Friday, March 03, 2006

"Train for ill and not for good"

The title links to one of my favorite poems of all time, "Terence This Is Stupid Stuff" by A. E. Housman. What a treasure trove of awesome that poem is.

For me, the thing earns its keep very early on with "malt does more than Milton can / To justify God's ways to man," a snotty reference (of course) to Milton's stated rationale for composing Paradise Lost and one of the most hilarious couplets ever written in English. Housman was by all indication a spectacular wiseass, and his narrator, "Terence," slaps his drinking buddies right down when they complain about his gloomy verses, telling them if they want escapism--to "see the world as the world's not"--they should just get hammered already instead of pestering him for rhymes, because that's not how poetry rolls.

For Housman, poetry strives for the real; poetry is the red pill. Oh, he acknowledges the bliss of ignorance, but he's not going to let you forget that it's illusory and temporary:

And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

What a simple yet astute perspective on the use of chemicals to induce a kind of false ignorance, to place one's understanding under erasure--until it wears off. Then you're just hungover and depressed and dirty.

I can easily see some of my past students drinking themselves into a stupor to escape poetry, by the way; many of my college kids sided with Terence's lighthearted chums over his morose ass, for reasons that aren't entirely illegitimate. I don't know that I would want to have lunch with Terence myself. OK, that's a lie. I totally would. But I get that normal people wouldn't.

What Housman did as well as any poet ever, for my money, was use humor in delivering a serious concept. This poem is really fucking funny, but by the time you read "Mithridates, he died old," your giggling gets a bit nervous, because Mithridates made it to his ripe old age by taking poison every day to make himself immune to higher doses. The message? "Train for ill and not for good." Terence argues that that crafty old bastard Mithridates saw the world as the world IS. To his tippling friends he shrugs, "You think that's too much of a buzzkill, Mr. Partypants? Suit yourself--and die young instead of old."

If the lines "Oh I have been to Ludlow fair / And left my necktie God knows where" amuse you, you'll be as delighted as I to know that the Ludlow fair still takes place. I was fortunate enough to be in Shropshire a few years ago for a Beddoes Society meeting, and upon telling a pub owner of my plans to visit Ludlow the next day and pay my respects to Housman's memorial there, he warned me that the place would be crowded because "the fair's going on." The same fair Housman writes of in the poem! I couldn't believe my luck. I found out why Housman loved his native Shropshire so much during that trip, too, because it is a glorious place. R.I.P., my man.


At 3:35 PM, Blogger Orikinla Osinachi. said...

I share your sentiments.
I am also a poet of like manners.

I enjoyed the posts.

God bless.

At 10:32 AM, Anonymous sobriety is training for ill said...

"carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts"--sounds like me in merry days of yore, back before Foster's was sweetened and sold in aluminum cans, back before micro-breweries took root in lots of neglected city neighborhoods and all their glorious flavors blossomed and fell like petals of delight on parched, untaught tongues. imagine that, there was more to beer than the witches brew swilling around inside the vast industrial-scale vats. but even that had it's time and place, one such being the grassy yard behind the tavern with a forgotten name, next door to the now gone Ships restaurant and bar, the place where sailors from the minesweepers and support vessels docked at nearby piers and the local business execs went to get shipwrecked, was where we went to drink a potion by the pitcher to stave away the sense that everyday in the next twenty years was going to be like everyday in the last twenty years. so on the occasional afternoon when work was done, we'd drive the five minute drive to the forgotten named tavern and order a brace of pitchers of industrial grade pilsner and walk outside to the yard behind the bar, sit on the grass, and shoot the breeze in the warm summer sun while watching the owner's pet rabbit nibble on the grass under the sign that read: "NO HUNTING!"

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Trouble in Shangri La said...

god you make me miss college english discussions, something i hardly thought possible.

At 4:58 PM, Anonymous Margo said...

I was trying to describe you to my husband last night (I'm being Belial'd by a student and had to 'splain the term) and said, among other things, "she's casually brilliant--she just pops out with stuff that would take me ages to compose." This kind of post is what I meant. :)


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