Wednesday, January 18, 2006

1-17-06: Threads

I like to read the following poems back to back. Each uses "thread" as a central metaphor.

The first poem, "The Thread," is by Denise Levertov. I have a soft spot in my heart for her - she had a big impact on me way back when. I got to see her read once, at Syracuse University probably in the early 1980s? I remember her being tiny and energetic and British and gracious. Today her language sometimes seems a little forced, or cloying, I guess is the word. But "The Thread" still takes my breath away. I’ve probably been reading it for 30 years. I love the way it celebrates the moments - rare and unpredictable, in her presentation - when we are called back to who we are.

It would be reductive to say the thread in her poem represents a sense of mission, but it’s something like that. It’s a contradictory image (the best kind). We are simultaneously constrained and energized by our calling.

I guess there’s a gentle irony in the image, too. How could a tiny thread restrict you? It wouldn’t take much to break it. But Levertov doesn’t want that - she’s not a fish fighting to break the line. You can feel her gratitude at being connected.

To Levertov, the thread is a benevolent force. It’s been there her whole life. Her thread is so unobtrusive she forgets about it most of the time. When she thinks of it at all, she immediately assumes it’s "loosened itself and gone." She is probably thinking, well, that was all in the past. But then "its tug" surprises her one day, and she is flooded with gratitude to be ridden by something that only needs thread for a bridle.

The slow, halting pace of the lines quietly evokes her hesitant recognition of the continued presence of the thread.

The one thing I don’t love about this poem is a slight sense of self-congratulation, which is, I regret to say about a poet I take sustenance from, somewhat characteristic of Levertov.

Denise Levertov
Something is very gently,
invisibly, silently,
pulling at me - a thread
or net of threads
finer than cobweb and as
elastic. I haven’t tried
the strength of it. No barbed hook
pierced and tore me. Was it
not long ago this thread
began to draw me? Or
way back? Was I
born with its knot about my
neck, a bridle? Not fear
but a stirring
of wonder makes me
catch my breath when I feel
the tug of it when I thought
it had loosened itself and gone.

* * *
William Stafford uses the metaphor just a little differently in his haunting poem "The Way It Is." This is a poem Annie and I put on our wall. Like Levertov’s, it evokes a mid-life, or perhaps late-life, realization of who one is. But Stafford uses humor - characteristically self-deprecating: "People wonder what you are pursuing." Our inner goals and struggles, which consume us with their all-encompassing drama, are barely even understood, even by our closest friends. "You have to explain about the thread." These are really funny lines - almost laugh-out-loud, when you think about them. All through his magnificent body of poetry, egotism looks a little pathetic through Stafford’s eyes. And we all have it.

His plainspeaking style is a defense against the ego.

But the poem’s not just critiquing us, or teasing us. Our plight is serious. It turns out that our identity is no more substantial than a thread. The poem is a homage to our secret dreams. I can’t really describe in words how much I love this line: "While you hold it you can’t get lost."
"Lost" is the rich word here, carrying both the common connotation of the word - temporarily not knowing where you are - but also the deeper context of spiritual or perhaps social despair. As Stafford says famously elsewhere, "the darkness is deep around us." It’s a terrifying world we live in. At heart, this is what I call a warning poem. Break your fragile thread of connection, or let go of it, and you are lost.

But miraculously, the poem is not about weakness. The thread we feel in this poem is very strong. I feel a touch of stubbornness in the poem. The last line can be read in two ways: descriptive, or as a command, the warning: DON’T LET GO OF THE THREAD!

William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
* * *
Levertov uses thread in other poems. The next one, "Beyond the End," has a different flow to it, and to be frank I like it less. But I’ve always loved her phrase "the will to respond." When you really observe human interactions, in whatever setting, it’s amazing how little we actually respond to each other, no? We have little idea who other people even are. We barely listen, barely look, barely feel. The full quotation she is meditating on - "the reason can give nothing at all like the response to desire" - is from Wallace Steven’s beautiful (and characteristically pagan) poem, "Dezembrium."

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice -
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)
Its energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it -
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on -
the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are - what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.
It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & arising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it
The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work; some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond - (‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
the response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of the teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends; to begin, to be, to defy.

* * *
(Today it struck me how Levertov works quotations of other people’s poetry into her own, as she does in that poem. It reminds me of Marianne Moore, or maybe it’s Poundian. It can get tiresome to me - I am not generally a fan of Charles Olsen or Robert Duncan or their followers, who take the technique to pretentious heights. But sometimes - as in "Beyond the End" - it can give poems a, well, "thread-like" feel.)

We shouldn’t conclude the thread metaphor fantasia without Blake’s once-famous (is that the right way to phrase it?) call at the conclusion of his long religious rant "Jerusalem" -

William Blake
I give you the end of a golden thread,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will let you in at Heaven’s Gate
Built in Jerusalem’s Wall.

* * *
I love the way he was addressing us, and in fact, commanding us: "I give you the end of a golden thread - wind it into a ball." This is an example of what I term the "direct address to the reader" genre. (Whitman is probably the most famous employer of this to me spine-tingling genre, but there are many others.) Poets delierately reaching across the centuries: Hold on to this little tiny string, fellow human. Don’t ever let go of it. It’s 2006. The darkness is deep.


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