I am holding Granta's May edition titled ‘Britain’ in my hands, and staring at the cover all I can think of is:
And the crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.*
How strange this connection between man and poetry.
If you have ever read a poem and felt the lines spoke to you; they articulated your thoughts and hopes then you'd understand why 'In relation to the future, a poem is like a note sealed in a bottle and thrown into the sea'. Charles Simic in a recent post in NY review of books states, “If poetry is not the most utopian project ever devised by human beings, I don’t know what is”. You’ll have to read Simic’s post to work out how (or even whether) this sentiment applies to your understanding of poetry. For words and the constant misunderstanding of the intent behind them could, if one is pressed for a quick response, be summarized as the sum total of the drama that is human existence. Though one would, perhaps, end with a flourish– ‘all existence is meaningless’.
Talking about meaning and misunderstanding, or should it be called different ways of understanding, the poem that comes to mind is Yeats ‘The Second Coming’**. Lines from this poem get quoted with regular frequency whenever the world has faced a crisis in recent history, just like Keynes during an economic crisis. And just like Robert Frost and the end of 'The Road Not Taken' (it is the sigh– I shall be telling this with a sigh––that makes one pause and consider the road not taken), here too it is the last few lines that have been widely interpreted.
Though if you read the poem carefully and ‘see’ the vast image brought forth by the Spiritus Mundi (spirit of the world) would you still believe that the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem could be our saviour? And if you read about Yeats and his theory of gyres then the doubts will recede further.
Why does a poet write? Why does a reader read? Sometimes these seem like questions worth considering, though most of the time a person pens a few lines and moves on. Another person reads them and moves on. Just like life.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.***
*W.H. Auden, As I walked out one evening.
**TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Interesting trivia: The Second Coming has not only been quoted in many books, comics and music albums, but also has been the source of the titles of some very popular books:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion