Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Poems I Journey With 11

Clarity versus Unclarity

This contrast is one that has always confounded me. On the one hand each of us desires clarity and yet there is pretty little of it to be found in this world - at least, of the logical variety. At college we had to read Albert Camus' short book The Myth of Sisyphus for our philosophy class. For Camus, the philosopher of the absurd, or the absurd person, demands clarity or certainty above all, but again there is little or none to be found in the world around him. The sense of the absurd, then, results from the the conflict that is created between human reason that demands clarity and the unreasonable universe that is very unclear indeed.  

I remember many years ago when I was a green young teacher walking into a staff room early one winter's morning to find a colleague named Gerard Smith, one very smart young gentleman, asking me the following question, "Well, Tim, what is it all about?"  What a huge question that was, and I was taken aback to be asked it so early in the morning.  I don't remember what I replied, but I certainly would have said little of worth as I was quite a shy young man then with little confidence. A few years later we were all to learn that poor Gerard had died in America, having taken a career break from school. It as only then that we found out that the poor man had a congenital and fatal heart defect from his youth and that there remained little time on earth for him when he asked his question.  In hindsight, I then understood why he had asked that weighty question.  Again, he would have known that I had a background in theology and philosophy, and he perhaps believed that I could furnish him with some sort of answer to his deep question.

Most religious or spiritual gurus and writers acknowledge the unclarity of the world and the sheer lack of any logical answers. They simply have a different take on things, a much different perspective. Often they even seem to delight in the sheer unclarity of things, and speak about mysticism, wonder and mystery, especially that mystery which the divine is, that mystery that simply cannot be caught in a net of words or in dogmatic phrases no matter how intricate or sublime. There are other ways, apparently of encountering the world, outside the logical. Those who have this perspective are often fond of quoting the words of Blaise Pascal: "Le coeur as ses raisons que la raison ne connait point" - "The heart has its reasons which reason itself cannot understand." It is with this background in mind that I now invite the reader to read Louis Macneice's very fine poem called "Entirely:"

             Louis Macneice 1907 - 1963


If we could get the hang of it entirely 
   It would take too long; 
All we know is the splash of words in passing   
   And falling twigs of song, 
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great   
   Presences it is rarely 
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate   
   Even a phrase entirely. 

If we could find our happiness entirely 
   In somebody else’s arms 
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city’s 
   Yammering fire alarms 
But, as it is, the spears each year go through 
   Our flesh and almost hourly   
Bell or siren banishes the blue   
   Eyes of Love entirely. 

And if the world were black or white entirely 
   And all the charts were plain 
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters, 
   A prism of delight and pain, 
We might be surer where we wished to go   
   Or again we might be merely 
Bored but in brute reality there is no 
     Road that is right entirely.

I love this poem because of its complete honesty and total authenticity.  The poet does not trot out old pieties or standard traditional phrases that simplify life. Rather, he honestly presents a perspective on life which is all too common and all too realistic - that is, that life is exceedingly complex and often beyond our understanding of it.  In short, the poet admits to being somewhat stumped about the mystery that life faces us with. The theme is clear, and that theme is that there is no ultimate clarity. Camus drove himself wild looking for such clarity.  

In stanza one the poet recounts how we simply cannot "get the hang of it entirely," and even if we could, we simply would not live long enough to figure it out.  When we listen we often only pick up a fraction of what is said.  Indeed, we readers can add in our minds to this that we often do not see the full picture as we are only granted a certain perspective on events, often from an awkward angle. MacNeice hints at religious and spiritual themes when he says that when sometimes we try to "eavesdrop on the great Presences" we scarcely succeed in that endeavour at all.  

"[S]plash of words" and "falling twigs of song" are two powerful images with the second one blending two totally opposite realities - twigs (physical) and song (immaterial). Love is fleeting, not just the romantic idea of it, but its physical reality, as we are not entirely satisfied in our physical experience of it.  The imagery of "spears" reminds us of Shakespeare's line "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and the intended meaning of both is the same, namely a battle image to sum up the misfortunes we encounter in our lives. The "yammering fire alarms" are those that are constantly calling out to warm the citizens of London about the fires consequent on enemy attack.  Those bells "banish the Blue Eyes of Love entirely."

The last stanza is as succinct as the other two and points out that it is ludicrous to approach life in a "black and white" manner as there are too many other colours in between the two that manifest themselves through "a prism of delight and pain." Indeed, even the maps we get are not one hundred per cent clear and logical. They are, rather, more than somewhat unclear as they often manifest themselves in actuality as "a mad weir of tigerish waters."  Then there are times that we merely grow bored of trying to find our way through the maze of unclarity that much of life can be. Whatever our reaction to our situation in life is, we can be fully sure that there is "no road that is right entirely."

Finally, the title is a most apt and succinct summary of the poem, that is, that we can never be totally sure entirely. I find this a comforting poem in the down periods of my life as I begin to be less hard on myself as a result of the wisdom garnered here. After all, we will never get everything right entirely. Not even the commentary on this poem.

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