No Art, No Peace

I am generally opposed to the standardization of education (which puts me, amusingly, in line with much of the GOP), but here’s a wish: if schools had all used the same curriculum when I started teaching that they use now, then Toni and I might have known better than to move to Oregon.

We’ve talked about this before, about whether moving there was a mistake. Because Oregon was bad for us. There were some good things: we made some friends; we bought a house and learned some of the treats and tricks of homeownership; it was a good home for our dog, Charlie; and we found our beloved mutant cockatiel Duncan there. But for the most part: the school where I worked for ten years was badly run and badly funded; the community was largely an ignorant backwoods that offered rednecks and mudding as its entertainments, Wal-Mart and Fred Meyers as its shopping; the weather was – I need something beyond “bad” here. Because the issue with the weather wasn’t that it was wet, or that it rained a lot; I grew up in Massachusetts, where it rains and snows and sleets a lot, and Toni is from the rainy section of California, so rain is not the issue. Bad weather is not the issue. But the weather in Oregon is not just bad; it is tortuous. The clouds descend, and seem to wrap around the world, from horizon to horizon; and then they do not leave for the better part of a year. There is nothing at that time in Oregon – not people, places, nor things – that is not coated and permeated with mud or mold. Everything is cold, everything is miserable; the natural world seems to want to curl up and disappear into itself, and you want to go too.

We spent ten largely unhappy years there, and came out no better than we went in, having gained nothing but – character. I’ll say that; Oregon builds character. Oh – and I won teacher of the year. And almost had my teaching license stripped from me in a four-year bureaucratic ordeal worthy of Kafka or Orwell, that earned me the new title of “morally reprehensible.”

We don’t regret moving to Oregon, because there were good parts, and because every place has bad parts. But it would be a good world if we had never moved there. And that world might have existed if I had taught William Carlos Williams’s poem “Raleigh Was Right” back in Escondido, California, in 2003.

The poem is the third in a series, which forms a conversation between three (Actually several; but three are directly connected to this) poets separated by about 350 years and an ocean – and by death. The conversation started with Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” a poem in which a starry-eyed (actually sheepy-eyed) shepherd asks a nameless woman to come live with him and be his love. As an inducement he offers her a variety of gifts, all drawn from the natural world – beds of roses, a cap of flowers, a kirtle embroidered with myrtle. He also says they will sit on rocks and watch the shepherds feed their flocks, which tells you something about this guy’s standard of entertainment. The poem is a quintessential example of the pastoral tradition, mythologizing the Good Old Days Back in the Countryside, when everything was simple and everyone was happy sleeping on beds of roses and watching sheep eat. Marlowe got ripped for his youthful idealism (and his writing style, but that’s neither here nor there) by the older, jaded explorer/pirate/courtier/poet, Sir Walter Raleigh, who wrote “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” Raleigh’s poem has that nameless woman rejecting the shepherd’s advances because she can’t take the naivete represented in an offer of love that comes with a cap made of flowers and the chance to sit on rocks; she also tells him that she thinks he’s full of crap (“If all the world and love were young/And truth on every shepherd’s tongue/These pretty pleasures might me move/To live with thee and by thy love.” The key word is “if.”) and she wouldn’t take his offer if he were the last man on Earth. Raleigh won the argument, mainly because both poems were published several years after Marlowe’s death (Which, I have to say, pretty much means that Raleigh loses the moral argument. Because arguing with a dead man is pretty low. But I won’t stoop to repeat his mistake. I’ll let Dr. Williams do it for me.), but that wasn’t the end of it; poets from John Donne to Robert Herrick to Ogden Nash have piled on to poor dead Kit Marlowe, mocking his poem and his theme. William Carlos Williams seems to have been the exclamation point, the last one to stick his nose in and say, “Yeah, what he said!”

But the aspect of the poem I am thinking of is not the whole nymph/shepherd/Marlowe/Raleigh thing. It’s the reasons Williams gives for siding with Raleigh’s nymph against Marlowe’s idealistic shepherd. These are good reasons.

Williams starts his poem with:

We cannot go to the country
for the country will bring us
no peace

This is why the nymph won’t go with the passionate shepherd and be his love: not because he’s an idiot, or because the gifts he offers will eventually fade and die (Which is the main reason why the Nymph says no in the Raleigh poem); but because he’s wrong: the countryside is not a wonderful place full of roses and dancing shepherds’ boys. It is a place that will bring us no peace.

Williams goes on:

Though you praise us
and call to mind the poets
who sung of our loveliness
it was long ago!
long ago! when country people
would plow and sow with
flowering minds and pockets
at ease –
if ever this were true.

The image of the countryside as a place where people can live simply, but also well, and be happy and also satisfied with their lot in life, is archaic, and probably apocryphal. “Flowering minds and pockets at ease,” the image of Thoreau at Walden, with his educated intellectual philosophizing and his life of rich simplicity – except Thoreau lived on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property, close to his family and their resources, so never had to worry about paying rent, or taxes, or coming up with money for repairmen, or doctors, or all of the other things that mean people who work for a living – like farmers and shepherds – don’t get to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Believe me, when we lived in Oregon and needed to find a way to pay for a new roof for our house, we would have loved the chance to simplify; but that wouldn’t have kept the rain from reducing us to a chilly pile of rotting mildew. We needed $7000 for that. And it wasn’t simple.

The last stanza is the one that stands out to me, because recently Toni and I, because we are still dealing with money issues, since we are still somehow not wealthy – I don’t know why my teacher’s union dropped the ball on getting me my cushy overinflated salary, but I have never managed to get my chance to suck on the public teat – talked about living like an artist on an artist’s income (This is akin to feeding one’s self from a garden grown in a 10-gallon fishtank), and these were the lines that came to mind, and brought this blog into existence.

Not now. Love itself a flower
with roots in a parched ground.
Empty pockets make empty heads.
Cure it if you can but
do not believe that we can live
today in the country
for the country will bring us
no peace.

If ever there was a time when two people could live on a teacher’s salary, or even worse, two artists’ income, it is not now. (The lines about love don’t apply to me – that really is Williams picking on Marlowe, and also on his own era, World War II, and saying there ain’t enough love in the world to make a shepherd and his love happy in the countryside. Toni and I don’t have much, but we do have love.) It was not 2000 in southern California, and it really wasn’t in 2004 in St. Helens. Because in that tiny town out in the boondocks, especially after the economy collapsed in 2007 and shot out all of the equity we might have been able to save in the house we had bought in 2005, there was utterly no economic opportunity, particularly not for artists. We couldn’t sell art, we couldn’t sell our expertise; there was no chance to do anything but try to get by on a teacher’s pay. While the whole country was looking to cut teachers’ pay. And that made everything worse.

Here’s the reason: empty pockets make empty heads.

No matter how thoughtful, philosophical, and intellectual you are; no matter how deep your inspiration flows, no matter how energetic is your muse: when you have to worry about money, about paying the bills and buying food and finding $7000 you don’t have so you can pay for a new roof – you will not be able to think very much about art. We moved to Oregon partly so that we could focus on our art; it didn’t happen in the way we wanted it to, we couldn’t be as productive as we wished to be, and this is why. Because empty pockets make empty heads.

I hope that now, here in a place with a lower cost of living, that we will be able to cure this problem. But what I know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is this: do not believe that we can live today in the country. For the country will bring us no peace.

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