Tag Archives: w h auden

What Breaks Your Heart

IMG_0275

[In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be writing about specific poems and the moments they’ve created in my life.]

“This just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said from across the classroom. “I mean, has anyone really ever felt this way?”

It was the worst possible semester to say something like that, and I was probably the worst possible person to say it in front of. It was poetry that prompted it, a poem that – while perhaps heavy-handed – certainly deserved more than just a passing thought.

Funeral Blues

I
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

~ W. H. Auden

Many things had compounded in my life to make me a good reader of mournful poetry. My boyfriend and I had just broken up, and while I wasn’t in this exact state of mourning, I did recognize the echoes of helplessness. It was fall, and despite my love of red leaves and the smell of the fireplace, I was entering my annual melancholy period. It was my senior year of college, and all that lay ahead was frightening and unknown, and I mourned for my soon-to-be-ended college experience.

So I sat across from this girl and my mouth dropped open and words flew out and I leaned over the table in my earnestness.

Have you seriously never felt this way?

You’ve never felt like things were irredeemable?

You’ve never felt darkness more than you felt light?

And I knew the class was staring at me because this was an outburst and I should have been embarrassed. Instead, I felt good. I felt heard. I felt like I had spoken for so many people who’ve lost someone they loved. I’d spoken for people who entered darkness – even for a short period – and for a moment forgot what it meant to have hope.

I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember how the professor brought the class back together and steered the conversation down a tamer road (because the classroom is not the place to really delve deeply into things). Later that evening, though, I had an email from a fellow student. We had only chatted a few times, but she’d written me a message. She thanked me for speaking up, and she said sometimes people just don’t understand experiences outside their own.

Obviously.

So why is it so painful when I’m not understood? Why do I care if someone has never felt despair? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that something I should rejoice over?

It’s not that I want them to have a broken heart. It’s that I can’t stand my experiences or my feelings being disregarded as “unbelievable.” Because that’s what she was saying, even though she didn’t mean to. Has anyone really ever felt this way? is another way of saying, I don’t believe this.

I reread this poem sometimes when I begin to forget the hurting and scared young woman I was. I’ve sent it to friends who were going through surprising and uncontrollable things.

It doesn’t take just a breakup to break your heart.

And yes, as I read it now, I sense more the dramatic, the delusional self. I can see how it is perhaps a poem for an emotionally-wrought college student than a well-seasoned adult who has realized that no, the world does indeed go on.

I just don’t want to disregard the person who hasn’t yet realized this.

I wonder where that girl is now. I wonder if she’s come across Auden’s poem since that day in college. I wonder if she read it any differently, if maybe the clocks stopped for just a moment.

Reading Slump

There is a stack of books by my bed that keeps toppling over. Okay, 2.5 stacks. My sister has been gracious enough not to say anything, but I’m sure it’s bugging her. There’s no possible way I could read so many books at once, so why do I insist on having them haphazardly flung around my bed?

maryoliver1

I spend a lot of my time wishing I had more time to read. If only I didn’t have to drive so much! I could be reading RIGHT NOW! The storm this weekend gave me a glorious snow day (!), so I had three days to fill with movie-watching, coffee-drinking, and book-reading (and it was impossible to go anywhere for the first day and a half, so I couldn’t throw my books aside for live friends, like I often do to the poor things). I was ecstatic. I piled books high on the coffee table, eager, unsure of which to start first.

marriageplot

It didn’t matter which one I chose though. Cost of Discipleship was challenging (and embarrassed me a few times, actually – more on that later), but I got tired quickly. Mary Oliver, with all her beautiful expressions of nature and its inhabitants, could not take me outside my own head, and at the end of each poem, I was unsure of where I’d gone and how I got there. Jeffrey Eugenides, no matter how hard he tried with his characters’ 20th century woes and struggles with depression, could not keep me even half-engaged. Ruth Reichl, in all her food-love and witty descriptions failed to transport me to the world of the New York Times.

garlicandsapphires

I felt out of sorts, and I didn’t know why.

My book club met this week, and I was (again) the book club delinquent, arriving without having read the extremely interesting Quiet: The Power of Introverts. We had a fabulous time of birthdays and talking, but I hated that I keep not connecting with books.

dickandjane

Books have been my friends since I was five years old. The first book I read was Fun with Dick and Jane, an old green copy my mom and I bought at an outdoor flea market. Since that day, I’ve devoured all kinds of books, with the exception of science fiction (Sorry, K, I can hear you groaning. I tried.). From Little House to Anne of Green Gables to Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, I read all the classics. And then came the high school standards, followed by four years of collegiate-level reading that sometimes made me want to gouge my eyes out.

lastseptember

[This was literally the worst book I read in college. It was for an Irish Literature course, and we had to write a two-page journal response to each reading assignment. I remember sitting in the library, looking down at the quad, and realizing life was too short to read such horrid stuff.]

thomas

[We sang a setting of Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill” my senior year of college. I remember asking our conductor, “But what’s going on? What does it mean?” He looked at me and said, “Isn’t that your job, English Major?” I was sufficiently humbled. Here’s a recording of this amazing piece.]

I’ve been reading for nineteen years, but for the past few weeks, books have not spoken to me. I’ve tried. I’ve opened them gingerly, carefully, admitting them into my consciousness. I’ve focused on one book at a time, to see if that helped at all. It didn’t; I felt even more scatter-brained and self-focused while I was reading. I listened to music while I read. I turned the music off. I committed to a chapter a night. I made no commitments.

auden1

[I didn’t discover Auden until the fall of my senior year. “Stop all the clocks” and “The More Loving One” still make me cry.]

My relationship with books is cooling. Or, at least, it seems we’re on a “break.” It’s an awful thing to say about my dear friends of so long. I wonder if this feeling of distance – of complacency – is at all what a long, tired marriage feels like: you have loved deeply, but now you barely recognize your own love.

eliot

[This was for my British Lit class my junior year. I had a skinny little paperback that I riddled with sophomoric notes, and that has since been lost in the abyss that is my bedroom. I refuse to buy another copy.]

I’m hoping it will come back. That my eagerness for books and characters and interesting stories will surge up and remind me of all the wonderful things that can be learned, all the beauty that comes from reading. I’m hoping that a magic book will rest in my hands, transforming my view of the world and my place in it.

austen

[I read all the Austen novels when I was around 15 or 16. That’s probably the perfect age to read them for the first time. I think I’m almost ready for round-two.]

Until then, I’ll keep reading. A page here and there, at first. And then a little more, and a little more. Again, I see a kinship with that long marriage – a working-at-it until it brims over with new life.

Books teach me new things every day, even when I’m not reading them.