POETS Day: Robert Graves and the Brilliance of Failure
I am full to bursting today because it’s not just POETS Day but it’s that particular POETS Day where I get to highlight my favorite poem.
Favorite types of anything are stupid. I know that. You have a favorite type of dog and I laugh at you because it’s not a Belgian Sheppard which is obviously the best and you get to stumble though pronouncing “Actually it’s Malinois” or some such. Having favorites fixes you at a point in time and doesn’t allow for maturing. I used to like the GoGos and the Walk Like an Egyptian band. (Still do, so stand down.)
First let’s get you out of work. It’s a POETS Day (Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday) thing and as I’m going whole hog with my favorite poem lets just jailbreak the hell out of your office. You are not going home early. Well, you are but that’s secondary. You are getting the boss to go home early. Frees everybody up. Well played workplace hero.
The trick is to make the boss feel sick.
I’d start on Thursday. Maybe a “You feeling alright?” followed by a quick “You need help with that?” Be persistent. Focus on things that make him or her feel week. “Can I get you anything?” is underutilized and goes right at the heart of the matter.
By Friday AM, which is crazy and different now that we have a congressional contingent confusing my Malinois’s breakfast time by an hour, your boss should be under the impression that he or she is not well. Just a little concessional help, “I got that for you.” goes a long way.
By mid afternoon you own the boss. “That cough is getting worse,” even if there is no cough and “Do you want me to make that call, I mean with your voice and all?” I’d make a point of not drinking after him as well.
Play this right and the boss is heading home by two or three and by extension so are you and all involved. The first round is not on you.
On to the poem. It’s perfect because it fails.
Robert Graves sets out to do the undoable. He tries to explain love, or at the very least adoration. He can’t.
He runs up against a semiotic brick wall and it is towering. If a man of Graves talent and learning can’t pierce this I don’t know what hope the rest of us can cling too. This poem is a testament to the limits of language. It’s all hieroglyphs dancing at the edges of meaning.
Man does, woman is.
I couldn’t tell you why I love my wife. I could throw reasons and examples as to why I do, but I couldn’t quite express the concept. The way she smiles, the way she sips her tea. That’s not it.
In eight lines Robert Graves approaches the mystery by acknowledging the futility of understanding. She is. He considers it and resigns. Let it be a wonderful mystery.
In Robert Graves understated tone:
Man Does, Woman Is
Robert Graves (1895 – 1985)
Studiously by lamplight I appraised
The palm of your hand, it’s heart-line
Identical with its head-line;
And you appraised the approving frown.
I spread my cards face-upwards on the table,
Not challenging you for yours.
Man does; but woman is —
Can a gamester argue with his luck?
I say this as a fan boy – I was in Rome reading I, Claudius in the shadow of the Colosseum. In my father’s study there was an encouraging letter from the man to a college aged aspiring poet, that would be my dad. His The Greek Myths is heavy, takes some serious wading to get through, but different. I never considered stories that way before and it has flavored my view of the way we pass information. I have a copy of Poetic Crafts and Principle and it makes me feel like I studied at Oxford instead of getting really drunk there before being glancingly hit by a bus (look right.)
I’m a Robert Graves fanatic, but despite my obsession with his work this poem stands out. It is clarity. It is release. It is surrender. It is awful in the full sense.