Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

On the death of Tyler Clementi

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

As Hamlet dies, he looks up at his beloved friend Horatio, and asks him not to commit suicide in grief, as he has threatened to do, but rather:

…in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story. (V. ii. 325-326)

He goes on, a few lines later, to specify that Horatio should tell this story to Fortinbras, likely the next ruler of Denmark:

So tell him, with th’occurents, more and less
Which have solicited – the rest is silence. (V. ii. 346-347)

The rest is silence. Silence.

This morning I am thinking about those who died, those whose deaths were the result of injustice and cruelty. Giordano Bruno. The Warsaw Ghetto. Matthew Shepard. Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old who committed suicide September 22, after his room-mate in a Rutgers dorm secretly filmed him having sex with another man and broadcast the video over the internet. Two students have been implicated in the crime: Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei.

When I think about this death, related to both the invasion of privacy and the sexuality of the victim, I think of the places where it is Tyler Clementi’s sexuality that is considered the crime – a crime that may even carry the death penalty. “The love that dare not speak its name,” as Lord Alfred Douglas famously put it. Another kind of silence. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Yet another silence. In the early years of the AIDS crisis, activists created the slogan Silence = Death. However, in places where a kind of love is a crime, silence is necessary because exposure is death.

And so I read Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, Campo dei Fiori. In the poem, Giordano Bruno’s execution is brought to his mind on a spring night when the smoke from the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto drifts through an amusement park, full of happy, celebrating couples.

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

Giordano Bruno’s inability to find words, his silence, is juxtaposed with the indifference of those around him, who return so easily to their lives. As W.H. Auden pointed out so poignantly in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

We go on with our lives. We continue. My thoughts move away from a boy dying of exposure, jumping from a bridge, a life ruined. My thoughts move away from the Campo dei Fiori and the Warsaw Ghetto to the meetings I will have today, the lecture I have to give on Thursday, the five pages of chapter I want to write to accompany my lecture and the report I have to write for a committee I am on. They suffer who suffer and we who do not suffer continue with our lives. The rest is silence.

Tonight, the Rutgers football team will observe a moment of silence for Tyler Clementi. How poignant that moment of silence will be, commemorating a loss that could have not occurred if another young man had chosen silence instead of broadcast.

Something has happened. As in Auden’s poem, a boy has fallen out of the sky. But unlike all these poems, the life that continues is not completely indifferent, the silence is not complete. The same media which was instrumental in the despair that led to the silence of Tyler Clementi’s lonely death carries the echo of his “forsaken cry.”

Beau temps, beau temps – The Season begins again

Monday, September 27th, 2010

In his poem, A Mistake, Czeslaw Milosz describes an attitude he had of nihilism. He allows himself to indulge in a sense that life does not mean anything in itself and is just a lead-up to death. But then he notices a paraplegic in his village, who is wheeled from the sun into the shade, and back again, according to the weather. The paraplegic notices the world around himself and whispers, in some wonder, “beau temps, beau temps.” Good times. Good times.

As I rushed around last week in the maelstrom of the beginning of term, I kept thinking those words: beau temps, beau temps. My life, since the age of five, has largely been structured around “the season.” Most of the time, it has been the school year, which begins in September and really, even now for me, goes until June, through the last of the grading, re-grading, resolving petitions and academic offenses, reporting on the year and culminating in the hiring process for the following term. July slows down – I vacation. People around me vacation. Then August picks up again, but September really accelerates into the pace of the year.

The “season” of theatre, dance, opera and music also begins. This year, we have already purchased tickets to some of the most exciting dance and opera events: lots of Balanchine as well as other choreographers such as Crystal Pite and Twyla Tharp. Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, John Adams’ Nixon in China and Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Lots of modernism, works you do not get to see often – though there are plenty of the old stand-bys such as The Magic Flute, but we are not going to that this year. We have enough to look forward to with the new stuff. Beau temps, beau temps.

This morning I was reading The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams and in it, before one poem, he includes a note to his mother, to whom he sent the work, hoping she would like it better than some of his other, more obscure writing. “Art is a curious command,” he writes. “We must do what we are bidden to do and can only go as far as the light permits.” As the school year, the season, begins again and I get caught up in my busy and hectic schedule, I am appreciative of what “the light permits,” from shade to sun to shade again, nature and art, the good times “as long as,” as Milosz puts it, “time is time at all.”