Friday, January 29, 2010

The War Inside

I find no peace and all my war is done,
I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice,
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise,
And naught I have and all the world I seize on;
That looseth nor locketh holds me in prison,
And holdeth me not; yet I can scape nowise;
Nor letteth me live nor die of my devise,
And yet of death it giveth no occasion.
Without eyen I see, without tongue I plain,
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health;
I love another, and thus I hate myself;
I feed me in sorrow, and laugh in all my pain.
Likewise displeaseth me both death and life
And my delight is causer of this strife.

Thomas Wyatt the Elder

Many of Wyatt's poems regret age, but there's more than that here. I think it's partly a look back on false remedies to pain, or more likely a description of despair. Wyatt was a courtier and a womanizer, well-acquainted with the false words of the false heart. He also fought in wars. Perhaps that is also part of it, the way unusual stress hangs on after work is done.

Sometimes poetry gives voice to things we need to say, in a concise, controlled, intensified way. I wish we looked to it more, or gave it to those who need it. One phrase or the entire engine of a poem might explain the inexplicable.

I have one copy of a slim, privately-printed edition of poems. A shell-shocked British peer came back from World War I and collected an anthology to suit himself, a fine mix of poets from that war and earlier. He did it to save his sanity. He tells us this in the foreword, in that British stiff-upper-lip way.

If you were going to give a book of poems to somebody in the thick or on the move, I would recommend this old mainstay: Six Centuries of Great Poetry (from Chaucer to Yeats), Edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine, 1955. It's still available for $7.99, or you can buy it used. It's a paperback, hardly weighs anything, and can take abuse. I have a used copy that has endured for decades. Wyatt is in there, but if he does not serve the day's purpose, someone else will. Kipling, maybe, with a call to duty. The anonymous author of Sir Patrick Spens, about REMF. And a whole lot of revenge on She Who Dared, the writer of dear john letters.


Slamdunk said...

Agreed--investing time in poetry is not something emphasized enough.

I like the idea of the British veteran that you describe--collecting poetry that inspires and maintain sanity is an excellent thought.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
That book was a find. The foreword was so shakily or perhaps newly resolute. I believe he found the way to heal himself through the words of others who had been there and reintroducing himself, through poems, to the good things that are of lasting value. That said, it was a complicated set because it was very personal.

Thanks for writing in! Someday I am going to post on the terrible way we teach poetry in school. It seems to me it takes all the good smack out of it.

Thank you, very much,
Ann T.