¶ … Twilight" by Louise Gluck and Stephen Crane's "Four Poems" on the Theme of Futility
The poem "Twilight" by Louise Gluck describes a specific moment in time of the subject's life, the only point during his day when he can experience any sense of freedom in his otherwise futile existence. This is highlighted in the first words of the poem "All day he works at his cousin's mill, / so when he gets home at night, he always sits at this one window, / sees one time of day, twilight." During the day he is a prisoner of his office and all he can observe of nature is the window showcasing "a squared-off landscape / representing the world." The word "representing" is significant, given that Gluck is suggesting by implication that the landscape in the window merely represents reality and is not reality itself, It is through this window that the subject can see the seasons change but there is little else to indicate the passing of time in any meaningful and significant way.
Gluck's poem stands in stark contrast to the frenzied activity of Stephen Crane's poem which similarly addresses the theme of human futility entitled "Four Poems," Gluck's meditation about the limits of human existence is quiet and introverted. Crane's poem depicts a series of short anecdotes, one of which involves a man chasing the horizon; in another a man is shown eating his heart. Gluck's poem is a more realistic depiction of everyday life. It suggests when someone is working everyday he has little time to appreciate nature and other things he finds important. Gluck's millworker reflects: "There should be more time like this, to sit and dream. / ... Living -- living takes you away from sitting." So-called living within the framework of everyday reality and modern capitalism is making a living but what is really important is the silent, personal meditation of the individual contemplating nature, away from the pressures of the timeclock. Only when alone can he appreciate the changing of the season and nature. Even then, sometimes the weariness after work can be unbearable: "At dusk, the sun goes down in a haze of red fire between two poplars. / It goes down late in summer -- sometimes it's hard to stay awake."
The poem's focus on a specific time (twilight) is literally and metaphorically symbolic. It is literally true that most people only have a few hours each day to focus on something outside of themselves and to appreciate their place in the larger cosmos. But it also is metaphorically significant regarding the brevity of most people's existences. Twilight is the only time people have to themselves, that moment between being awake and asleep. Thus like Crane's poem, Gluck's is also heavily symbolic although her poem lacks the outlandish images of Crane's character chasing the horizon. Gluck's sense of brevity of the joys of life also highlights how few hours there are that are really significant to us before we die. "Then everything falls away. / The world for a little longer / is something to see, then only something to hear," until the man falls asleep. This is much like the rest of human existence where people live very intensely for only short periods of time before falling back to sleep -- i.e. before they die.
Mid-poem, the focus of Gluck's narration experiences a shift. Although the poem begins with the poet dispassionately describing the experience of a man, an individual, suddenly the poetic 'I' intrudes into the poem when Gluck writes: "I open my fingers -- / I let everything go." This suggests her identification with the poetic subject, versus the distance she was attempting to establish earlier in the poem. Gradually: "Visual world, language, / rustling of leaves in the night, / smell of high grass, of woodsmoke" die. Both the poet and the man working at the mill and by extension all of humanity are all part of the same world and...
Once the day is done, people must resort to trying to create light for themselves, since the sun has set. This is filled with a sense of sadness, given that they (both the man at the mill and the author) have had to have passed so much of the most worthwhile parts of the day elsewhere but it is inevitable. Like Crane's chaser of the horizon, happiness eludes Gluck's narrator, although she is able to philosophically light a candle, not merely curse the darkness.
The Limits of Human Perception: "I Believe" by Jim Harrison and "White Pine After Living A Hundred Years Looking West Across the Lake"
The poem "I Believe" by Jim Harrison has an apparently simple structure of a list but the list's carefully selected items are designed to highlight the things which are important to the poet also challenge the reader's assumptions about class and rural America. The poet offers a concise and incisive depiction of his world, spanning from saloons and wine to "turbulent rivers, lakes without cottages lost in the woods." This suggests a kind of romantic backwater in which the poet lives a somewhat dangerous life in rural America yet is still highly appreciative of nature. Through physical, tangible objects the author establishes his sense of self. Another poem which similarly uses striking images in the form of a list is Hugh Ogden's "White Pine After Living A Hundred Years Looking West Across the Lake" in which the poet's description of the natural phenomena as seen through the eyes of a tree challenges the reader's anthropocentric assumptions. "Night doesn't fall ... but rises. / It gathers / in shadows of rock and stump, / mills under club spruce, fern." The poem unfurls in a long list of where night can be found and in doing so conveys a very distinct sense of place, much like "I Believe."
One of the most striking aspects of Harrison's poem is the way he is able to both embrace stereotypes yet also defy them. The poem could have resorted to a series of mere cliches, but the fact that images of "used tires, taverns, saloons, bars, gallons of red wine," which suggest blight, alcoholism and despair are also part of a world populated by "the thousands/of birds I've talked to all of my life, the dogs/that talked back, the Chihuahuan ravens that follow / me on long walks" remind the readers of the perils of stereotyping. The world created by the poet is complete and multifaceted, rather than dwells on only a singular aspect of his working-class experience. It is complex and cannot be reduced to a single image.
The focus of "White Pine After Living A Hundred Years Looking West Across the Lake" is exclusively on nature but similarly strives to challenge other types of cliches embraced by the reader, including the centrality of humanity. The tree speaks of night that "clings to my trunk/and snagged lower branches" as if the tree was a sentient being and the night is said to have "gray fingers over black waters" as if it could physically touch the world around the pines. The list of the qualities of night, just like Harrison's list of the qualities of himself, are so diverse and multi-faceted that the reader understands the natural world has an importance of its own which does not need human beings. The forest is full of life although to the naked eye it seems very still and unremarkable. Just like a reader might be tempted to judge Harrison as being lower class by the references in his poem, the reader is forced to see the world through different eyes by looking at the nigh through a tree's perspective, even though a simple list of attributes.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Oden poem, however, is the way in which the tree sees human beings: "A two-legged in white-wool/sweater carrying a rocker / indoors." This once again fundamentally challenges the reader's limited perspective. Human beings are not a distinct species but merely part of the scenery like everything else, and not a very important part of it at that, given that it is the night that is the focus of the poem, not humanity. Just as Harrison's poem defies the reader's likely class assumptions about rural America, the reader is forced to see himself merely as a two legged being, powerless and inept in the eyes of a tree that is far more in awe of the power of the night.
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