Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Question and an Answer

In great poetry, one can always look for resemblances, echoed themes. Ideas central to life are central to poetry: where can one find meaning to the perplexities of existence? Two poets, W.H. Auden and Mary Oliver, wrote poems about journeys, lives and worlds apart. Without looking into the backgrounds of each poem, the personal circumstances that inspired them (which can contribute to, but never detract from, our appreciation of them), the first poem poses a troubling question that the second confidently answers.

W.H. Auden's cycle, "A Voyage," begins with the poem "Whither?":

A Voyage


Where does this journey look which the watcher upon the quay,
Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies,
As the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes
And the gulls abandon their vow? Does it promise a juster life?

Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveller find
In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,
Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,
Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?

No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness
On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:
He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real.

But at moments, as when real dolphins with leap and panache
Cajole for recognition or, far away, a real island
Gets up to catch his eye, his trance is broken: he remembers
Times and places where he was well; he believes in joy,

That, maybe, his fever shall find a cure, the true journey an end
Where hearts meet and are really true, and crossed this ocean, that parts
Hearts which alter but is the same always, that goes
Everywhere, as truth and falsehood go, but cannot suffer.

As Auden found, the suspense of his journey, the pause between departure and arrival, held questions and answers in equipoise. As long as his journey lasts (and they lasted so much longer in the Forties), his tremulous questions can find neither affirmation nor negation. Like him, they can only wait. But, until the journey's end, there are wondrous distractions, passing scenery and the indifference of nature, but also its strange complicity, that provide him with escape from his suspense.

Mary Oliver's poem, "The Journey" offers a lonely colloquy on the same subject. But she seems so much more anxious that her journey should begin, caught in that irresistible hurry that travel instills in us, that the time for reflection or regret would have to wait. Motion is the only truth now:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Oliver is as melancholy as Auden, but her loneliness is populated by voices, as Auden's were only by memories. Kafka's parable, "My Destination," makes it explicit (Kafka explicit?):

I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stables. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: "Where are you riding to, master?" "I don't know," I said, "only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination." "And so you know your destination?" he asked. "Yes," I answered, "didn't I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination." "You have no provisions with you," he said. "I need none," I said, "the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don't get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey."

Here on my Philippine island for another birthday, I know that destinations are only as certain as one's intentions at departure. Where I was going isn't always where I have arrived. The journey is the only answer.

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