Saturday, August 3, 2013

On the Happiness of the Poets

On the Happiness of the Poets

What is happiness? I suppose those that are truly happy don’t ask this question. It never occurs to them. Indeed, perhaps, one definition of being happy is not being concerned to limit the experience with thoughtful definitions and semantic boundaries.

As I grow older and find that more and more of the life around me seems stale and faded and listless, I find myself thinking about happiness frequently. This is a bad sign. In particular, I wonder about happiness as described by the poets. Three poems explicitly consider this subject. Two of them, I have known for most of my life – a little “Salutation” by Ezra Pound and some lines by Carl Sandburg in his first published volume, Chicago Poems. The third poem, by the German writer, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, I discovered a couple weeks ago. What can they tell us about this subject?

Among my father’s books was a heavy grey volume edited by Louis Untermeyer called Modern American Poetry - Modern British Poetry, Combined Mid-century Volume. It is my impression that the book was assigned as reading for a literature course in which my father was enrolled at Iowa State University, apparently in 1957 – the book bears a tiny sticker indicating that my father purchased it for $5.95, a substantial sum of money then, in August of that year at the College Book Store, Ames, Iowa. I was born in 1954 and so, the book is, more or less, my contemporary. It was on the book shelf in our home and, when I was in High School, I remember perusing its contents and reading many of Untermeyer’s introductions to the poets presented in the text. In his fine, precise handwriting, my father annotated a dozen or so of the poems, writing one or two words in mechanical pencil – he was an engineering student and carried such pencils in his breast pocket all of his life – near the verse’s title or at the margin. Several of the poems he graded, marking them A or A+ or B or B-. Predictably, the poems that he seems to have read closely were several by T. S. Eliot (“The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) and Robert Frost. Whether he read, or was assigned any of the verse by Ezra Pound is unclear to me – none of those poems are annotated.

In 1957, Pound was under a cloud due to his activities on behalf of the Italian fascists during World War Two. I suppose that some of the students, and, probably, more than a few of the teachers were former soldiers who had fought in the Pacific or Italy and attended college on the GI Bill. Like Untermeyer, I would guess that they had contempt for Pound. Certainly, Untermeyer is not an admirer – he accuses Pound of “obfuscation” and “confusion”, notes his confinement in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane and says that he is “too special, too arrogant, too erudite...” I skimmed the poems representing Pound in the textbook when I was a junior or senior in High School and, looking at the book now, I see that I imitated my father – making small, spidery notes in pencil in the margin next to the first poem of the selection, “Salutation.” Beside the verse, I wrote “The Mad Doktor of Modern Poetry” – a phrase that I recall deploying in an essay I composed for a high school English class. For some reason, I was very proud of that appellation and have remembered it all my life. In the white space beside the poem, now tawny yellow with age, I wrote: “the joke makes me feel happy” – and I drew a bracket to show what I meant, the last couple lines of the verse.

Here is the poem:

O Generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picknicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.

This poem, “Salutation”, was probably written around 1916 and published in volume called Lustra. At this time in his life, Pound was experimenting with various verse forms and poetic personae, and the volume contains imitations of poets that the young man admired, particularly Swinburne and Browning. Although I have known this verse all my life, until recently I remembered the poem as one of Carl Sandburg’s. In fact, I conflate the poem with Sandburg’s “Happiness” which it closely resembles and that I will quote below. Certainly, both the poem and the sentiment that it expresses are not characteristic for Ezra Pound – there is nothing of the “mad Doktor” about this little verse.

As always, Pound is condescending – the stance of the poet is against both his “Generation” and the “untidy” and “ungainly” fisher-folk “picknicking in the sun.” Certainly, the initial salutation lodged behind the poetic “O” is itself smug – why is the poet so certain that he is not to be numbered among the “thoroughly smug” and “thoroughly uncomfortable?” On the evidence of the poem he seems to be both. The fishermen seem to inspire “uncomfortable” feelings in him – they are too vivid, too loud, too easily accommodated to their lives and there is, perhaps, a dark side to their happiness. Note that the hierarchy of happiness may also enact a predator-prey relationship. The fishermen prey on the fish implied to be “happier than” they are. The poet makes his verse from his observations about the fisherfolk – in a sense, they are his prey, at least grist for his mill. And Pound’s verse is directed to the Generation of the smug and uncomfortable – presumably, the mercantile and bourgeois classes for whom the poet produces his work. In some sense, he and his smug Generation are parasitic upon one another – the poet puts his happiness on display to be preyed upon by his unhappy readers. In one sense, happiness is “picknicking,” that is, eating, and the display of “ungainly teeth” in the context of fishermen and their prey makes emblematic the notion that the joy of the fisherman is the death of the fish.

