly be fascinating enough on a dreary evening in February when it’s not even raining. But these have gone on too long. So rather than let the terrifying echoes of dark ennui in the face of madness and death sully a bright early June morning in Kentucky, I’m going to turn to Wendell Berry, fellow Kentuckian, and another of my favorite poems, which in part answers the challenge Henry is throwing at a cross reader this morning.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This is the corrective, the antidote. It is gentle and it is beautiful. There is often grace in the world of human endeavor, but there is war, illness, poverty, arrogance, grief, all the rest of the familiar outrages as well. For every Mozart there’s a Stalin. But herons are innocent, and the stars are light years away yet we still can see them, and water can move or it can lie still. When we forget we’re part of that, we open the door to a broad civilized madness—which is exactly what we’ve done.