I awaken this morning to thoughts of Conrad Aiken … a poet I discovered in high school in an old book, right around the time I discovered Walt Whitman (also in an old book). Similar in the vastness of their voices and terrains, Aiken – urban and urbane – appealed to my cerebellum while Whitman spoke to my heart. Not really that simple, but, if I had to describe how they functioned in my adolescent life, I’d say that Aiken gave my fears and sadnesses a universal context, while Whitman called me to set them all aside, pick up a walking stick and step outdoors for some exploring. Needless to say, both were bracing and vital.
And both wrote in language that I still find breathtakingly biblical in its scope and rhythms. Their words and images still carry me, wave upon wave, toward whatever shores they think I ought to explore. I am happy to go along, even if I am still unsure about just where they are heading. It’s always an interesting trip!
It lends some perspective to think of this as I surf the web and warm myself and sort out my day, sipping coffee and looking out my window. I think of the wind blowing from Arcturus … all the way to our spinning planet. In the yawning universe, my worries and concerns (Will the Eagles beat Dallas and get the bye?) are as the fleeting as the “keen sparkle of frost” on my sill. Yet at the same time, somehow, in the vastness of space, it’s easier to see the singular as universal, as in this passage from the Preludes … one of my favorites:.
Winter for a moment takes the mind; the snow
Falls past the arclight; icicles guard a wall;
The wind moans through a crack in the window;
A keen sparkle of frost is on the sill.
Only for a moment; as spring too might engage it,
With a single crocus in the loam, or a pair of birds;
Or summer with hot grass; or autumn with a yellow leaf.
Winter is there, outside, is here in me:
Drapes the planets with snow, deepens the ice on the moon,
Darkens the darkness that was already darkness.
The mind too has its snows, its slippery paths,
Wall bayonetted with ice, leave ice-encased.
Here is the in-drawn room, to which you return
When the wind blows from Arcturus: here is the fire
At which your warm your hands and glaze your eyes:
The piano, on which you touch the cold treble;
Five notes like breathing icicles; and then silence.
And here is a passage from Walt, throwing his wide arms open to the world and all its everyday wonders … in Song of Myself …
The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation,
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listening close,
Find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky.
The sharp-hoof’d moose of the north, the cat on the house-sill, the
chickadee, the prairie-dog,
The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats,
The brood of the turkey-hen and she with her half-spread wings,
I see in them and myself the same old law.
The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections,
They scorn the best I can do to relate them.
I am enamour’d of growing out-doors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships and the wielders of axes and
mauls, and the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.
What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,
Scattering it freely forever.
So it goes … all the other news of the day, I think, will need to wait ’til tomorrow, or later today.
Wonderous winter winds have me in their grip.