Close Reading By Heart of W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Lines 10-13)

Fifth post charting some thoughts as I learn W.S. Merwin’s Thanks by heart. All the posts for this poem can be found here.

The joy of learning a poem by heart as opposed to reading it aloud is that very soon the words of the poem start telling you very specifically and very insistently how they would like you to recite them.

And for some reason, this stanza wants me to recite it, here now, and for the rest of my life (once those riddims assert themselves, baby, they STICK) as a Public Enemy song. 

This sort of thing: 

Especially when it comes to the line: “back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging”

Go and listen to Chuck D rapping at the beginning of “Fight The Power” to see what I mean. You can take any two lines from the song for this purpose, but why not these: 

GOT to give us what we WANT
GOTta give us what we NEED

Same strong four beats, same punchy stress on the first syllable: BACK from a series of HOSpitals, BACk from a mugging. Even that slighly drawly “uh” that D, Flav, Griff and Lord drop in (maybe jamesbrown in would better explain this, where jamesbrown is being used as a verb) between each line on the downbeat would work equally well for Merwin. 

BACK from a series of HOSpitals,

BACk from a MUgging (uh!)

Semantically, the bellicose, almost martial rhythms of rap work well with the implicit or explicit message of the poem: unconditional, turn-the-other-cheek acceptance, which need not equal weak and wobbly resignation. FIGHT THE POWER! By saying thank you illness, thank you death, thank you unpredictable violence. Because what are you going to say to illness, death, and unpredictable violence: no thanks? 

“In order to see firsthand what happens when you resist experience,” Tara Brach whispers in that warm and wise but also faintly irritating voice that people use when doing guided meditations  “begin by experimenting with saying no. As you connect with the pain you feel in the situation you have chosen, mentally direct a stream of no at the feelings. No to the unpleasantness of fear, anger, shame or grief. Let the word carry the energy of no—rejecting, pushing away what you are experiencing. As you say no, notice what this resistance feels like in your body. Do you feel tightness, pressure? [Yes!] What happens to the painful feelings as you say no? [Fish hook through the cheek, my body dangling from this feeling or thought, flapping back and forth in a resistant flurry] What happens to your heart? [Shut down]. Imagine what your life would be like if, for the next hours, weeks and months, you continued to move through the world with the thoughts and feelings of no. [OK, point taken]”

The Public Enemy vibe doesn’t seem to carry through to the next lines though. The rhythm shifts. To my ears, they are asking to be sung like a cheer-leading squad chant (Team Acceptance?), bouncy and with an almost whiny edge. 

after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

There is unfortunately little gravity or decorum to cheerleading as far as I know (“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! S-s-s-t! Boom! A-h-h-h!” anyone?) which leads to a weird cognitive dissonance when I recite these elegiac sentiments. The mind goes: “this is sad and serious, people dying, funerals, commemoration” while the ears absorb this recital as if being serenaded by a blithe and breezy version of the Schoop Schoop song

This niggles. I don’t know why the lines have requested this soundtrack as I learn them, but they have, and once the rhythms of a poem are coursing around the heart, to get them to to move to a different beat would require catheter ablation or an automated external defibrillator. 

What this shows, psychologically more than anything to do with poetics, is how the meaning of certain utterances or thoughts break down when a non-regular or inappropriate rhythm or melody is applied to them. 

Here’s a fun little experiment you can try. Take a negative self-judgement or painful thought that is assailing you at the moment, write it down, and then sing it to the tune of Happy Birthday, or Jingle Bells, or indeed The Schoop Schoop song. 

Does life feel meaningless,
Oh yes, it really does.
Completely meaningless?
Oh yes it really does,
When you when wake with dread
It’s mostly in your head, 
And you’re depressed,
Oh you’re depressed! 

It doesn’t have to rhyme or scan like the one above. This is called defusion. And when I remember to actually use it on my thoughts (I rarely do, because like most people I take them as gospel, the last word, Truth with a capital T) it often brings a little relief from the hectoring chunter of the Inner Dictator. 

Thank you for that, Edward B. Titchener.

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