Friday, October 10, 2008

Poems as arrows and axes - It fell to earth, I knew not where - (plus, one arrow, found)

A Longfellow poem contemporary with Evangeline:

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

This poem-and-arrow business reminded me of the 10th/ 11th century Indian poem by Nannecoda I put up back here:

An arrow shot by an archer
or a poem made by a poet
should cut through your heart,
jolting the head.
If it doesn’t, it’s no arrow,
it’s no poem.

If Longfellow's poems are like arrows, they must have suction cup tips. I like Longfellow well enough, but I have yet to find one that jolted my head. The Nannecoda cut a little bit.

Meine Frau, upon reading the Nannecoda poem, was reminded of this statement of Franz Kafka's, from Max Brod's biography:

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. "

A blow on the head? An arrow through the heart? And isn't Longfellow's bow safety appalling? He should take a class. Where was I? I was just sitting there reading Kafka, and the next thing I knew I was in the emergency room. Ow, my head!

I can see that one might miss the violence inherent in Longfellow's poem. The other examples sort of bring it to the front. Even setting that aside, these are incredibly strong demands to make of a book or poem. How many poems or stories have this effect on even one person? How many have this effect on me? Very few. A select, treasured few.

My first Clay Sanskrit Library post, linked above, turns out to have been an arrow that landed I knew not where. On Wednesday I received the CSL Autumn newsletter email and was delighted, and shocked, to see "Wuthering Expectations" right up there on top. Look, here I am on their press page, along with Library Journal and the Asian edition of Time.* The email also included a link to my Life of the Buddha post, which was only two days old - fast work.

* And a couple of interesting blogs. languagehat is a Professional Reader, a linguist, who writes about novels and poems as well as linguistics. The Proust posts are excellent. rpollack is a grad student in the East Asian program at St. Johns's. This post on how to pick a fight with a book is full of first-rate advice.


  1. Well, sure, it's nice to have a book that can chop up the frozen sea inside us, and there are a few that do that. It does not mean that it's not pleasant to read, say "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" on a Sunday afternoon. I refuse to feel bad (or shallow) for purely pleasure-reading. I have read Kant, and Aristotle, and St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, and Theodor Adorno -- I have also read P. G. Wodehouse, and had a fine time doing so. Who's to say that Wodehouse didn't end up affecting me more, just in a different way? I think of Psmith pretty much once a week -- I can't tell you the last time I thought about Young Werther. (Well, of course, just now...but prior to that. Maybe a couple of months ago.) Longfellow is trying in his own way, but it was much-beloved and is truly an artifact of the time. If you really want to get mad at one of those Brahmin-types, pick on Oliver Holmes, Sr. "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" is, to my mind, infuriatingly dumb. Those poems at the end of each anecdote? Gaaahhhh.

  2. I don't know. I think the axe-and-arrow language is double-edged.* When is it ever a good thing to be hit with an arrow or smashed with an axe? Never, I say. Kafka is saying "Stay away from axe-wielding lunatics (i.e., writers)." Longfellow is saying "When we go out bowhunting, stay close. I'm not too good with this thing."

    What I am saying, actually, is if we only read books and poems like this, that smashed up our view of the world or deeply moved us, we would be wrecks.

    * Did ya see what I did there? I made a joke, I say, a joke. A funny!

  3. I think it is (as it is with so many things) a matter of moderation. I like reading a book that sets off alarm bells in my head every now and again. I like those books that say the equivalent of 'get up, get going, change your mind and change the world!' But I'm with you -- if that's all you read, you end up permanently off-kilter. Keep 'sophronein' in mind and you will be far, far happier (in my experience). There's a place for Frantz Fanon and John Rawls, James Joyce and Friedrich Hayek, William Faulkner and the Innocence Project -- there's also plenty of room for Stephen King and Donna Tartt and Stephenie Meyer. And even Henry Longfellow.