Of poetry and deeper meanings

So I finished reading my preordered, signed copy of “The Fault in Our Stars” by one half of the [ Vlogbrother’s ] duo John Green. People have been making these brilliantly stupid fan art pieces of God himself holding up the book, partly in jest but I suspect at least a little in that sort of fangirlish obsession that you suffer with during your teenage years.
It didn’t disappoint.
I knew the book would be sad – a book about kids with cancer has a mandatory minimum requirement of sadness – but I managed to hold it together until the poem by William Carlos Williams. At which point I broke down sobbing. I didn’t stop until 20 minutes after I finished the book, which is a rather long time to spend sobbing when you have three children to take care of.
I realize that William Carlos Williams is not exactly a rare writer that only a few have heard of, but my teenage self wanted to believe he was, for no other reason than how much this poem meant to me.

My father and I didn’t have much of a relationship at that time in my life, and I was often torn between mythologizing and loathing.
He used to call me up and read me poetry. Rumi, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams… his beloved authors that, in spite of my protests, I also learned to love. He would ask me what I thought each poem meant, and then give me his own interpretation. No matter how smart I thought I was, he always managed to blow my mind. I was small and exposed beneath his infinite knowledge of the flow of words.

And that poem by William Carlos Williams takes me back to a time between loathing and mythologizing. Seated, angry, on a beige carpet with my back against a wall and my arms folded. My father is seated opposite with his legs out the door of a room I don’t recognize from my memory, but assume to be a temporary bedroom in one of my father’s temporary homes. I know that we are in that place of tense silence after an argument. It is quiet, and uncomfortable, and though I wish for nothing more than his absence he adamantly refuses to leave.
Suddenly, perhaps due to gaps in my memory, he begins to read me poetry.
His voice is soft and breathless and he reads,

so much depends upon.
a red wheel barrow.
glazed with rain water.
beside the white chickens.

There is a long, but comfortable silence.
He says, “Do you know what that means?”
“No,” I answer without pause. I am filled with pre-teen angst and impatience, and I have no time for his literary games and phoney philosophy. In spite of my protest, he continues. He tells me that for a time the author was a doctor, and that he wrote the poem for a young, dying patient. From her deathbed she had one window, from which she could see only a red wheelbarrow and white chickens. So much depended upon their existence, to keep her going and soothe her soul as she accepted death, sickness, and helplessness.
(Of course, he was much more poetic than that when he explained it).

I don’t know if that’s true, and somehow doubt the reality is even close to it; poets and literary scholars tend to put almost as much importance on these stories as they do themselves… but it gave me pause. For the first time in my life, I saw my father in a different light.
I thought about that poem, the author, and the importance of red wheelbarrows for the rest of the day.
I thought about my father, and why the poem was important to him… and what he was trying to say to me that day while he watched his only child circle the drain of suicidal depression and mental illness. I was fresh out of one institution and about to enter another.
I thought about the poem when I was inside the room of my fifth or sixth stay at a mental hospital, looking out of my only window at the bright red bars of the empty playground, peeking above the ten-foot concrete retaining wall (in case any of us forgot that we were prisoners there).
I wanted to believe this poem was mine. Mine and my father’s. Only I knew the secret meaning, the importance of the chickens and the wheelbarrow, as important as the red bar of the playground I knew existed beyond the wall, but never really saw and would never play on. I doubted that any child inside the institution ever played on it. And that was all part of it still, a meaning that was so vast it folded in upon itself and refused shape and definition.
The importance of a life I hoped, but was losing faith, to one day live.

When I survived my last suicide attempt and went on to recover, in the way that one does when they’ve spent so much of their life trying to die, I thought less about the poem and it’s meaning. It’s only in achieving so much more than merely existing that I felt like I finally understood what the poem was saying, and what my father meant when he read it to me.
And I care much less if that’s what the author intended it to mean, or if the true interpretation is written in stone and trademarked. It has its meaning for me.

So I spent much of this afternoon crying, and Understanding™. I’d like to think I know why he put the poem in there, in that moment, in that scene, for that character… but I also don’t want to say in case the real interpretation is written in stone somewhere, because I like what it means to me. Regardless, it’s nice to know it means that much to someone else, too.

Comments

comments

24 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    Aha!

    What a beautiful post. In high school we had to pick apart poems and analyze their meanings. This one was what I was assigned and without being allowed to do research I couldn’t fathom what it could mean other that what the words themselves spelled out. I feel like fate brought me to your blog and here I am discovering the meaning (or at least a very thoughtful interpretation) behind a poem I read 8 years ago! So thank you..and your father! 😉 I am glad he evokes such special meaning to you and now it finally makes a bit of sense to me and I feel touched. I always enjoy reading and looking at the lovely photos of you and your family!

  • I hope you’re doing well today. Someone was talking about ‘that blogger Heather Armstrong splitting up with her husband’ and I thought she was talking about you and my heart sped up (I’d heard of dooce but didn’t know her name)–so since I don’t follow her and I do follow you I’ll send my positive energy in your direction toward your hopefully not faltering marriage ;-p.

    • admin says:

      You have no idea how often I get mixed up with Dooce. It’s like a daily basis. I’ve never even read her blog, and I’m quite sure she’s never read mine.

    • admin says:

      PS no I’m not splitting up. I think, if for some reason my marriage was blogosphere news, they’d probably refer to me as “Babs” or “Babyslime” rather than my given name, as most readers know me better by my handle.

  • bluealoe says:

    I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of TFIOS yet…side effect of living in Japan. But I can’t wait to read it!

