Daily Archives: 15 October 2009

#26 “Ethics” (Linda Pastan)

Linda Pastan’s “Ethics” is so widely-used as required reading that Googling for a good text leads to page after page of results like “Buy Term Papers about Linda Pastan’s Ethics.” Which is ironic on a couple of levels. First, the poem is about a tired old schoolroom assignment that creaks pretty badly after a few years once everyone says all the obvious things about it. Second, buying a term paper about a poem called “Ethics” takes some chutzpah, to say the least.

But even famous poems can be great ones, and things don’t get to be ubiquitous as required reading unless they speak to something that a lot of people can relate to. Like a few other poems in our Countdown, “Ethics” speaks to art. The question whether to opt for art or for life may seem facile, as it does to the children in “Linda”‘s classroom. But the question of why art attracts us at all, of why one would even think twice between the Rembrandt and the woman, remains a puzzling one long after the poem closes. There are people who will go far out of their way to collect beautiful things. And we place even more value on beautiful artificial things than we do on nature. We love art because it connects us to other people. It’s a basic form of communication.

On a personal note which may serve as an example: on September 11th, 2001, my thoughts were with the people suffering in the World Trade Center. But once the flames had died down and the living and dead were safe in their separate worlds, I worried about the buildings of downtown Manhattan, which I love. I wondered if St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest surviving church in the city, was still standing. Come to find that it was, and that it had served as an aid station during the rescue efforts.

Why would I worry about a church when thousands of people had died? I wasn’t worried about stones and glass. I was concerned that the efforts of the builders of the church, back in the 18th century, might have vanished in a moment of 21st-century madness. And though St. Paul’s survived (with redoubled preciousness, because of its part in the history of 9/11), I learned later that thousands of artifacts associated with the African-American Burial Ground had been destroyed. When stuff is lost, people’s ideas and dreams are lost with it. And the people who built that church, who buried those dead, are no less valuable than the people who live and die today, and who hope that our accomplishments will endure.

We love both art and life, of course, because both are fragile. “Woman and painting and season are almost one”: on their way to the oblivion that will overtake us all. Perhaps the “ethics” question is beside the point, because art and life are the same thing after all.

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#27 “A Blank” (Thom Gunn)

Thom Gunn’s “A Blank” (note: .pdf file) is so recent a poem (from the book Night Sweats, 1992) that it’s hard to find a copy transcribed onto a website anywhere. Nevertheless, it has started to appear in anthologies, and I think it’s one of the finest poems of the late 20th century – with the caveat, of course, that I have only read a tiny percentage of late 20th-century poetry.

Backstory is important here. Night Sweats was written in the middle of the worst days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco (its setting). “The year of griefs” is a year of sickness and dying, of the decimation of a hard-won community.

Several of the poets we’ve studied this semester were gay – undoubtedly Housman, Auden, and Bishop, who lived in various depths of the closet; possibly Hughes and Dickinson, though they were arguably lifelong celibates. Gunn was openly gay. “A Blank” is the first poem we’ve encountered that uses a gay community and a gay relationship as central to its theme.

The poem starts very generally, invoking the need for “one last grief.” But what follows is hardly about grief. It is about hope tinctured by grief: hope that, in the face of the abyss, can’t be extinguished.

Gunn’s poem, with great daring and beauty, imagines a gay man whose sexual relationships are passionate but casual: he and the speaker have been lovers, which, the speaker says rather unexpectedly, means that he “did not know him well.”

The speaker’s former lover has adopted a child. In itself, this is not remarkable. What intrigues the speaker is that the new father’s passion has poured itself into caring for this child.

Rarely has parental love been connected so closely to erotic love. The connection is almost taboo: it’s almost as if the word “love” is two different, incompatible words. But the man in the poem

transposed
The expectations he took out at dark
—Of Eros playing, features undisclosed—
Into another pitch

Such is parenthood. We often see parenting as proceeding from the bright side of our beings, with our eroticism as the dark side that must at best be endured, at worst deplored. But for Gunn in this poem, the wonder of life is that the same energy informs both the lover and the parent.