When life circumstance throw us into disarray, it seems there's a natural human instinct to create order in a corner of the chaos.
So when sirens sound and bombs are imminent, someone may linger to make the bed, or clear the table, or put another piece of the jigsaw into place.
An ambulance is called, and the caller—never mind the chest pains—packs her overnight bag neatly, each thing in its proper place. These things matter.
A violent storm in autumn whisks leaves off the trees and the next day human beings scurry out of their houses, sweeping them up, pushing them into sacks and wheelie bins and compost heaps. Pointlessly. There will only be more.
And in this house, faced with more than one serious illness in the family, it seemed time to organise the boxes of books under the stairs, though other, more important, responsibilities were looming.
You see, we have one room packed with pamphlets upstairs: from here Matt does the packing and posting out for orders, reviews, competitions. In this room, he also has the acetate sleeves, the padded envelopes, the compliment slips, the review slips, the flyers, the newsletters, the postage stamps and customs stickers—everything carefully in its allotted corner—even to the safety pin with which he pricks each acetate sleeve around a pamphlet to let the air out so it will lie flat in the envelope. (This room was a bedroom once.)
In another upstairs room (my study) more books and pamphlets are in tottering piles on a small chest of drawers. Boxes of toner are stacked in one corner, two more boxes of books, reams and reams of paper, white and coloured. The envelopes of poems for the July reading window are filed on the floor, as are a number of other papers waiting to go up the ladder into the roof. (Don't ask about the roof.)
But downstairs, under the stairs, there are far more boxes, and when there's a new delivery, as there was on Friday, yet more boxes go there. It's almost impossible now to get under the stairs, and frequently we forget what's there—or believe a box of books is there that isn't—because we've sold them all. Periodically, I do a recce, involving dust, heaving, reconciliation and a new floor plan. That was what happened yesterday. it's tidier now with a outline of what is where. Some things have been carried upstairs and restacked in other stacks. Publications can be pinned down, their geography (for the moment) fixed. A degree of order has been established in one corner of our lives.
It struck me, while under the stairs heaving boxes, that individual poems are doing much the same thing. Many of them arise from a some kind of maelstrom and attempt to establish their own bit of order. They grapple with problems. The ones I like best creep around the problem describing it from one angle or another rather than solving it. But description is in itself a sort of solution. It puts things into place. it creates a floor plan. The more meticulously it makes its measures and phrasings, the more satisfying it feels.
Poetry likes patterns and patterning. It doesn't have to be rhyme and metrical form, but in the grimmest circumstances those features come into their own. They solve nothing; but they resolve something. (I'm thinking this morning of Anthony Hecht's More Light! More Light!, the least consolatory of poems, and yet ... )
While under the stairs I was thinking about Andrew Marvell's 'Bermudas', which has always struck me as one of the oddest of poems. If the singers are pilgrims, why are they in a rowing boat? What happened to the Mayflower? Where exactly are they going? There's something so surreal about it all, and yet delicious. "He gave us this eternal Spring / Which here enamels everything, / And sends the fowls to us in care / On daily visits through the air"—I like its rhyminess and chime-iness. I find the boat of singers both ridiculous and charming, whatever their sense of entitledness. What they really are is workers. It doesn't matter what they sing (though singing about delights is preferable to singing about despair) so long as it keeps the rhythm going, keeps them going wherever they are going:
This sung they in the English boat
An holy and a cheerful note:
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.
And then the poem suddenly stops. Just like that—no warning at all.
But we can keep going. We have established a measure of order and pattern under the stairs and we can keep going. A 'momentary stay against the confusion of the world', as Robert Frost has it. The reading window is open and poems are welcome, especially from rowing boats and subscribers. There's plenty of space on the floor.