I did not have exactly a way of life
but the bee amazed me and the wind’s plenty
was almost believable. Hearing a magpie laugh
through a ghost town in Wyoming, saying Hello
in Cambridge, eating cheese by the frothy Rhine,
leaning from plexiglass over Tokyo,
I was not able to make one life of all
the presences I haunted. Still the bee
amazed me, and I did not care to call
accounts from the wind. Once only, at Pompeii,
I fell into a sleep I understood,
and woke to find I had not lost my way.
– by John Ciardi
John Ciardi has a Kansas City connection; he taught at the University of Kansas City for a few years before moving on to Harvard. He’s generally regarded as a “B list” poet, more famous for his translations and his book “How Does a Poem Mean?” (which was widely assigned as a textbook) than for his poetry. His most famous poem, Most Like an Arch This Marriage is an old-fashioned, tedious, artificial wreck of an attempt to recreate Donne and Shakespeare in the modern world. Sadly, because his name was attached to a textbook widely assigned to unwilling and closed students, and his most famous poem exhibits all the attributes that lead many people to loathe the form, Ciardi may have done more to render poetry irrelevant than anything other than recorded music.
But I digress. I came here today not to bury Ciardi, but to praise him.
For me, this poem celebrates the weirdness that makes the world exciting. There are bursts of “Holy mackerel, this is wild!” that have struck me in my life, though by most standards, my life has been fairly mundane.
Even more astonishingly, Ciardi’s poem reflects the chronology of some of those moments in my life. When I was a boy, it was nature that jolted my urban world. Days spent running wild on a neighbor’s uncle’s farm in Gillespie, Illinois, fishing, chasing frogs and finding snakes. Bees, birds, and the wind are all ecstatically beyond comprehension if you are open to their miracle.
And “Saying hello in Cambridge” – the gathering of friends and the start of relationships. Who could have foreseen the impacts that our friends and lovers would have on us? As Ciardi says, “I did not have exactly a way of life”. Reading “way” to mean a path, who among us has not had their “way” turned into a delightful wander because of those we have said “hello” to?
“Eating cheese by the frothy Rhine” to me speaks of the ridiculous pleasures that life has brought. Whether it was my mind-blowing dinner at Bluestem or the contraband Blue Vinny that came as part of a Ploughman’s lunch in Dorset, I’ve had those perfect moments of gustatory astonishment that can transport me almost like Proust’s madeleines, and they have made my life more than the mundane.
And leaning over Tokyo – to me it recalls those moments in travel when you simply cannot believe that you are where you are. I’ve never leaned over Tokyo, but I have stood in a field a half day’s journey away from my summer-baked driveway, and seen elk grazing in snow. I saw a storm blow in over the Andes. I saw the water gathered from most of a continent rush past me all at once in the Mississippi in New Orleans. I have stood inches away from paintings by Van Gogh, right here in Missouri, and seen the depth and breadth of the brush strokes left by his hand in wet paint.
And so, when Ciardi wakes and finds himself in Pompeii, the disorientation he feels does not bring fear. He knows he has not lost his way, because he knows he has not exactly had a “way”. Just as he has not been able to “able to make one life of all
the presences I haunted”, and just as he has been amazed by bees, he calls on the reader to remain open to those glorious moments that make us more than what we seem.
Ciardi tells us in “Lines” that our lives are not straight lines, and that we should be open to the bees, hellos and moments that shake and delight us. If you have exactly a way of life, you will miss much, and may well wake up in Pompeii to find you have lost it.