    I think it’s wonderful of your father to read you poetry, especially at those times when, as you say, you’re torn between loathing and mythologizing. I don’t have any experiences nearly that profound, but I do have a little rhyme my dad used to recite to me when he’d tuck me into bed, and even now I say it to myself every night before I go to sleep. It’s a silly little rhyme, but it’s ours, my dad’s and mine, and that makes it special.

    The story you tell is beautiful, even though it is full of darkness. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    And I care much less if that’s what the author intended it to mean, or if the true interpretation is written in stone and trademarked. It has its meaning for me.

    John Green has actually addressed the idea of the author’s intentions in a few videos. I believe he’s said that what the author intended is far less important then the meaning the reader ascribes to it…and in that sense, you’ve succeeded.

    (I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk to you last week. Things got rather crazy…I’ll email you soon!!)

  • I just read this book tonight. My friend has been RAVING about it for days and then I saw your post and I knew I had to get it.

    I sobbed like crazy. It was strangely cathartic and OMG it was so so so good. I currently have Looking for Alaska and An Overabundance of Katherines waiting to read, but I’m almost afraid haha. I can’t handle crying like that again two nights in a row.

  • Anonymous says:

    love WCW.

    my favourite is:

    This is just to say

    I have eaten
    the plums
    that were in
    the icebox

    and which
    you were probably
    saving
    for breakfast

    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold

  • Anonymous says:

    You’ve reminded me of a favourite part of a poem by a fella named Rives:

    You’re more like a sunflower,
    growing in the courtyard of an old folks home–
    you mean things to people on a daily basis.

  • azdesertrose says:

    That’s awesome that your dad read that to you.

    This bit: When I survived my last suicide attempt and went on to recover, in the way that one does when they’ve spent so much of their life trying to die, I thought less about the poem and it’s meaning. It’s only in achieving so much more than merely existing that I felt like I finally understood what the poem was saying, and what my father meant when he read it to me.

    Wow. That really hits home for me. My last suicide attempt was a little under two years ago, and I’m still kind of figuring out how to live rather than just exist. You saying what you’ve said here gives me hope. Thank you.

    • admin says:

      For me, it was difficult figuring out how to live rather than simply exist. I got through the crippling depression but then it was like… “Now what?”. It’s like I’d spent so much of my life in the hole that once I climbed out I wasn’t sure how to walk or where to go. If there was even a place to go to.
      It took a while for that to come back to me. The best advice I can give you is to be patient with yourself. You’re recovering from something incredibly traumatic… not just for your body, but your mind and your soul. It takes time. My therapist advised me to make small, realistic goals for the day (don’t think too far in the future, you’ll be tempted to set the bar too high to set yourself up to fail). Even stupid shit like, “Get up by noon” and “do the laundry”. Write them down so you can experience the satisfaction of checking them off. You’d be surprised how much that helps your mood.

      Love and light for you, for getting through the worst of it.

  • keilababe says:

    I love that poem. I didn’t read it until college writing classes. I have it up in my cubicle at work, actually. Pretty effing cool that your dad read that to you, I think. As opposed to the “get over it” that I got from my dad. LOL. I remembered you talking about the poem when you did your Formspring question/answer thing. You should do another one of those, btw!

    • admin says:

      Formspring was both fun and infuriating. A lot of the trolling was hysterically fun, and I suspect in good sport (like the whole smoking cigarettes and beanie babies thing. I laughed myself sick over all that)… but after a while it got excessive and kind of same samey. I mean I loved the awesome, intelligent questions and what blogger doesn’t love the opportunity to talk about themselves in excess? But it’s like I’d log on to find 36 questions and 10 in a row, all obviously from the same person, were some variation of, “ur stupid and u take bad photos and ur bad cuz you can’t remember something you said 8 years ago verbatim”.

      I probably would have stayed if Altarflame had stayed, because with her I had this sort of chick-sister solidarity against the more ridiculous stuff. 😛

  • A great friend of mine in college was a poet, and he used to write poems for me, and share poems with me that he thought were meaningful.

    This is one of my favorite, which is nice to read if you’ve been crying.

    Crying – by Galway Kinnell

    Crying only a little bit
    is no use. You must cry
    until your pillow is soaked!
    Then you can get up and laugh.
    Then you can jump in the shower
    and splash-splash-splash!
    Then you can throw open your window
    and, “Ha ha! ha ha!”
    And if people say, “Hey
    what’s going on up there?”
    “Ha ha!” sing back, “Happiness
    was hiding in the last tear!
    I wept it! Ha ha!”

    I read a book like that once, meaning that I cried from cover to cover. It was an autobiography that I felt like could have been written about me, there were so many similarities. It’s sad that books and words can make us cry, but healthy too. It helps us work through those emotions that may have otherwise been hiding out. At least that’s what it did for me.

    Here’s another of my favorite poems, that I like to share with people. Especially women for some reason. By the same poet as the one above.

    St. Francis And The Sow – Galway Kinnell

    The bud
    stands for all things,
    even those things that don’t flower,
    for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
    though sometimes it is necessary
    to reteach a thing its loveliness,
    to put a hand on its brow
    of the flower
    and retell it in words and in touch
    it is lovely
    until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
    as St. Francis
    put his hand on the creased forehead
    of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
    blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
    began remembering all down her thick length,
    from the earthen snout all the way
    through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of
    the tail,
    from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
    down through the great broken heart
    to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
    from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking
    and blowing beneath them:
    the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

  • He seems interesting, and I need a new book to read. I may start out with a less sob-inducing selection of his, though.

  • In our Writer’s Craft class at Naropa University, that was the very first poem we read.

    Chickens plucking the earth, not hydroponically grown in a box. The wheel barrow pushed with both hands, elbow grease and the tires turn in the earth. Rain that acts like life.

    I like this poem.

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