the winged life

Oct 1, 2020 poetry appreciation

Everything there is to be said about the toxic potential of social media has already have been said somewhere else (probably on social media) so I won’t rehearse it here. And it’s true that the splicing together of commercials for our lives (rather then inhabiting them) isn’t quite what Wendell Berry’s splendid ‘The Vacation‘ is about; but it feels related, somehow. Besides, this was the poem which came to mind while I was away on my holiday. Here it is.

I love the way this poem starts in a very storybook manner—’Once there was a man’. It’s not quite a fairy tale opening, but it does have the same effect of setting up what follows as a fable, a timeless narrative into which we can read ourselves. There’s a wonderful coherence of tone throughout: the simplicity of the diction and the repetitions (‘a moving picture of the moving river/ upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly’) all contribute to the simple, children’s story- like feel of the poem.

And it’s the poem itself, rather than ‘the man’, which bears witness to the experience the man is trying to capture: ‘the river, the trees,/ the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat’. There are no adjectives: Berry simply names the different elements of the experience to which the man, in his desperation to hold on, is unable to respond. As well as contributing to the sense of universality in the poem—rivers, as opposed to this particular river—the absence of qualifiers reminds us how the impulse to record can lead us to ticking things off, rather than seeing sensitively. The man is so busy ‘show[ing]/ his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,/ preserving it forever’ that he does not actually see it himself. The final lines resist saying ‘… because he was never there in the first place’, but we can all fill that in. That is the moral of the tale: if we want truly to “have” something we have to be prepared to lose it. ‘The Vacation’ feels like Blake for the age of the mobile phone:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Always worth being reminded of that.

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