28 July 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/31

Danse Russe

If I when my wife is sleeping

and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, –
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades, –

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

William Carlos Williams

Presumably this poem was written when the Ballet Russe was the advanced guard of the art of Dance; the title might be a whimsical little joke, contrasting the famous and accomplished troupe with the lone poet in his room; or it might be meant to associate the two, as different but connected examples of why humans dance; or, since the Ballet Russe was best known for works such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that combined an evocation of primitive humanity with the very latest artistic innovations, it may be meant to position the poet's dance also as both primitive and highly sophisticated; or, of course, it may be meant to suggest all those things, simultaneously.

The poem is written in free verse, structured as three long "if" clauses followed, after a significant line space, by a two-line "then" conclusion. The first "if" clause draws us into the speaker's household; his wife and baby are asleep, and so is the unidentified Kathleen – presumably a young woman (given her name, probably an Irish girl) who helps with the baby or the house-keeping. We are intimates now, almost conspirators, inside his home when the rest of the family is napping; given the assumption of familiarity, he doesn't need to name his wife and baby or identify Kathleen (surely we know who they are, we who are inside his home watching the three of them sleep).

So we're inside the house, yet the speaker does not describe the house, or the neighborhood. Instead he feels himself in Nature, as if he were out in the wilds instead of in a house in a small town or suburb. He describes the natural world in ecstatic language: the sun is "a flame-white disc"; it is in "silken mists / above shining trees." Alone in his home with his family, he feels himself outside of both home and family, alone in a silken and shiny world.

In the second "if" clause he describes himself in his north room. Why north? Perhaps, since he's mentioned the sun so prominently, he wants to avoid the rising sun/beginning and setting sun/ending associations of east and west; perhaps he's hinting at the traditional poetic association of the icy North with isolation and witchcraft; perhaps he simply had a room in the north of his house, and was in it when this poem first occurred to him; perhaps he just wanted the n in north to emphasize by alliteration the n in naked in the next line; or, again, perhaps it's all of those things at once, and something else besides.

He does not pretend that either he or his dance is a thing of apparent beauty; he immediately modifies his naked dancing with the adverb grotesquely. He doesn't mind, and finds his own beauty as he dances in front of the mirror, waving his shirt like a flag. What does he softly sing, surrounded by his sleeping family, feeling the beauties of the world outside? A strange and defiant chant of loneliness. He is aware of his solitude: the sun is out, it's daytime, yet his family is sleeping, giving him a brief and perhaps unexpected moment alone in the house. Lonely usually brings with it associations of sadness, but everything in the poem so far – the sun shining through mist, the trees gleaming, the speaker's wonderful sense of abandon as he dances alone – prepares us for the strange joy he finds in the condition.  He declares not only that he is lonely, but that he was born lonely, and what's more – that he is best so.

In the third "if" clause, I feel (even more strongly than in the rest of the poem) the presence of that other New Jersey poet, Walt Whitman: this is a very fleshy, exultant song of oneself. Standing before the mirror, the speaker admires his body in its grotesque dance: not only the "public" parts of it, such as his arms and face, but also the usually hidden parts, the flanks and buttocks; he celebrates them all.

All this builds up to the conclusion, separated from the rest of the poem with the gulf of a line space: "Who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?" Genius here is used not in the sense of exceptionally creative or intelligent but in its older original sense of the presiding or protective spirit of a person or place. He lives in a household with wife, child, and helper Kathleen, and in a community, but he realizes that ultimately he is alone in the world, that even his loved ones cannot fully share in who and what he is – and he's realizing the same thing about them; they too, have their grotesque, hidden, beautiful dances. He finds joy in this – that's why he's the happy genius – and in feeling that it's shared with each person there – that's why he's the happy genius of the household. Although he is solitary, he is linked with the others by his generous understanding that they, too, are separate individuals, and each has this thing, this elusive thing that is his or hers alone, this soul.

I took this poem from the anthology Solitude, selected and edited by Carmela Ciuraru, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

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