Sunday, September 7, 2014

Hope is the thing with Gu shots


You know that poem that’s in every single basic English literature anthology ever published? No, not the one about the road less taken, not the one about the fly buzzing when I died, and not the one about Shakespeare’s ugly mistress. I’m talking about the William Carlos Williams one. No, not the one about the plums; the other one.

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

Yeah, that one. Well, I was thinking about this poem at the end of my long run yesterday, and it dawned on me: what if Williams had been a marathon runner? Just picture it: he’s staring out into the yard before he goes out for an 18-miler, and it’s been raining, see, and he thinks, shit, what if it rains during my BQ attempt? That might feel good for a while, but then there’d be all that chafing. And what if then the sun comes out and it’s crazy humid? Or what if the temperature plunges and now I’m wet and cold and hypothermia sets in and they’re out of chicken broth at the aid stations because the faster runners have already sucked it all down? Crap. Stupid wheelbarrow. Stupid chickens.

OK, so that’s probably unlikely. Still, though. I wonder if The Dark Lady was a distance runner?

People who like the Williams poem praise its quiet drama, its haiku-like perfection and simplicity. People who hate this poem hate it the way people who hate poems hate every poem: they think it’s stupid and pointless. (I once worked with a grad student who did like poetry in general but despised this poem so much that every year on his birthday I feel compelled to write it on his facebook wall. Hey, you’re welcome.) As with any text there are infinite ways the poem can be interpreted, but most people tend to believe it suggests how much the small things in life can matter—how, perhaps, you should take time to appreciate even small moments of beauty. That’s lovely, but some of the poet’s biographers note a bit of background information that suggests a somewhat different meaning: Williams was a physician treating a very sick child when he wrote it, and knowing this puts the words in more of a grim and fatalistic light. Of course, other Williams scholars say Williams himself describes the poem’s creation as simply reflecting what he saw one day in a friend’s back yard. Who knows, maybe he saw that back yard after a hard set of Yasso 800s.

Like my former grad student, I dislike this poem, not for the poem itself but because, as a teacher of literature, bringing this poem into the classroom opens a can of worms I’d just as soon keep canned so that they run out of oxygen and die or else eat each other until there’s only one big fat worm left and he runs out of oxygen and dies. (Now that’s poetry.) When students interpret a poem according to their own views and values and insist that there is no right or wrong way to interpret poetry, I cringe. And when they suddenly discover the “secret key” to a poem, as they think they do when they read the WCW and hear about the sick child, I cringe even more. In the first cringe moment, I have to gently remind them that while it is all well and good to decide that a poem means whatever you think it means, there’s a difference between analysis and imagination, and both have a place in the New World Order, but if you imagine when you should analyze, you may decide one day that the cure for cancer is powdered unicorn horn, and while that’s lovely, it’s, well, stupid and pointless. In the second cringe moment, I get to see their faces light up with discovery and enlightenment, which should be a teacher’s dream, except that in this case the discovery is that they suddenly realize all of poetry—all of literature—is nothing more than a puzzle. I once had a student come running to me with “The Yellow Wallpaper” and breathlessly informing me that he’d “figured out” the story: the narrator was dead the whole time, see? Believe it or not, I am not so heartless that I enjoy crushing their little spirits in times like these; I actually dread it, but it must be done. No, she’s not dead. That was Bruce Willis. Try again.

But see, I did it too. I started this post imagining Williams as a marathon runner, after all, because this poem, love it or loathe it, was what came to mind at the end of my 15-mile BQ training run yesterday. The day started with weather that strongly suggested a September easing from summer into fall, with overcast skies and temperatures a good 20 degrees cooler than the last time I tried to do a long run at race pace. That last time, I was disappointed; my average pace was a few seconds off of BQ pace, and while this may not seem like a big problem, a few seconds might as well be hours because that won’t qualify me for the big show. The BF reminded me that hot, humid weather makes running not just less pleasant but more difficult—a lot more difficult. He insisted that the heat was worth a good 20 seconds of pace time. I wasn’t assured. I don’t ever feel assured when I’m aiming for a big goal. Until I reach it, nothing is going to make me feel truly confident, and most things—such as an unsuccessful long run—will make me anti-confident, no matter how you spin it. I missed my pace; I suck.

Oh, my pace that last hot run? Around 9:05. My pace this time? 8:45, ten seconds faster than I need to BQ and 20 seconds faster than … oh. Dangit. How’d he know? He's a keeper, that one.

More important than the pace was the fact that I didn’t feel like I was going to die with every step forward. Not feeling like dying: good! To me, a good run is never about the numbers or even the ultimate goal I may be trying to achieve. A good run is always, always about how you feel in the moment. In pleasant weather, pushing myself harder than usual, I felt good. Even though I love running, I don’t feel good about it all the time. And unfortunately, what dictates whether I feel good isn’t always under my control—is usually completely out of my control—and frequently is something small. So much depends on whether it’s a warm day or a cool day, whether I eat something that fuels my run or foils my innards, whether rainwater glazes my shirt and makes me chafe or simply refreshes me with a cool wet kiss. Yes, I realize the Williams poem, with its unspoken context, may very well be about life and death; a BQ is not. In the scope of every experience I’ll have during my lifetime, a BQ would be only one of many small moments (hopefully less than three hours and 55 minutes worth of moment). Still, more of life consists of small moments than huge ones, and no matter how you interpret, analyze, or imagine it, Williams’ poem suggests that small moments matter.