I do not approve

Jun 18, 2020 poetry appreciation

Someone confided in me, earlier this week, their feelings in re: all the pain, confusion and madness in the world at the moment: “I don’t like it”. It was offered as if I was being let into an important secret, and there was something very disarming about it—so honest and un-clever and childlike. Not to mention unarguable. It put me in mind of the wonderful ‘Dirge Without Music‘ by Edna St Vincent Millay. There’s what I think is a very good reading of it there at the Poetry Website (click the red arrow by the title), and a different one here; or you could enjoy this fragment which, I think, catches the same mood as the PF reading. Have a listen. See what you think.

I’ve always felt this poem catches absolutely a particular place in grief—bewilderment, anger, the opposite of acceptance. I love the fire, the passion, the impatience in it: the way the poem contains all the would-be soothing words and [pl]attitudes—’crowned with lilies and laurel… Elegant and curled/ Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know’—and yet will not be placated by them. ‘I know. But’. The pain of loss is, at the moment anyway, bigger than anything that can be said about it.

The poem is flooded with a prizing of what now is beyond reach: that first line in stanza three, particularly, has such a sense of accumulation, of the preciousness of what is gone and the sheer magnitude of the loss. That burgeoning first line is offset against the simple fact of ‘they are gone’; the language mirroring that sense of imbalance, and the sense of offence rising again: ‘they are gone to feed the roses‘. How can this be? it asks. How do we bear this? And oh, the heartbreaking simplicity of that stanza’s final line: ‘More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world’. Ohhhhhhhh….

This poem is yet another instance of the power of judiciously used repetition. There is something stubborn and childlike in the way ‘I am not resigned’ and ‘I do not approve’ come again and again; and these repetitions capture so well the insistence of feeling which will not be argued away. I prefer the PF reading because it captures this urgency and desperation, the sheer refusal to accept the awful facts, and the helpless rage in the face of them.

There’s a lot of that around at the moment. And while the state of mind, or heart, captured in ‘Dirge Without Music’ may not be the place we want to stay, it is a real part of grief, and as such deserves honouring. So when my confidant, earlier in the week, told me ‘I don’t like it’, all I could say was: ‘Yes’.

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