by Matthew Sitman
Readers continue to respond to our thread on the books, poems, and stories that have meant the most to them. One reader sent in the above video of Mary Oliver reading her poem “Wild Geese.” Another wryly appreciates this poem:
This makes me chuckle even when I’m in that emotional black hole called depression. It was also one of my late mother’s favorites. From the irrepressible Dorothy Parker:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Another holds close a poem from Jack Gilbert:
The following poem is one that I come back to often for solace during dark times. I studied International Aid in grad school and I think it has given me a good perspective on suffering across the world: on the one hand, there’s more extreme poverty, disease, oppression, general hardship out there than most Westerners ever dream of, and on the other hand, most people across the world find ways to get by and squeeze some joy and meaning out of life anyway, even in the direst of circumstances. This poem reminds me of that.
“A Brief For The Defense” by Jack Gilbert:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Another reader’s go-to poem:
The poem I find myself returning to over and over is Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole”:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
It’s no escape in hard times or corrective of melancholy. It’s a companion. A reminder that, while I may be as alone as the poem suggests, I am not the only one.
Another turns to a famous memoir:
I have frequently delved into Ulysses S. Grants Memoirs, as they are triumph over adversity. Written nearing the end of his life, whilst being poor and suffering from incurable throat cancer, the book is a testament to a human’s ability to endure. He went from being ill-educated shop keeper to a masterful commander, and then to President.
Facing financial ruin, compelled by Mark Twain, he wrote a magisterial memoir to secure his family financial future. Sitting on his porch, writing away, being unable speak and to produce a piece that is both lucid and concise, that a young man (myself), nearly one hundred and thirty years later could read it and draw inspiration, at times of personal hardship, is nothing short than remarkable.
Another reader writes:
John Steinbeck once wrote, “It’s almost impossible to read a fine thing without wanting to do a fine thing.” I’d add that a book’s value is no less if you fail to act on the impulse. Like you, I continue to seek solace in literature. It eases loneliness and alienation and allows me to carve out what amounts to an alternative dimension free of market dictates and a soul-killing public discourse.
Twenty years after I first read the books, I still find great comfort in [Hemingway’s] Nick Adams’ stories and McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and their wholly estranged characters. I find that literature is my one true escape from a life of quiet desperation. Most of us cannot express our innermost feelings in the office or even to our loved ones—either people don’t want to hear it or you don’t want to depress them. Thus we struggle on, constantly fighting the sense that we’re alone in this fight. Literature lets us know that we’re sane after all.
Now in my mid 40s, living in Asia, with no western friends or colleagues, literature has taken on an even more profound role, standing in for an entire culture that I’ve consciously separated myself from. Billy Parham, Silas Marner, Thomas Fowler—they may not be real men, but I find them essential to my understanding of the world and my capacity to withstand it.
My absolute favorite since age 12 (I’m now 57) has been The Lord of the Rings. I can’t narrow it down to any favorite passages because they’re all favorites. Part of it certainly has something to do with the many years over which I’ve read and reread the book (it’s just one book, not a trilogy, regardless of how it was published). I can still recall the delight with which I read the first words “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins . . .” in the summer of 1969. I certainly don’t remember anything else I read that long ago with the same fervor, unless it was The Hobbit which I read a few months before LOTR.
But Tolkien’s masterpiece has more to offer than just long term familiarity. Beauty of language, certainly, but even more important are the emotions. I still tear up when I read the cheers in various tongues for Frodo and Sam after they awaken from their long ordeal at the Field of Cormallen, and again when Frodo boards that ship at the Grey Havens. When Treebeard first speaks to Merry and Pippin I’m always just as amazed as they are. I laugh every time Gandalf catches Sam eavesdropping, and when Tom Bombadil first comes singing through the Old Forest, and when Bilbo disappears with a flash at the Farewell Party. It’s just a magnificent experience every time I read it.
Another reader shares a personal story:
Your post concerning readers’ favorite passages triggered an obvious choice for me. I am bipolar, and in times of acute depression I have reached for this one snatch of translated prose more times than I can recount. Something about it feels primal; by turns I hear a howl or a whisper, but somehow always a prayer. To this day, it delivers a visceral punch. In any case, since I first encountered it eons ago in the marginalia of a high school history textbook, it has been like a worry stone in my pocket, there for me when my unquiet mind is groping for some purchase.
“Elpis (Hope) is the only good god remaining among mankind; the others have left and gone to Olympus. Pistis (Trust), a mighty god has gone, Sophrosyne (Restraint) has gone from men, and the Kharites, my friend, have abandoned the earth. Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety. But as long as man lives and sees the light of the sun, let him show piety to the gods and count on Elpis. Let him pray to the gods and burn splendid thigh bones, sacrificing to Elpis first and last.”
This reader celebrates a favorite poet:
I wrote my PhD dissertation on Adrienne Rich and still find her poetry coming back to me when contemplating memory, loss, and grappling with inequality and injustice in the world. Been a good summer for that. She is at the same time a brilliant nature poet and evokes beauty in language and landscapes.
Here is an except from the final section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” the title poem of her 1990 volume. The poem surveys a variety of American people and places, coming back to Rich’s sense of obligation to work with “the materials” of life, however difficult or wretched. Lots of echoes of Whitman here and throughout:
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
More on Rich from my tribute to her after her death in 2012, plus a photo of me in a Dr. J jersey holding up a stethoscope to one of her books.
