Thursday, April 3, 2014

On Significance (but I talk about a bunch of other things before I really get there)

What with it being national poetry month and all I've recently been reading poetry more than I usually do. I guess, now that I think about it, any poetry reading I do is more than I usually do, because I usually don't do any. I mean, I guess I read the odd poem every now and again, and I do keep a book of John Donne's poems on the table by my bedside, because a couple of months ago I was reading them before I went to sleep, and since then I never put the book back on the bookshelf, so it has just been sitting there on the table by my bed, which I guess if someone were to see that there's a book of poetry by my bedside they'd think that I was some kind of classy dude that reads so much poetry that he even reads poetry in bed, but I'm not that classy dude because I don't really read poetry all that often and not in bed either, except for that one time a couple months ago which led to the book being there in the first place, but like I said that one time is not the usual, not by a long shot. But now I've gotten off track of what I was starting off saying, which was this: I've been reading a fair bit of poetry the past couple of days.

Now I've never been any great shakes at writing poetry. I've tried my hand at it a time or two, but I inevitably come away thoroughly dissatisfied with my inability to really string the right words together. I think because I've never been able to write the poetry I wish I could write, I appreciate all the more when people can do it. Which leads me to this morning.

This morning I read a poem by W.H. Auden entitled "Musée des Beaux Arts" which describes Pieter Breughel the Elder's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus":

Now if you don't go read the poem that I linked above, the rest of what I'm writing isn't going to make much sense, so go read it. I mean, it might not make much sense even if you do read it, but really you should go read it. I mean, it's only like 20 lines long; it's not going to take much of your time. Plus it is national poetry month, after all.

While in the past I'd read William Carlos Williams' take on this painting, I hadn't ever read Auden's. I'm glad I did, because I feel like Auden portrayed really well the idea that the significant things of life are, in fact, thoroughly insignificant to pretty much everyone else. I mean, look at the birth of Christ. Millions of people celebrate it every year, but pretty much everyone else around at the time didn't even know it was happening. Consider average Joe Bethlehem-ite. He probably got out of Bethlehem just as fast as he could after he graduated. He wanted to shake the dust of this crummy old town off his feet and he was gonna see the world. And in his adventures he met a nice girl and they were married. And now he and his wife and their two kids have settled down in the suburbs of Jerusalem and he's running a thriving sandal shop and they recently bought a second camel and life is just grand. And then out of the blue there's this decree from Caesar that he has truck his whole family back to Bethlehem where there aren't even any nice places to stay, and they definitely aren't going to stay with his parents (they never approved of his wife). And all for some lousy census. And so they travel all the way to Bethlehem and he's all chapped because, I mean, couldn't he have just sent a letter to the local government official in charge of Bethlehem and said, "Hey there. I'm married now, and I have 2 kids. Thanks for counting us." But no, instead he had to close his shop and take a few days off of work and travel all this way with his family in tow, and he definitely wouldn't be getting any work done because of the ruckus his kids are making. And after all this, what happens? Some old Roman government dude says, "Alright, I see you're married and you have 2 kids. Very well, you may go now." The government just worked so much better back when Reaganus Caesar was in charge. The economy was better, and the government was smaller and not as intrusive. And while our friend here is all hot and bothered about the government and this lousy census, Jesus Christ, Savior of all mankind is born in the trough the camels are eating out of. Talk about the seeming insignificance of significant events.

Clearly there are exceptions to this. The one I kept coming back to this morning was the time there was that royal wedding that the whole world seemed to tune in for. (Yeah, that sentence ended with two prepositions. Eat it pedants.) But for every royal wedding there are numerous significant events that happen all around us every day that are utterly life-changing to the people experiencing them, and we just go on living our lives completely unaware. Obviously the birth of the Son of God or a flight through and subsequent fall from the sky on melted wings are extreme on the spectrum of significance, but there are things that we all experience that, while not quite as significant as those, have real significance on who we are and how we see and experience the world. And through most of these things, the world takes little note. It's kind of a sad thought. 

I kept thinking about this as I got ready this morning, and it was still in the back of my mind as I was walking to school humming/singing "King of Pain" to myself. (I hummed the bits I didn't know the words to.) As I was about to cross the bridge over the Wabash River, which was particularly swollen after the torrential rain we had all night and this morning, I noticed a mourning dove sitting on a branch some 15-20 feet from where I was standing. I paused for a minute and stood there just kind of staring at it. As I did, it began to make that distinctive noise that mourning doves make. It's the noise that, as a little kid, I thought came from a rare diurnal owl that lived in the Jones' Chinese elm trees next door. So whenever I heard it I'd run over to the fence separating our field from their property and stare intently into their trees hoping to catch a glimpse. But I never did see it. Because it wasn't an owl making the noise. It was a mourning dove. Though I never did see a mourning dove either. Maybe I didn't see the mourning dove because I was too busy looking for an owl. But that's another issue altogether.

Anyway, I stood on the bridge this morning watching and listening as that drab little bird cooed to its heart's content, and as I did I looked out over the river through the tree branches laden with little red buds, some of which are starting to pop open with vaguely pink blossoms, and it really hit me that spring is upon us. The world isn't all that green yet, and it did snow last week, but all the same, looking out over that little portion of the natural world filled me with that hope and joy that is rare to the advent of spring. I considered taking a picture to capture the moment, but I decided that it would only detract from the serene beauty of it all. So I didn't.

That joy and hope felt significant to me, yet I was the only one experiencing its significance. Eventually I had to break the reverie and continue the walk to campus, but since then I've decided that maybe it isn't always good for there to be a huge crowd witnessing the significant moments. Maybe sometimes it's that very solitude that breeds significance. I don't know if I can make any vast generalization about anything here, but at the very least I have decided that poetry + Jesus + British royalty + The Police + rain + mourning doves + spring = the kind of significance best enjoyed solo. 

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