My older sister was brilliant, bossy, opinionated, obsessive about detail, and passionate about certain issues she had identified as crucial for maintaining civilization as we know it: good manners, attention to duty, unrelenting love for one’s children, clear and practical progressive principles. She cared nothing for religion, but followed politics passionately, applying steely logic to everything she heard but still managing to sustain some hope for this mad planet. She maintained that there were some immutable standards for conduct and good living, and codified these standards as pieces of advice for nearly every situation. For example, in her view, a “Dry Clean Only” tag should properly be read, “Do Not Buy.” For larger issues, such as when life got to be just too much, you should definitely go to Yellowstone, as she often did, because it was as close as you could get, in a minivan, to paradise on earth.
And in a variety of situations, from trivial to cosmic, she would often simply say, “Look further down the page.” I still find myself following that advice, although she has now been gone for several years. It reminds me of her dogged determination to remain rational in the face of absurdity and her belief that, stubborn principles aside, there is always something yet to be learned.
It’s a good piece of advice. Can’t figure out how the web page works, or where it’s from, or what buttons you have to push to order something? Look further down the page. Chances are the REAL information will be found at the bottom, in tiny type, offered as a series of links in side-by-side columns.
Can’t figure out the fate of the country? Keep looking; finish the page; finish the article. We know that the U.S. electorate has been making decisions of global importance on the skimpiest information imaginable. In a perfect world, we would all be researching every issue, surveying a variety of sources for the real truth, and then checking those sources for authenticity. But that takes time, so we turn to the revolving sound-bits of the news cycle, or sometimes to the Sunday morning pundits. They are no help at all — often, they don’t even wait for the contributors to finish their sentences before they’ve jumped in with the next sound-bleat.
It appears we are too impatient even to learn about matters of life and death.
Perhaps it’s the furiously accelerating “pace of change” we perceive, or the fire-hose flood of information we encounter in our lives. Perhaps it is our mindset; our collective neuroses. For example, people who are grieving tend to hear only the first sentence said to them. Those in the helping professions know this, so they give critical information first, and simply, and repeatedly, before trying subtle rhetoric on the bereaved. But are we all bereaved, all of the time? Or are we trying to process information under chronic stress that is nearly as debilitating?
Life as a long poem
Although I am an avid reader, I’ve really only skirted the edge of the world of poetry. I write some and I read some, but mostly short works; I’ve avoided reading any long poems until very recently. Reviewing one list of the 20 “greatest epic poems of all time,” I see how few I have conquered. I managed to struggle through Gilgamesh because, ahem, it was required. Last year, I plodded through Homer’s The Iliad and, frankly, was not impressed except by the body count. I read Dante’s Divine Comedy last year, also, and found it alternately cartoonish and profound. And then, just a few weeks ago, I got it into my head to read John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I’m starting to get it.
First, I have finally, stubbornly, admitted that I cannot read a long poem quickly. My usual reading technique (skim-so-I-can-get-to-the-next-thing) is less than useless. No; I have to read slowly, and in fact I understand it much better when I read it aloud, like they all keep telling us to do. So that’s what I do; that’s me, muttering to myself on the back porch.
It’s also helpful to read aloud because it’s hard to tell who’s talking, for one thing, till you break the code. Then, once you do identify the speaker, you can have fun being Satan for a while, or an Angel, or even God. (Depending upon my whim, my Satan is sometimes an aristocratic sociopath and sometimes just an arrogant dude, trying to start a fight.)
I am also learning that my idea of good sentence structure is irrelevant and my expectations are useless. Apparently, the way Milton liked to make poetry was to muster all the gorgeous words and classical allusions he could find and then pour them into a long sentence, backward. Most of the time, it’s hard to find the subject or the verb or the objects, because they will not be where you want them to be.
My reading is getting more fluent, but it still requires a block of quiet time and a stout cup of coffee. It is an exercise in looking deep, down, inside a sentence or a verse for the essence of it. The theology Milton displays and lavishly embellishes is largely irrelevant to my own views, so I am often snorting aloud and muttering, “Thanks a lot, Milton,” or, “Nonsense, John.” But it is still worth engaging with the whole thing, because I am experiencing how Milton amplifies the dogma of the day into this over-the-top, almost cinematic drama. He uses the thickest of thick description; he slo-o-o-ws down the action so much that even though I know how this story ends, the suspense is killing me. And that, I think, is the value of a long poem.
With a long poem, we have time to interpret the voice of the poet; we look up all the damned words we don’t understand any more; we adjust our reading rhythms to the pace of a heartbeat. And the sheer mass of imagery and attention and complexity we find, all piled up in the long poem, creates a story that is grand, infinite, of highest meaning.
And that is how I want to read my life.
I’m ready to understand my life as an epic poem; I want to claim that as a goal. To be sure, I’ve had thousands of “short poem” moments over the years, and I’m sure you have, too. I cherish those lovely haiku-like insights; peculiar elegies of memory and loss; odes and love songs acted out in flesh and passion. Those shorter forays into the non-rational keep us going while we wait for the resolution of the epic drama we are simultaneously living and composing.
But I have also sought a narrative arc; or if not a plot, at least some cohesive theme. If we see our life as an epic poem, we can do two things better: first, we can pay proper attention to those complications, those tangled sentences, those obscure images, rather than just skip over them. Perhaps we will thus avoid those crucial misunderstandings, engendered in haste throughout our lives, that become farce, or tragedy, or both.
But even more important, when I imagine my life as a long poem, I can enjoy believing that there might be some resolution to be gleaned at the end of it. Even if the story of a life is entirely random — written by a million monkeys on a million typewriters — couldn’t there eventually emerge a Shakespearean play? Or a Miltonian poem? Or my own magnum opus, whatever that may be.
Is this all?
When illness was siphoning off my sister’s life, at an age too young and in a manner too cruel, she and I had fallen into a breach, a broken place that I could not mend during the last year of her life. But I’m told that at one point during that time, she asked quietly and without melodrama, “Is this all there is?” Perhaps she wondered if her life of work and duty and deep love had been enough; perhaps she wondered whether her life’s epic poem would be resolved; perhaps she merely wished for comfort at that liminal moment.
I deeply wish I had been around for that, though thankfully our younger sister was there and could give wise comfort. It’s probably good that it was she who answered; I would probably have messed up. As a mystical agnostic, or an agnostic mystic, I might have babbled some random esoteric nonsense, which would probably just have annoyed my practical sister and brought her no closer to resolving the epic poem that was her life.
Still, I deeply wish that I had said, with all my heart, with all the affirmation I could convey:
Look further down the page, dear one. Please — look a little further.