I’m not sure why it has taken me a number of months to learn this poem, but it has. Perhaps it has something to do with my none-too-stalwart diligence of late towards daily, even weekly by-hearting. The challenges of life take over, those very challenges which the learning of poetry attempts to address as well as offer respite. Before we know it we’ve stopped using that very thing which helps us weather the storm. It’s like that moment in the poem where it suddenly begins to snow:
It began to snow, it snowed for two days and the party
Did not return. The lieutenant was in distress: he had sent
His men to their deaths.
Of course, this is what this poem is also very much about. What to do when we feel ourselves trapped in the directionless sprawl of inner or outer “icy wastes”? We want the assurance that we’re moving in the right direction. We want some external or internal monitor giving us pointers and feedback. Like the experience of a treasure hunt at a children’s birthday party: “Cold, warm, warm, warmer, hot, YES!” But what to do when the feedback feels like this: “Cold, icy, gelid, Siberian”? It is at these moments, the moments of futility (“awaiting our end”) that we need maps.
Learning a poem is a map. First you remember one line, then the next. If you forget the line you’ve just learnt, go back and learn it again. Now stanza two. Turn left, go through the kissing gate across a paddock with sheep, over the hill until you reach a graveyard. Rest.
I am re-learning the poem on a walk. A very muddy walk. Mud too is an objective correlative for a type of “lostness”: a scuzzy, murky, sloppy kind of lost. The icy wastes have their painful, abstract immaculacy, whereas mud is simply (also complicatedly, reconditely, muddied-ly) primordial distress. I want to be following the “right direction”, but sometimes I get lost, up to my ankles in mud.
At this point it is good to have the poem, and its ironizing commitment to “the right direction”.
We made a bivouac, waited for the snow to stop, and then with the map
Found the right direction.
And here we are.
What is right? Right usually means something definitively conjectured, as in befittingly right, out and out right, unerringly right, right as rain. But right is also a feeling, and feelings regarding our status in life are capricious forces, all too dependent on mutable, unpredictable externalities.
So perhaps more important than the “right direction” is just a direction assiduously followed? For me that means coming back to my daily by-hearting of poems. I’m not necessarily setting this activity up as the “right direction” but it is a direction which has a feeling of rightness (also ripeness) to it. For in the learning of the poem, we open up different, often new directions in the mind which can help to give us a feeling of space. Not icy wasted space, or gloopy, muddy turmoil. More like small blocks of stepping-stone text on a page. We call this use of space poetry.