Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Poem (not by me)

I don't study poetry. I like to read poems just for fun but the truth is that I am not really very good at analyzing poetry and I don't know how to scan and, honestly, I only like poems that are short. Probably why Emily Dickinson is hands-down my favorite over any of the Romantic poets. Narrative poetry (and I try very hard to make an exception for Tennyson's In Memoriam which is more than I can do for Wordsworth) just makes me groan internally and read on auto-pilot. It is the weirdest thing. I mean, I am perfectly happy to slog my way through thousands of pages of in-your-face Victorian narrators and characters and extensive pastoral scene descriptions that drive other people batty as long as it is written in prose. But if a poem is more than five stanzas or so, I just zone out.

I was recently given a handout at a not-school-related-event that included a poem. A nice, short poem. A poem I kinda liked. I had never heard it before and I didn't recognize the poet's name (because I don't read much poetry, after all). After googling it, I discovered that the writer of the poem does not like it. She allows it to be used in very specific ways (eg. not on board exams, but on personal blogs). But she would prefer that her name not be attached to it.

Here is the explanation she offers on her website, in answer to the FAQ:

Why do you hate "Sometimes" so much?

I think most people read it wrong. When read carefully, it says sometimes things go right, but not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort in that direction. So it isn't blithely and unreasonably optimistic. But a lot of people read it that way, which means I didn't write it well enough - the writer can always make the readers see what he wants them to if he does the job right. Also I know, because language is my job, that I have written poems in which the use of language is simply a lot more interesting and imaginative than it is there. So it bugs me now and then that this is the only one a lot of people think I've ever written.

Leave it to a poet to dislike a work because too many people interpret it as optimistic! Anyway, here's the poem. It was written in the 1980s. I respect the poet's wish to have her name left off.

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
From bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
Faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
Elect an honest man; decide they care
Enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go amiss;
sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
That seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

I think the poet is right about this being easily misread. Her poem makes very clear that these things only happen sometimes. The problem is that human beings are eager to believe that sometimes could happen anytime. Including this time. Statistically speaking, human beings are irrationally -- "blithely and unreasonably"-- optimistic. Otherwise no one would ever win the lottery because (as my brother and I used to remind my mom when we were little and we wanted her to buy a ticket) "You can't win if you don't play!". And you wouldn't play if you didn't think there was a chance you might win -- a one in a million chance that YOU could be that one in a million. The truth is that most of the time, most of us are desperately willing to have hope. Even if the reality is that things only sometimes (which, in my mind, means less than half of the time) turn out the way we think they should.

The line I like best is "Some men become what they were born for." And I think maybe it speaks best to what the poet claims that she wanted the poem to say. To me, at the same time it gives hope that people can rise to the occasion, it also suggests that a lot of men do not, in fact, become what they were born for. That too often potential is lost and dreams are deferred and people become easily or angrily resigned to something other than what they were born to do.

So the poem is only optimistic in the way that stories of someone winning the lottery is -- yeah, once in a while someone gets lucky. But there are a million other suckers out there who will never win, but who desperate enough to pay money to make a bet when all the odds are against them.

Because sometimes it works.

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