Reading in February

by Jeff Oaks

It’s been an awful, irritating month. Which is to say I have not held up well against the rigors of the bitter, bitter cold come down from Canada this month. Yesterday, I cancelled both my classes because I was so behind in my grading; I didn’t of course say that in my emails to the students. I said that it was too cold outside for me to ask them to come to class. There were wind chills here of negative ten degrees. The cold therefore was true but wasn’t the real wasp banging at the window of my consciousness. It was a terror that I would never get ahead of the work, that I was trapped in it, buried in an avalanche of work I myself had asked them to produce, work which seemed to be dull, trivial, light. This is writing, I wanted to scream in all caps on many of their prose poems. Where is the poetry??? Where are your souls, your curiosity, your bravery, your fears, your loves, your minds???

Instead, I cancelled classes. One student wrote to say she wished her other students were as considerate about the weather.

It hasn’t helped that I feel, have felt very distant from my own sources of bravery, curiosity, and depth. I haven’t been able to even open a book of poetry for the last few months. Everything I read seems pushy, desperate for attention. I’m not sure that that’s even the right adjective. There seemed to be a lot of good but not quite exciting work being published, a lot of work that seems earnest but also feels almost brutally careerist. Does that make sense? I’m sure I’m projecting all sorts of unresolved anxieties onto other people’s work. But there it is. Even some work that seems playful has a sense of a kind of brutal careerism about it. Do all these poems we’re writing really need to be written? Or are we stuck now in a culture of always having to be “on”, always writing something, always working on projects? I worry that I’m giving too many assignments and prompts these days and not waiting enough in silence for silence to speak. Am I making myself and my students afraid of silence, discomfort, boredom?

My source of word-solace these frigid days has been the English writer Ronald Blythe, whose book Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year I originally thought I might want to use in my Writer’s Journal class. It’s a book of brief essays about his life in a rural English village. The essays are, as you might imagine, full of small moments, lovingly described eccentrics, and the life of a calm and gentle lay clergyman. Because it seems so removed from me, although very close to an ideal self I somewhere still dream of, it has been an escape from the rankled administratively nervous self I live in at the moment. His deliberately clear sentences have been slowly calming my thinking. His references to the poets he loves–John Clare, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne–and his devotion to a life of reading generally have been comforting my nerves.

This morning I read his book Under a Broad Sky, another collection of his essays, and I felt something like the old Spring of myself rise up again. In one essay, which revolves around Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Blythe suggests that “If we are at all downcast, it is because we have ceased to love melancholy. There are those who drug themselves so that they can live on a high, and there are those who re-read wondrous books such as The Anatomy of Melancholy so that they can live on a low. Live richly, that is.” After criticizing some members of his own Anglican Church for not living up to the challenges of their calling, some of which might be uncomfortable and even hard, he writes

“Melancholic owls call all night across the river. Lying in bed at six in the morning, I listen to their cries. As did the early wakers in this same room, when Robert Burton was adding to his enchanting compendium. There is hard-to-reach dust on the beam above my head, and a trapped hornet beats against the window. I let it out into the owl universe.”

And there it is, the owl universe. Something in my consciousness settles strangely. Something I didn’t even know I had in me has been said.