Monday, July 21, 2008

>Robert Bly's "Courting Forgetfulness," The New Yorker 7.21.08

>"Courting Forgetfulness"

Bly’s piece in this week’s The New Yorker could as easily be titled “Courting Memory” or something of the like, a poem about daydreaming and escape, about the pleasure—and perhaps necessity—of losing consciousness of the physical world for a greater awareness of the internal world and whatever has filled it. The idea of forgetfulness in the poem, then, is ironic. We usually regard the act of forgetting as evil, the apogees of which are debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s. But according to this poem (and other Bly poems), forgetting one’s physical bearings allows one to journey places the body can’t go; thus, courting forgetfulness is a valued task.

The first stanza begins 

It’s hard to know what sort of rough music
Could send our forgetfulness back into the ground,
From which the gravediggers pulled it years ago.

The speaker—whose voice isn’t self-referential at this point (“our” is the only clue to a sense of “I” and “you”) and is somewhat omniscient in sound and sense—is contemplating an idea in the present.  However, we’re already out of the physical world, daydreaming, as no physical bearings are provided.  This is all good and fine, and the immediate mediation is easy enough to follow. The difficulty is the word “forgetfulness.”  The word is packed into the exact middle of the stanza where the eye centers on it.  Nevertheless, the eye must unpack it from the surrounding verbiage to see it clearly.  So, the positioning of "forgetfulness" both draws our attention and highlights the word as a conceptual problem.  If forgetfulness is returning to the grave, then we—the poem’s “our”—are remembering. At the very least we’re forced into introspection. At the same time, if forgetfulness actually is the act of introspection, meaning we acquire "forgetfulness" of our present, conscious state in the physical reality, then the moment it's reburied isn’t one of escape from but re-entrance to reality. Imagine you're daydreaming on a park bench when the sudden whir of wheels wakes you: a cyclist whizzes by, and we’ve been returned, so to speak, to our senses. It’s exactly this kind of “rough music” that snaps us to attention, that breaks up the daydream. Just as often it’s this same sensory input that sends us internally reeling. Smells and tastes particular effective nostalgia/daydream providers.  So which is it? Via forgetfulness, are we meditating on the world in lost time or observing it in real time?

The rest of the poem forwards the meditation as the speaker contemplates our waking versus sleeping experience, the waking not just a physical event but an awakening, and the sleeping not just shut-eye but an oblivion. The second stanza opens with a birth—“The first moment of the day we court forgetfulness.”—and the poem stays near this beginning until the fifth and penultimate stanza where age is evoked by the image of snow and the idea of a lifetime of things to remember and forget—“you’ll find / A forest going on for hundreds of miles.” The images in these sections are predominantly pastoral, per the usual Bly poem. Often they’re somewhat irrelevant in the real world; that is to say they would seem expendable, inconsequential to the meaningful makeup of daily experience, such as “The earth that sticks to the sides of plowshares,” but it’s exactly these irrelevancies the poem wants us to remember. After all, if “a century can / Go by in the space of a single heartbeat,” then there is much of the world to tally and consider, and even the best of memories will have a hard go of recalling—of being aware—of a fraction of it, much less all of it. So, pay attention!

Though the middle four stanzas are certainly of a piece, firmly planted in meditation, the last, like the first, takes place in a slightly different state of mind. Here, the voice does become referential. It becomes reflexive, opening with an apostrophe like one may see in a ghazal: “Robert, it’s to your credit that you remember / …” The speaker is now not the speaker you would expect (the poet in this case), but the speaker over there, split off from its usual position in time and space. It’s the speaker talking to himself, and again the poem’s duplicity is clear. The stanza continues: “… / So many lines of Rilke, but the purpose of forgetfulness / Is to remember the last time we left this world.” The word purpose, here, is key. Too often the act of forgetting is a passive one. It happens to us without volition, and little is gained, perhaps, as a result. We lose sense of ourselves internally and externally, entering and exiting worlds without control, without awareness. But, if the act is purposeful, if the daydream is a lived, conscious experience (akin to lucid dreaming?), then much can be reaped from it. So, yes, Robert. It’s a wonderful thing you can remember some Rilke poetry, but it’s not the physical text that matters most—it’s the other world to which it takes you, to which you actively journey.
In this respect, the poem ends with a nice sentiment about poetry in general (though I don’t believe this poem is any more about poetry than most poems, which is to say it is at least somewhat about poetry), albeit a damning one for some. You can’t just read a poem the way you can watch a television show. You can’t just sit on our your couch and expect it to happen to you. You have to get off your (mental) duff and engage it.

As for the poem’s craftsmanship, the stanzas are all tercets, and the lines are of similar length, anywhere from about ten syllables to about fifteen syllables, though they don’t adhere to a stress count or particular rhythm. Many have contextual integrity, though they also have interplay with the surrounding context. My favorite enjambment is between lines five and six: “a century can / Go by in the space of a single heartbeat.” The only particularly unnatural line break, it creates a nice pause that physically mirrors the idea of time moving both slowly and quickly simultaneously. The “n” in can helps create this effect. It takes time to pronounce “n,” which slows the poem…for the space of a single heartbeat. And, the paradox of forgetting/remembering presented in the first stanza is consistently wrought and developed throughout.

Robert Bly’s been around for a long time. By my count, he’s…82. Like much of his oeuvre, “Courting Forgetfulness” pushes us toward an internal universe, which, as happens, is littered with external things. The mind (and spirit?) is made of material objects, and part of living is the journey taken toward them as they exist and are synthesized in that (un)conscious realm. I’m curious what this all means to an elderly gentleman in his eighties.

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