Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Courageous Stride, the Ridiculous Slippers

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Hi, All:

Okay, it's been more than a day. But here's your second poem on the subject:


Courage
by Anne Sexton

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]


You all noticed, of course, that the poem contains a lifetime. That it begins with a child's first steps and proceeds chronologically to end with old age and death. And Sexton tells you up front that it's about courage.

Courage is an everyday thing, Sexton says. Imagine the courage it took for you to stand up and walk for the first time, an event "as awesome as an earthquake." And I'm sure you can still remember the courage it took to endure schoolyard taunts. Nobody ever forgets them.

The next stanza moves courage into the arena of war, and refers specifically to the Korean War. "Waitaminute," you say. "Women weren't allowed in the war arena back then." Absolutely right. But your teachers misled you when they said that poetry was about self-expression. Sexton is speaking about the world and she's speaking for everyone.

Herein is the most subversive aspect of the poem: She converts the act of a buddy dying to save you from the martial rhetoric of Homer and the USMC to a quotidian (that means "everyday") reality. It's as simple as "shaving soap." Simultaneously here, she has undone the glory of the act while elevating it to the status of love.

So it goes, for two more stanzas. At the end of life, Sexton says, we are the most courageous of all. And when at last you can't stave off death for even an instant longer, "you'll put on your carpet slippers and stride out." Picture that in your mind: The courageous stride, the ridiculous carpet slippers. Fools on the outside, but heroes within. This is the human condition glorified.

Life is tough business, Sexton says. It's not for sissies. We're not sissies, you and I. We're human beings.

All best,
Michael

P.S. So why shaving soap and not hand soap? To defend herself from the charge that she's trying to "feminize" men. She's just trying to reflect on the way things really are.

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3 comments:

Lara said...

and she definitely was not a sissy

Thank you for continuing to feed our minds.

Markin said...

I am reminded of another poem, "Lucinda Matlock", in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. The word "courage" is never mentioned, but it's there all the same in its ending, I think:

"What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you --
It takes life to love Life."

And thanks from me, too. Any chance you can continue this series with new "letters to Sean"?

Mario

Michael Swanwick said...

I think that possibly all the courageous people I have known have been women. I'll have to give that some serious pondering.

It would be pleasant as pleasant to go on forever, writing and posting these things. But they take up time and that time is sorely needed for my fiction. Which is, after all, where my main shot is. I am indisputably the foremost writer of Michael Swanwick stories and novels. But I am no poet, nor even much of a critic. I'm simply a guy who knows a good thing when he sees it.

It's a small pity. But compared to the loss of any true poet, not an important one.