Day 43 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.
Today, and since last night, I am feeling a little melancholy. The spring itself is joyous--the sunshine, temps in the 60s, birds and animals out, dogs barking at the new smells, etc.--but perhaps the shift to the new season, or the energy it takes to shift, creates this other, poignant mood.
So I'll tell you that Beth is reading "Ode on Melancholy" by John Keats, and two other poems with a strain of melancholy in them, for a poetry discussion tonight. Her discussion group is also reading T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and that's melancholy with its yellow fog and whispering women, doubts and regrets, mermaids singing. So is Walt Whitman's "Facing West from California's Shores," even with its "very pleased and joyous moment," as it's about traveling the world and not finding, or quite remembering, what one set out to discover.
And melancholy is one of those mixed emotions, isn't it? The sadness is dominant, but the sweetness is underlying. I think of Abraham Lincoln's melancholy. 2009 was a big Lincoln year, especially here in Illinois, and I am still halfway through Team of Rivals, which I want to finish 1) before the movie comes out and 2) before I start The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by the poet Daniel Mark Epstein, whose book Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington I very much enjoyed. I'm also a loyal reader of Epstein's poetry because he's a Kenyon College alum, like me!
Some years ago, I had my Lincoln College students read an excerpt from Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk. I heard Doris Kearns Goodwin speak, and she does like that more open term, melancholy, to describe Lincoln's famous sadness. She prefers it to the clinical-sounding "depression." The discussion of the medications of the time in the Shenk book and Atlantic excerpt fascinated my college students, as several of them were also medicated on our more modern drugs; in Lincoln's day getting treated for ailments might add lead poisoning to the list of troubles!
Biographies and memoirs are particularly good at exploring strains of sadness in our lives. Paulette is now reading Hermione Lee's thick biography of Edith Wharton. I have been reading it, too, slowly, and my bookmark in it is in roughly the same spot as my bookmark in A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, by Blake Bailey--that is, about a quarter of the way through each. I can report that one summer, reading a number of things at the same time, I made it all the way through Cynthia Griffin Wolff's thick biography of Emily Dickinson. I think what happens is that I encounter a rough spot in someone else's life...and just can't get past it...but I must, as I am reading to learn how to be human.
Tonight I'll be attending a poetry reading by David Baker, who is poetry editor of The Kenyon Review. It's poetry, so I imagine I'll encounter a bit of melancholy there...but perhaps in the way that blues music relieves by giving voice to the blues...
"You must change your life," said Rilke. So that's what I keep doing. I worked as an actor and director in Chicago, wrote for an encyclopedia, edited two poetry journals, shelved and retrieved materials in several libraries, walked beans, and was an assistant professor of English. Now I serve as Poetry Editor and Editor at Large for Escape Into Life, an online arts magazine, write & edit as a freelancer, blog "eight days a week," study the random, tend perennials, and listen to birdsong.