Sunday, March 16, 2014

Something Against the Grey Death, a Poem and an Exegesis

Something Against the Grey Death

Sometimes I believe in Beauty when snow falls.
The city is white, clean, and pure.
Then soot falls, dirt falls, greyness returns.

* * *
It is bad form to comment on one's own work, poetry especially, but since it appears no one writes the way that I do, I feel it is necessary.

First "the Grey Death" is what I call my depression of the last 3 years. I don't think much of an explanation is necessary. This last episode was the worst that I've ever had both in terms of duraton and in terms of the deadness of my emotional and intellectual life. Looking back, my days weren't black and weren't white either. They were spent in a never never land of grey nothingness. I was more dead than alive.

I didn't become aware of a dual quality in this poem until sometime after I finished it. First there is the beauty of a snowfall. Freshly fallen snow is white, clean and pure. It is how fresh snow is. Snow starts out clean and white and then over time, soot, dirt causing the snow to turn grey. The beauty of snow is temporary. There is the physical process of decay.

Capitalizing "Beauty" makes the poem also about an abstraction, arguably a Platonic Form. There is more to the poem than just a physical process. The beauty of the snowfall itself is an instance of beauty. The worldly instances of Beauty are mortal. They will decay because that is what mortality and death do. Using the language of transcendence makes this a poem about immortality and the escape from the decay of this world. This instance of Beauty, in this case that of a snowfall, suggests that there is something more than decay and mortality, or in this case something more than the Grey Death: recovery is possible, even if hope is not. The Grey Death is part of the world's decay and of mortality. It is an illness, another infirmity of the body.

The phrase "Sometimes I believe in Beauty" makes this poem about the poet's state of mind. Sometimes the poet believes in Beauty because of (presumably) recurrent experiences of beauty. The poet does not always believe in the transcendence of Beauty.The phrase makes the poem psychological and not metaphysical. Suggesting that a metaphysical or religious interpretation is a red herring and that experiences of transcendence are to explained without recourse to extra-natural causes and sources. Metaphysics is ultimately a sociological and psychological phenomenon, even if "belief in" and its variants are most commonly associated with "belief in God" and in a world other than the natural one.

"Sometimes" implies that the poet has had this experience at other times and that the feeling of transcendence does not always occur when in the presence of an instance of Beauty. "Sometimes" then means that sometimes the poet does not notice instances of Beauty. When this is taken along with the title it suggests one of the effects of the Grey Death: an incapacity to appreciate Beauty in any form.

Using the language of transcendence to write about something experienced the poet is pointing to a moment of eternity. Using the language of subjectivity means this poem is ultimately not about a moment of transcendence or God disclosing Himself, or similar nonsense. God's self-disclosure would give the poet a taste of what lies beyond this world. Not eternity as infinite duration of time, but eternity as timelessness. Eternity as a perfect moment when the world is finished and perfect, even beautiful.

Finally, the title. "Against the Grey Death" means this poem and its recognition of an instance of Beauty suggest that this poem is not a resignation in the face of life's decay and mortality. Instances of Beauty mean that depression, decay, and mortality are not all that life has to offer. Although it is not explicit in the poem, it is implied, however, that part of Beauty is the decay of its instances. If one is desired then the other is too. The old cliche is apt: death is part of life and life is more than decay, eventual corruption, and ultimately mortality.

All this about 3 lines (4 if you count the title)? Part of my aesthetic is a maximum of meaning with a minimum of language. A poem for me is the record of an experience, an insight into my life, Life, or relationships. Compaction of meaning gives me pleasure, a feeling of accomplishment.

1 comment:

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