Reading: The Reckoning by Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), a sickly boy who transformed into a bear of a man with father issues, was according to many critics the greatest of the American poets. While browsing a collection of his poetry on the Internet, I stumbled upon a poem about reckoning. I understand from his biography that he sought for redemption or some way to find closure with his father, who died of cancer when Ted was fourteen. The reckoning in this poem is political:

The Reckoning
All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.

We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.

What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.

The vanity of accumulation is a common theme in poetry. I like to approach it with rhyme and humor like here. This reminds me of Bertold Brecht (I would have expected a verse with penny or pence, and hence…). Grim digits of old pain are that the numbers in the books that ‘litter up’ the home like the home of a real pathological 21th century hoarder is littered up with stacks of newspaper or piles of assorted junk.

The next step is of course borrowing at a pawn shop (or taking a second mortgage perhaps? This poem is prescient of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis). The error cannot be traced down: The failure is systemic. I’ve heard economists like Krugman or Stiglitz say the same thing…

A fare here means subsistence if I’m not mistaken. Being secure means just to be able to live and eat in your house – even if it means remaining in debt bondage. ‘We’ are seeking security by succumbing to usury, by buying into ‘the lack that keeps us who we are’, by always being in debt with the shadow of your creditor looming over you, extracting any possible surplus that you may produce.

So, I read this as a strongly anti-capitalist poem of revolt. What do you think about that interpretation?

Reading: The Reckoning by Theodore Roethke was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Yet to die. Unalone still by Osip Mandelstam

Here is a pretty translation I found of a poem by Osip Mandelstam (1891 – 1938), one of Russia’s acclaimed anti-formalist (Acmeist) poets along with Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. This was written in 1937:

Yet to die. Unalone still.
For now your pauper-friend is with you.
Together you delight in the grandeur of the plains,
And the dark, the cold, the storms of snow.

Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.

Misery is he whom, like a shadow,
A dog’s barking frightens, the wind cuts down.
Poor is he who, half-alive himself
Begs his shade for pittance.

Unalone is a nice invention and sounds more ‘Russian’ to me than not alone (еще ты не один). The delight in the grandeur of the plains, together with a pauper-friend (с нищенкой-подругой) you find delight in the grandeur of the plains and the snowstorms. I found this element of the sublime in other poetry by Mandelstam as well.

And then poverty itself receives positive attributes: gaudy poverty, powerful destitution (В роскошной бедности, в могучей нищете). The days and nights are blessed and the work is without sin. Of course, we read experienced without sin. Poverty has an aspect of righteousness that doesn’t feel bad. And that is where it differs from misery or unhappiness (Несчастлив).

If you are afraid of your own shadow and the dog’s barking and don’t feel the grandeur of the wind, you’re miserable. You are poor, on the other hand, when you ask your shadow for alms (У тени милостыню просит), even though you’re already half dead. In other words, if we don’t give up our spirit and the reverence for the grandeur of nature, we will never go from merely poor to miserable (Несчастлив).

Reading: Yet to die. Unalone still by Osip Mandelstam was originally published on Meandering home