there’s this mood, too

May 14, 2020 poetry appreciation

That extra time we’re supposed to be having at the moment, during which we relax, read, knit ourselves cunning new kitchens, all that lot… It hasn’t been like that for me. I seem to have spent a startling amount of time doing I know not what. But one of the things I have managed to achieve, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, is get hold of some WS Merwin.

I first came across him some years ago when I was introduced to the tiny but beautiful ‘Separation‘. When my Essential Merwin arrived, however, another poem resonated with a mood I’m in and out of at the moment, so I’m sharing that one. It’s called ‘When the War is Over’, and you can read it here.

It comes from Merwin’s 1967 collection The Lice, and was written (I assume) in response to the Vietnam War. The poem juxtaposes a hearty, party line about the usefulness of war and the certainty of Ultimate Victory (to be manifest in a striking variety of ways), with a much more hopeless, cynical voice which cannot believe that anything will be learned, or gained. The poem is circular: it starts with war and ends with enlisting. The zeugmatic-y (yes, I know that’s not really a word) assertion that ‘the salmon/ And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly’ adds a rhetorical quality as the claims become more grandiose (and offensive). But then it all collapses. “Reality” hits; or at least the reality of the despairing mood. And though most of the poem except the final line is Positive, it’s the “collapsed” voice which convinces.

I suppose this poem speaks to the part of me which wants to believe that the world will evolve out of this mess and suffering—that learning and meaning will be wrought—but can’t always manage to. Right now I don’t feel I’m in safe hands; and this wobbles my larger trust in human nature and the wider process of Life, the Universe and Everything. I feel angry and scared; and I’m strangely ashamed of admitting this, as though I’m letting the side down somehow. Odd, eh?

I don’t feel like this much of the time. But I do sometimes, and I want to acknowledge it. Reading this poem, I feel less alone with that bit of me which retreats into cynicism and despair. For that I’m grateful.

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