To pursue this unsettling interpretation too far, however, is to traduce the poem. The diction is plain and, on the simplest level, the verse is merely a gloss on the Gospel text at Matthew 6:28 – “And why do you worry about clothes? Consider the lilies of the field...” Happiness is defined as taking pleasure in simple things and not worrying about the future or the economy in which one is embedded. Fundamentally, the happiest are those with the least and those that do not think about their poverty – the fish in the lake have nothing and they are the happiest, and most thoughtless, of all. But to state the poem’s meanings in these terms (and poetry can never be reduced to its paraphrase) is to demonstrate exactly the smug and self-satisfied tenor of the verse and its reactionary implications. Of course, a wealthy well-educated young man, the scion of well-to-do mining family, has the leisure to regard the poor as truly happy, and, indeed, even has the chutzpah to assert that their poverty makes them glad. Such thought excuses the poet from concern about the social order. If beggars and paupers are happier than merchants and poets, then, surely we live in the best of all possible worlds – the more poor and stupid that you are, the happier. Pound doesn’t believe this, of course, and, for that reason, I think codes the verse with flashing (and threatening) teeth implying that the round “O” of the world is comprised of predators and prey, a world in which the tigers and raptors rationalize their tooth and claw as pleasurable to their victims.

For many years, I remembered this poem as written by Carl Sandburg. The reason for this confusion is clear enough – the verse sounds like Sandburg when read aloud and, in fact, the repetition of the phrase “I have seen...” echoes the Illinois poet’s famous poem “Chicago” – a verse that was once read in every High School classroom in every year of High School. Sandburg was influenced by Whitman and, in fact, when I was in College was generally denigrated as “Whitman lite”. And it is clear that like Sandburg, Pound also found Whitman’s influence inescapable. Pound’s anxiety about Whitman’s massive influence on him and American poetry is the subject of “A Pact.” In that poem, Pound tells us:

I made a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has a pig-headed father.
I am old enough to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood.
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us.

Long before making this pact, in the early poem “Salutation,” we can see unmistakably the “commerce’ between Pound and his “pig-headed father.”

In my father’s college anthology, Untermeyer clearly prefers Sandburg to Pound: Ezra gets eight pages of verse; Sandburg is accorded twenty pages. This situation was reversed, however, when I attended college in the Fall of 1972. The anthology of modern poetry taught to me by my professors contained fifteen or twenty pages of Pound’s poems and not a single specimen by Carl Sandburg. This seemed unjust and implausible to me. I had grown up with Sandburg, including a copy of the Chicago Poems, and had read them many times when I was young. So I was surprised that Carl Sandburg no longer seemed to be of any significance – at least, in the Academe. (The same thing was true of Edgar Lee Masters, regarded as a great vernacular poet by my father, and highly recommended to me – no one at college seemed to know anything about The Spoon River Anthology.)

Carl Sandburg’s little poem about “happiness” has that word as its name – it is number 17 in the Chicago Poems, written between 1912 and 1916, and, coincidentally, published in the same year as Pound’s “Salutation.” Here is what Sandburg tells us about happiness:

I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to
tell me what is happiness.
Then, I went famous executives who boss the work
of thousands of men.
They all shook their hands and gave me a smile as
though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines River.
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer
and an accordion.

Very popular on the internet, this little verse doesn’t require much explication. The poet’s “wander(ing)...out along the Desplaines River” (I preserve Sandburg’s spelling for “Des Plaines”) seems to be part of his search for the meaning of happiness. Men deemed wise by the world don’t know. Neither do men who are powerful, those “who boss the work of thousands.” In fact, savants and captains of industry don’t even understand the question – they think the poet is jesting with them. The “Hungarians,” apparently gathered in a park for a picnic (like Pound’s fisher-folk) have everything, as it turns out, necessary for happiness: women, children, a river with shade trees, music, and a keg of beer. Sandburg’s verse is sunny and didactic. There is none of Pound’s Schadenfreude. No one is exploiting anyone here although, of course, the “famous executives” probably “boss” the Hungarians at factories on the outskirts of Chicago. “Happiness” is refreshingly direct: no beating about the bush for Sandburg – he gives you the ingredients for happiness in simple, clear terms and doesn’t complicate the issue with sociology or aesthetics.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a well-known German poet and novelist. Born in 1929, he’s one of the last German authors to have experienced the Hitler era as a young adult – he was 16 when the war ended. (Enzensberger was a member of a Hitler youth group but expelled for disobedience. The notorious Julius Streicher, editor of Der Stuermer, was a next-door neighbor.) Enzensberger writes in clear, idiomatic German without elaborate syntax or metaphors. His lucid, rhetorically streamlined, and unrhymed verse is a bit like Carl Sandburg’s poetry, although the German tends toward irony and bitter humor. Enzensberger’s poem, Fuer Karajan and andere (“For Karajan and others”) seems to me related to Sandburg’s “Happiness,” although a bit obliquely. Both poems feature music, a speaker who disdains the privileged and the elite, and Eastern Europeans with an accordion. Read Enzensberger’s poem, translated below, and see if you think it is about happiness:

Three men in stiff hats
Outside Kiev’s main Bahnhof –
Trombone, accordion, saxophone –

in an October night’s mist
they hesitate between two trains,
between catastrophe and catastrophe:

playing for tired travelers, who ponder
as they bite into their warm pierogies
and wait and wait.

poignant melodies, worn-out
like their jackets and as greasy
as their hats, and if you stood

shivering there among the drunks,
the old veterans, the pickpockets,
you would have to admit to me:

Salzburg, Bayreuth and La Scala
have little, very little, more to offer
than the train-station at Kiev.

