The Crux of the Problem

I found an online collection of the poetry of James Tate. I find his “conversational surrealism” appropos of current events, which are surreal in themselves but becoming mundane by their constant exposure on TV.

And I re-found this poem, which, to me, gets at the heart of what ails us….

Dream On

Some people go their whole lives
without ever writing a single poem.
Extraordinary people who don’t hesitate
to cut somebody’s heart or skull open.
They go to baseball games with the greatest of ease.
and play a few rounds of golf as if it were nothing.
These same people stroll into a church
as if that were a natural part of life.
Investing money is second nature to them.
They contribute to political campaigns
that have absolutely no poetry in them
and promise none for the future.
They sit around the dinner table at night
and pretend as though nothing is missing.
Their children get caught shoplifting at the mall
and no one admits that it is poetry they are missing.
The family dog howls all night,
lonely and starving for more poetry in his life.
Why is it so difficult for them to see
that, without poetry, their lives are effluvial.
Sure, they have their banquets, their celebrations,
croquet, fox hunts, their sea shores and sunsets,
their cocktails on the balcony, dog races,
and all that kissing and hugging, and don’t
forget the good deeds, the charity work,
nursing the baby squirrels all through the night,
filling the birdfeeders all winter,
helping the stranger change her tire.
Still, there’s that disagreeable exhalation
from decaying matter, subtle but everpresent.
They walk around erect like champions.
They are smooth-spoken and witty.
When alone, rare occasion, they stare
into the mirror for hours, bewildered.
There was something they meant to say, but didn’t:
“And if we put the statue of the rhinoceros
next to the tweezers, and walk around the room three times,
learn to yodel, shave our heads, call
our ancestors back from the dead–”
poetrywise it’s still a bust, bankrupt.
You haven’t scribbled a syllable of it.
You’re a nowhere man misfiring
the very essence of your life, flustering
nothing from nothing and back again.
The hereafter may not last all that long.
Radiant childhood sweetheart,
secret code of everlasting joy and sorrow,
fanciful pen strokes beneath the eyelids:
all day, all night meditation, knot of hope,
kernel of desire, pure ordinariness of life
seeking, through poetry, a benediction
or a bed to lie down on, to connect, reveal,
explore, to imbue meaning on the day’s extravagant labor.
And yet it’s cruel to expect too much.
It’s a rare species of bird
that refuses to be categorized.
Its song is barely audible.
It is like a dragonfly in a dream–
here, then there, then here again,
low-flying amber-wing darting upward
then out of sight.
And the dream has a pain in its heart
the wonders of which are manifold,
or so the story is told.

— James Tate

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