Sunday, April 8, 2018

Poetry saving America Day 8 #National Poetry Month

We're back on our own again. There seems to be no indication that Tony Hoagland has written about Randall Jarrell's "A Sick Child," the seventh of the Twenty Poems That Could Save America listed in Hoagland's essay of that title. We vaguely recall encountering another of Jarrell's poems, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," in a poetry class at Minnesota's Loft some years ago. That's of little help when reading "A Sick Child."

what magic can comfort and cure a sick child?
what magic can comfort and cure a sick child?
Photo by J. Harrington


The postman comes when I am still in bed.
"Postman, what do you have for me today?"
I say to him. (But really I'm in bed.)
Then he says - what shall I have him say?

"This letter says that you are president
Of - this word here; it's a republic."
Tell them I can't answer right away.
"It's your duty." No, I'd rather just be sick.

Then he tells me there are letters saying everything
That I can think of that I want for them to say.
I say, "Well, thank you very much. Good-bye."
He is ashamed, and turns and walks away.

If I can think of it, it isn't what I want.
I want . . . I want a ship from some near star
To land in the yard, and beings to come out
And think to me: "So this is where you are!

Come." Except that they won't do,
I thought of them. . . . And yet somewhere there must be
Something that's different from everything.
All that I've never thought of - think of me!

--Randall Jarrell
Do you remember being sick as a child, feeling miserable and helpless, unable yourself to do anything about it? Do you remember feeling bored and frustrated as whatever made you ill began to fade but you weren't yet healthy? "If I can think of it, it isn't what I want." seems to easily lead to "I want my mommy to fix it." Has America become bored and jaded, like a sick child? Do we really need and want aliens (from some near star) to come and help us find ourselves? Are we reading too much into this poem? Would we respond differently if it hadn't followed Ginsberg's America?

According to a citation by the Poetry Foundation, in their version of Jarrell's biography,
"Jarrell's personae are always involved with efforts to escape engulfment, implosion, and petrification, by demanding that they somehow be miraculously changed by life and art into people whose ontologies are psychically secure."
That quotation seems to fit nicely with the poem chosen by Hoagland. Candidly, our reading of "The Sick Child" is heavily influenced by the events of November 6, 2016, and thereafter, which involve apparently immature, sick children, who seem to have never learned to play well with others, pretending to be world leaders. Your mileage may vary. After all, proposing to save America with twenty very different poems may be much akin to learning the varying currents and backwaters that make up one river.

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Please be kind to each other while you can.