This is my translation, accurate, but not eloquent, perhaps. A few notes on the German are in order. The buskers in this poem stand in the “Dunst” of the October night –"Dunst" means vapors, such as steam, and suggests an archaic image of the locomotives puffing clouds of water vapor from their engines. Of course, the term also has sinister overtones inescapably present in German post-war poetry – "Dunst" may also suggest the “fog of war”. And, of course, the setting, a railway station in the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe invokes other journeys by train: soldiers transported to the Eastern Front and Jews hauled to the gas chambers of the Shoah. Indeed, Enzensberger sees a few of those old soldiers, Veteranen, waiting in the station, living emblems of Kiev’s tragic history. The travelers are “Ermuedete” – that is, tired to the point of exhaustion – and listen “voll Andacht,” that is, with an almost prayerful concentration. The smell of the pierogies is conveyed in the adjective “speckig”used to describe the street-musician’s hat – “Speck” is “bacon” or “bacon fat.” Enzensberger uses the formal Sie to address his readers – by employing this formal diction he designates his readers, like Pound, as members of the generation of “the thoroughly smug and thoroughly uncomfortable,” that is, well-educated, cultured Germans who would, of course, prefer Bayreuth or La Scala to the serenade of some grubby Russian (or, worse, gypsy) street musicians. Of course, “Karajan” in the poem’s title refers to the famous director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, a conductor alleged to have been a Nazi during the Third Reich.

The music played by the street musicians is curiously orchestrated – you don’t normally associate a trombone with an accordion and saxophone. The German word for trombones, that is, "Posaune", carries apocalyptic meanings – trombones, "Posaune", sound the ‘last trump,’ a blaring fanfare that proclaims the end of the world. This reading is supported by the reference to the roar and tumult of the arriving and departing trains as “catastrophes”. The threadbare and schmaltzy (probably a good translation of "speckig") tunes played by the buskers are an intermission, an entr’acte between catastrophic historical events. Art consoles. It is a moment of disinterested beauty in the midst of history’s thunderous squalor. Salzburg, Wagner’s Bayreuth, and La Scala, places where the former Nazi Herbert von Karajan conducted orchestras, are all contaminated by the “catastrophe” of history. Music makes us happy, but as a distraction from the various historical nightmares that have convulsed Eastern Europe. We have arrived at a formulation of happiness that is mostly, although not all, negative – happiness is the absence of war and catastrophe and suffering.

Have our poets helped us to better understand happiness? Happiness, it seems, is a condition elusive to the rich, privileged, powerful, or the culturally elite. Apparently, the presence of a river with shade-trees or a lake makes people happy. It helps to picnic – whether with a keg of beer or a pierogi snack. Eating is pleasant. The poor take pleasure in their families, presumably, because they have few other things about which to be happy. Music, preferably performed on an accordion, makes people happy. Simple pleasures are better than sophisticated ones. This is what a Martian reading these poems might conclude. And, perhaps, the Martian would not be far wrong.

Of course, people differ in what makes them happy and, probably, there is no such thing as abstract happiness, that is, generic happiness – being happy seems to me to be highly specific and circumstantial. I am haunted, sometimes, by the memory of a weekend afternoon, my children small at that time and gathered tightly around the dinner table, someone’s birthday being celebrated, someone teased and crying, candles lit, my wife singing “Happy Birthday,” a strange sense in my heart almost like a feeling of suffocation – let this moment, let this instant, linger forever! I had the sense that I would stop time if I could, that, if possible, I would will that instant to become an eternity and, that at the same time, the expansion of that moment across time would extinguish forever all future happiness. Each joy somehow strives to become absolute, to fill eternity with its radiance to the exclusion of all other moments of happiness. To capture happiness requires that you embalm yourself in the moment, that you forbid yourself from any change. An experience that pleases you one day, may seem cloying or dull or, even, unpleasant in other circumstances.

And, our hypothetical Martian might also have trouble comprehending the notion that representations of happiness may make us more joyful than the actual experience depicted As I grow older, it seems to me that I take more and more pleasure in writing essays like this one. I don’t know if this is wisdom or folly or mere incapacity. But now I seem to like writing more about happiness than seeking, or experiencing, it.

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