"BE YOUR OWN MASTER!" says the Vedanta Society sign. Why not?…In the park Some clouds roll over me like Greenland on a map. If I wanted to I could imagine I was flying over The Greenland coast and gazing down at the white fjords. Instead I'm lying on the grass, listening to city sounds. They come to me in three-dimensional form, Like a loaf of Wonder Bread. Baby carriages squeak Near the middle. Cars humming through Central Park, Somewhere near the back of the loaf. What sound would be the end-piece, the round brown sliver? The unzipping of airline bags. Or a glove thwacked By a rookie pitcher who falls apart In the eighth inning. The manager takes the ball silently, Like a man who has eaten a full loaf of bread And has a stomach pain. Don't glamorize silence. There is nothing profound about quiet, it is usually Only the universe holding its stomach. Delmore Schwartz must have been a great talker. They say he put most of his talent into his life But I don't know, I think his prose is pretty great; He made a better storywriter than a poet. I could write a thousand-page biography Propounding that stance, and interview all the old rummy Critics who are powerful now; They would let their hair down about Delmore, And the final crackup. The reason I'm thinking of Delmore Schwartz is that He wrote a poem about city parks. And it wasn't that successful, It went on for about twelve pages, but I admired him For writing a poem with so little point, And so much prosy description. I think he was trying to Eulogize normal middle-class happiness on a Sunday afternoon, And how he felt out of it. But that wouldn't have Taken twelve pages…He was probably being ironic About the people's happiness, and secretly thought They weren't happy. He wrote it about the same time Robert Moses was carving out his parks empire By forcing the Long Island millionaires to give up their privacy So that the middle class could get to the beach. Of course it was also supposed to benefit The poor slum-dwellers, but how many of them Ever made it to Sunken Meadows? Or Jones Beach? What's strange about parks—innocent greenery— Is that no one ever suspected them to ruin New York. Yet what finally gutted the city were the parkways Moses built, slashed through all five boroughs Quiet lower-middle-class neighborhoods bulldozed For cars to get to the picnic grounds faster, Or the Hamptons— A life of paperwork capped by a summer home. But I can't blame them: I'd like a summer home myself! I don't really believe New York is dying, no more than The universe is dying. I have no stake in seeing This poem end pessimistically. I'd like to leave people with a good feeling. Robert Moses, Delmore Schwartz. Two ambitious Jews, like myself. They tried to be their own masters… It's hard to imagine New York going under On a slow summer day like today Without even a loud noise to mark it Like the Empire State Building keeling over And everyone running to the scene of default. The helicopters will be standing by, Ready to take us to Greenland. A special airlift for poetic men of letters, A jumbo Boeing crammed to the teeth, And you can't get in if your name isn't Listed in Poets and Writers Directory. "So long, New York School of Poets!" I'll stay behind, tending the weeds And sleeping in deserted Central Park. Soon I'll be hearing about the Godthaab School: Their seemingly infinite talent for "chatty brilliance," Buddhism, and marathon readings. I'll shake my head and sigh: What are Anne and Michael doing now? How was this year's big Halloween party, Or do they even celebrate Halloween in Greenland? Maybe they're into solstice holidays, like Midsummer Night.
I have not felt a thing for weeks.
But getting up and going to work on time
I did what needed to be done, then rushed home.
And even the main streets, those ancient charmers,
Failed to amuse me, and the fight between
The upstairs couple was nothing but loud noise.
None of it touched me, except as an irritation,
And though I knew I could stop
And enjoy if I wanted to
The karate excitement and the crowd
That often gathers in front of funeral homes,
I denied myself these dependable pleasures,
The tricks of anti-depression
That had taken me so long to learn,
By now worn smooth with use, like bowling alleys in my soul.
And certain records that one can't hear without
Breaking into a smile, I refused to listen to
In order to find out what it would be like
To be cleansed of enthusiasm,
And to learn to honor my emptiness,
My indifference, myself at zero degrees.
More than any desire to indulge the numbness I wanted to be free of the bullying urge to feel, Or to care, or to sympathize. I have always dreaded admitting I was unfeeling From the time my father called me ‘a cold fish,' And I thought he might be right, at nine years old And ever since I have run around convincing everyone What a passionate, sympathetic person I am.
I would have said no poetry can come From a lack of enthusiasm; yet how much of my life, Of anyone's life, is spent in neutral gear? The economics of emotions demand it. Those rare intensities of love and anguish Are cheapened when you swamp them with souped-up ebulliences, A professional liveliness that wears so thin. There must be a poetry for that other state When I am feeling precisely nothing, there must Be an interesting way to write about it. There are continents of numbness to discover If I could have the patience or the courage.
But supposing numbness were only a disguised disappointment? A veil for anger? Then it would have no right to attention In and of itself, and one would always have to push on, Push on, to the real source of the trouble— Which means, back to melodrama. Is the neutral state a cover for unhappiness, Or do I make myself impatient and unhappy To avoid my basic nature, which is passive and low-key? And if I knew the answer, Would it make any difference in my life? At bottom I feel something stubborn as ice fields, Like sorrow or endurance, propelling me.