People who care about the world around them, about other people, about literature, are frustrated people. Once we get to adulthood, our lives fill up with junk and we never have enough time for the things we consider really important. We never seem to be able to devote enough attention to our lovers, friends, and children, so we never know them as intimately as we by all rights should. Calm contemplation of the landscape around us is a rare luxury; when do we have time to simply observe, simply to listen? And what of the worthwhile books we have never read, and the poems we know and love but have never had the time to commit, as we should, to memory?
C.K. William, a great bard of love askew and the missed opportunity, encapsulates this frustration with no little irritation and a measure of humor in his poem “Doves.” I came across it last week in my progress through Williams’ Collected Poems; it’s from his latest, best book, The Singing.
The poet has woken in the early dawn. He’s lying in bed, trying to focus on the morning light, on the morning’s sounds. But how can he? “So much crap in my head,/So many rubbishy facts,/So many half-baked/theories and opinions,” Williams sighs, like an overtaxed blogger.
It would be just so much bitching if the title sitting above these lines didn’t make us laugh. Dove, after all, is just a nice word for pigeon, but the dove sitting above these lines isn’t depositing its offal on Williams’ scalp, and even if it did, what difference would it make? There’s so much crap inside his head anyway.
In the second stanza, Williams tells us what he’d rather have in his head—“I recognize nearly none/of the bird songs of dawn.…”—instead of public affairs and politicians. But even without that he can’t concentrate on what’s really important, because of “the maddening who,/who-who of the doves.”
He doesn’t know the names of flowers, of trees; he, a poet, knows “so few poems entire.” Still, even through the clanking of the trucks and the maddening hoots of the pigeons he has some intimation of what he ought to be hearing.
Yet, in the final stanza, the garbage turns out to be more chaos than crap. In the midst of it there are faces and voices that are part of his life, all his memories. And the doves themselves, instead of being annoyances, in the end turn out to be the heralds that signal him, as he awakens, to sift through the detritus in his brain and find there things of value.
At first reading, that final stanza might seem like just a continuation of the complaint. But the music of the poem tells us that something has changed here. The first five stanzas begin with a series of three or four strong accents, one after another, the sputtering of frustration. But the first line of the final stanza has, arguably, only one real stress (on the “in” of “within”). Furthermore, the hard explosive consonants of the first stanza fade gradually away until they are almost absent at the end; the same happens to the maddening aspirated h of the doves. The final stanza uses mostly soft consonants—f, l and w.
Like all great poems, “Doves” takes us on an emotional journey. First we share the poet’s frustration, and his canniness in placing his finger on a feeling we’ve so often had but never properly expressed. Our frustration is softened as we recognize, in the poem’s center, a kindred spirit, inventorying those things that matter and those that should not matter. And, in the end, Williams leads us gently into acceptance, resignation, and perceptiveness about all the stuff we have between our ears. When we next waken in the early dawn, we’ll listen, and understand, much better.