Another reader offers two favorites:
I’d have to start with Dragondoom by Dennis McKiernan – how could someone not be stirred by the lines of a song: “Would you fight to the death, for that which you love? In a cause surely hopeless, for that which you love?” This is high fantasy in the Tolkien style, but unique and wondrous in its own right.
Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot has done it for a lot of people I’m sure, but I’m hopeful some leader has thought twice when they read this,”Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the ‘Momentary’ masters of a ‘Fraction’ of a ‘Dot’.” Or at least some 18-year old reading this like I did so long ago when his dad died took some solace in the infinite wonders of the universe and the beauty that everything has as Sagan described ice volcanoes and hurricanes many times the size of Earth on other planets.
Can’t wait to build my library with a bunch of the suggestions from other readers.
This reader notes a poem that’s made him a better man:
I have read and re-read this poem so many times, and yet, even as I read it now, I feel like I might start crying. I am a man and try hard, really hard, to be the kind of feminist that would make my girlfriend proud. I fail all the time. But, I know it is this this poem that convinced me that I must keep trying. The last line gives me goosebumps.
“What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” by Marge Piercy:
All over America women are burning dinners.
It’s lambchops in Peoria: it’s haddock
in Providence; it’s steak in Chicago:
tofu delight in Big Sur; red rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning food they’re supposed to bring with calico smile on
platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it’s
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything it’s a dead rat with a bomb in its belly ticking like the
heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.
Another reader turns to a classic from T.S. Eliot:
I am probably older than most of the Dish’s readers (71), but the poem that struck me in 1962 when I was a nineteen-year old freshman in college was Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Like a patient etherized upon a table? Never had I read a line so real and shocking in the poems I had devoured in my high school textbooks. I shivered with the discovery of something totally new … the sentiments, the images, the mesmerizing rhythms. It felt to me so wonderfully sophisticated to empathize with a world-weariness I was beginning to experience not so much as fact as aspiration and to aspire at the same time to a social class I did not belong to. I still read it with pleasure, with a frisson of ironic recognition that “I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.” Which on occasion I do. I read the poem with excited admiration in my youth; now I read it with a smile and love it all the more in the bittersweet glow of nostalgia.
Gilead has been sitting unread in my to-read pile for years. I adored Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and there is a page-long paragraph that shifts back and forth in time that still takes my breath away.
“Where he was, was still. Somewhere else, wind whined.”
But the book that has been my companion since I first read it in high school is Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. Starting to recognize my homosexuality in an upper-middle-class, very white suburb where the illusion of unfailing heterosexual monogamy was carefully cultivated and maintained as the only possible reality for ordering your life, the comfortable bisexuality of Delany’s unnamed narrator, the models he presented of unwed casual but caring relationships, and the racial and cultural diversity he deployed across the landscape of Bellona realigned my mental world: Somewhere there was a place for me, even if not in this suburb scrubbed to monochrome brightness.
But as It tried to weave among systems of thought and ideologies all trying to claim me, all trying to convince me of their foundational reality, and all incongruous with one another, and none of them feeling real or authentic to me, I was drawn repeatedly to the denouement of a story the character Lanya, and it would help me keep skipping lightly and never settling:
“But I realized something. About art. And psychiatry. They’re both self-perpetuating systems. Like religion. All three of them promise you a sense of inner worth and meaning, and spend a lot of time telling you about the suffering you have to go through to achieve it. As soon as you get a problem in any one of them, the solution it gives is always to go deeper into the same system. They’re all in rather uneasy truce with one another in what’s actually a mortal battle. Like all self-reinforcing systems. At best, each is trying to encompass the other two and define them as sub-groups. You know: religion and art are both forms of madness and madness is the realm of psychiatry. Or, art is the study and praise of man and man’s ideals, so therefore a religious experience just becomes a brutalized aesthetic response and psychiatry is just another tool for the artist to observe man and render his portraits more accurately. And the religious attitude I guess is that the other two are only useful as long as they promote the good life. At worst, they all try to destroy one another. Which is what my psychiatrist, whether he knew it or not, was trying, quite effectively, to do to my painting. I gave up psychiatry too, pretty soon. I just didn’t want to get all wound up in any systems at all.”
And, finally, Virginia Woolf makes her first appearance in our thread:
I recently discovered Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Because of this novel, more specifically because of the quoted passage below, I purchased a fancy leather-bound notebook that I try to carry with me while I’m reading so I can write down great quotes. The act of physically picking up a pen and writing down these words has been a wonderful experience for me as a reader. It has forced me to slow down and ponder what it is about what I’ve chosen to transcribe that grabbed my attention. Over time, I’ve come to realize that this notebook says a lot about not just what I read but what I find interesting, funny, insightful, beautiful, maddening. It says a lot about who I am. I don’t know if I’ll ever have it in me to write a story of my own, but I feel that this little notebook (and hopefully future notebooks if I live long enough to fill this one up) will in some strange way tell my story.
In this passage, our protagonist, Mrs. Ramsay, begins to come to terms with her sense that a friend of the family, an opium-using poet whom she generously allows to stay at her house every summer, doesn’t seem trust her:
“It injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded… the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question, with a book beneath his arm, in his yellow slippers, that she was suspected; and that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction was it that she wished so instinctively to help, to give, that people might say of her, ‘O Mrs Ramsay! dear Mrs Ramsay … Mrs Ramsay, of course!’ and need her and send for her and admire her? Was it not secretly this that she wanted, and therefore when Mr Carmichael shrank away from her, as he did at this moment, making off to some corner where he did acrostics endlessly, she did not feel merely snubbed back in her instinct, but made aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations, how flawed they are, how despicable, how self-seeking, at their best.”