Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Swan Song XVIII--a poem by W. S. Merwin



My friend says I was not a good son

you understand
I say yes I understand

Why W. S. Merwin chooses not to use a question mark after the second line in this poem of his called "Yesterday," I don't know.  For the sake of my students, who regard poetry with the same passion they do opera, I wish he had.  I've got trouble enough selling them on poetry's blessed strengths.  Anyway, here's the way this little poem continues.


he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

Okay, to me, it's crystal clear that the speaker is an adult and probably male--but that's a guess based on the gender of the poet and the fact that, for better or worse, I am--and that I'm probably somehow afflicted with sufficient guilt to bring me into what I think is the heart of things here--parental neglect.

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

Nice.  What we've got here--unless I'm wrong--is two men talking, friends, both of whom find themselves in a similar situation vis-a-vis their parents--well, fathers, to be specific.  Both of them feel more than a little guilty, although only one of them--not the narrator--is at least being open about it.

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

That "cold hand," I figure ought to give my students pause.  It's the clear signal that we're talking about adult children visiting elderly parents.
 
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

What's more, the guilt is rising exponentially in the narrator's mind while his equally guilty friend is letting loose about what a jerk he was.  His old man wanted him around, but he got caught looking at his watch, prompting his father to beg.  I could cry.  Been there, done that.

oh yes I say

The guilt is oozing now, from me too, just with that one line. 

but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
have to
just because I'm here

That's not a line of poetry, it's a bayonet.  "Just because I'm here" is the cry of an old man whose immensely lonely.  Two men talking here about their mutual sin--not caring for aging parents.  Guilt is rising like the temperature in that old folks home.  It's hotter than humanly possible, and it's rising in me, too, because I'm in the poem myself.

I say nothing

If confession is good for the soul, there's only one person in the poem who's doing any of it and that's the friend, not the narrator, who's not opening up his own heart, except to us since "I say nothing" is itself a confession.  There's a poem here because the narrator didn't confess.  I don't know if this is Merwin himself or not--he may have simply created the situation and the narrator--but the poem emerges from a tortured human soul who's been too dang busy to visit his father and take hold that cold hand.
 
he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you
 
Ouch.  Death by a thousand cuts.  I tell you, I think I've been in that room, even though I know I haven't.  This is a story one man tells another, and I could be either.

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know


"Left him," the man says.  "Left him." 

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

That's the whole thing, the whole poem.  That last "you know" doesn't have a question mark, although it could.  But it isn't really a question at all; we know very, very well that the little addendum question we quite frequently stick on the end of our sentences, "you know," has a perfectly obvious answer in this case.  The narrator does know.  He too has neglected his father, not loved him, not truly cared.  That's why he neglected the question mark.  Earlier too, I'm guessing. 

Both of them, both the men in this poem are bored--that's it. They've got places to go, things to do, papers to correct, classes to prepare for.  They don't have the time for aging parents. 
 
I gave the Merwin poem to my students--intro to lit, not an English major among them, bright kids, good kids--assigned it for a test to see how many of them could really come to grips with what's happening in a poem.
 
Only one of them got the essential elderliness of this little Merwin gem.  All but one never came anywhere near the real world of the poem.  They talked about generation gaps or families that don't get along.  Their world.

I could have cried.

I probably should have guessed as much.  How could they possibly haul themselves into the world--my world--of old folks homes filled with too many friendless remnant ancients.  How many of them know what it's like to hold hands whose skin is so thin it's transparent?  How many of them have ever felt they should visit more than they do?
 
Merwin's poem fit me like a glove.  I never guessed it wouldn't fit them.
 
But it didn't.  Only one of them perceived what was really going on here, and she added it cautiously as if I might laugh at how wrong she was. 
 
And what did that test I gave them teach me?  That they're very, very young and they're professor is not.  

 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much! Been there. Seen that. Turning 75 in December. "The Lord is my strength--Fear not" And thanks for your wonder filled photos of our Lord's loving nurture for all creatures. It's a blessing to be a recipient of His nourishment which is displayed in Nature. "Lord I'm comming home."

Anonymous said...

Billy Graham (93--some 30 years older than the author of 35 and 55 and counting. . .), in the Christian Century (29 November 2011) writes:
"All my life I was taught how to die as a Christian, but no one ever taught me how I ought to live in my latter years.Old age has its challenges and is not for wimps."
JohnK