Dispatches | December 08, 2010

You’ve seen it.  Or you’ve heard it quoted—“Oh, God…[sobbing]…what does this mean?”  The man behind the camera, his voice slightly off (is it an accent?), walks us to the perimeter of, presumably, his Yosemite campsite, recognition breaking through levels of amazement, from surprise to sheer ecstasy (cue thunder and wind chimes), from “full rainbow,” to (getting a better shot) “double,” to (the camera opening onto a panorama of rainbow over mountains) “almost a triple rainbow!”–at which point he’s rocketed beyond language and proceeds to whoop and exclaim and, ultimately, sob.

It’s infectious, inimitable.  Here I find myself wondering the same thing.  What does it all mean, that this thing should go viral?  What does it mean about the meaning of meaning?  Would this be so funny (though I realize I have no desire to see it again) five years ago? Ten?  Fifty?  Would this ever fly on America’s Funniest Home Videos?  I can almost imagine it as an SNL skit…

But who am I kidding?  I don’t even watch TV.  What do I know about humor?

Ostensibly, I know something about poetry.  And that’s one way to see what our man is experiencing.  The Romantic version, anyway.  The prosaic camping trip elevated to the poetic, to the sublime, epiphany.  Isn’t he having the top of his head taken off?  Nature revealing…

I mean, the incredible naivety, right?  A rainbow?  Does it get more cliché?  Yet, just a little bit, isn’t it so funny because deep down we know we have the capacity to feel and yearn so, even with so little to go on?  Don’t we wish meaning could be evidenced thusly?  What was it Auden wrote about Yeats?—“you were silly like us”?

We almost take it for granted, but it’s irony, right?  The serious as silly, that we know so much better than he—it takes over, shields us.  It may well be that irony, like arsenic in a study on a strand of bacteria I just read about, has been incorporated as a basic building block of poems.  And so the show goes on, even in the most toxic environment imaginable.

So, no, we’re not sitting around laughing at children fall out of swings.  But is it sicker somehow to laugh at someone’s visionary experience, in which beauty and truth seem so finally aligned? Would that be more akin to, say, instead of laughing at the groom fall off the stage, laughing at the reverence of the ritual itself, the rings, the kiss, the tears of all those moved?

In theory anyway, Wordsworth knew it wasn’t easy—meaning, reverence, Nature.  The sublime was terrifying, threats abounded in the beauty.  While Wordsworth could relate to this guy’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (“spontaneous overflow of something!” she thinks), didn’t he also guard against letting emotion get the best of you, with the whole “emotion recollected in tranquility” part?  Which is to say, wait till you come down.

What poet hasn’t been moved to manic, hyperbolic heights and depths, and grabbed for her recorder (pen) to capture what she’s sure is the end-all-be-all poem?  And how did that work out in the sober light of morn?

“Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it,” writes Paul Fussell in his landmark work, The Great War and Modern Memory.  Before, he argues, sunrise and sunset were readily available images for evoking meaning.  They evidenced, à la Ruskin, the “artist of creation,” who moved and instructed earthly artists.   But too many colorful skies in the face of trench warfare horrors permanently dissociated this popular aesthete symbol from meaning.  Hello, modernism.

Ok, so it’s not a sunset.  It’s an even rarer sign of luck, grace.  Or a trick of light and water.

“Double-rainbow!” he cries.  “Almost a triple rainbow!”

“…rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

Bishop gets away with it, we say, because she earned it (as the fish has earned his “five-haired beard of wisdom”).  She sufficiently undercuts sentimentality by belaboring—by celebrating—the disgusting details, the sea lice, and because her rainbow comes from oil in a “pool of bilge,” decidedly not from the artist of creation’s sky canvas.  But still.  It’s a triple rainbow.

No doubt, our poor man thinks he’s “caught a tremendous fish.”  Then, effectively, he runs around town showing everyone.  But it’s a little like the writer who wakes with an amazing image from a dream, scribbles it on the notepad set-up for just this purpose, only to read in the morning that all he wrote was “don’t forget to write this down.”  Or in college, in certain altered states, when I’d tell Lindsay I’d figured it all out – “God is Time!” – and she’d say, “Sure, but what’s time?”

Bishop published “The Fish” in the 40s, just after the second Great War (“victory filled up / the little rented boat”).  Everything is tempered, or, as it’s often said of her poetry, “reserved”: the sense of ultimate meaning, the music, the emotion, the reverence.  Yet these things persist in the lines in earnest, even if the fish doesn’t fight.

Is there something of the war-to-end-all-wars sentiment at play there?  Or maybe even that–like the fish–is let go of.  What do I know about war?  Only that there’s more to follow, more genocide and lies.  After 9/11, could anyone get away with a triple rainbow?

Maybe a double. Well ahead of me and Yosemitebear, James Galvin (turns out) has a poem called “Double Rainbow,” addressed to the very phenomenon.  From his 2003 collection X Poems, it mostly calls the thing names:

Louche and thaumaturgic,

You made my faith

My foolishness—

Easy as lying to trees,

Essence of the inessential

Is what you are, double rainbow,

Extrinsic as blood is to stars,

An empire not of death,

But inspired by death,

Farrago of arid precepts,

A few cheap ideas about hope…

With the help of a dictionary, we see the speaker chastise and revolt against nature’s Big Portent.  “An empire not of death, / But inspired by death” makes me think of Wallace Stevens: that the speaker, as a good Stevensian, is exercising her “mind of winter” against the pathetic fallacy.  Of course, the fun of naming betrays the speaker’s begrudging affection.  Her conviction really starts to slip in the final lines:

But listen here, my fraud, my forger,

I could close my eyes at any time.

All I have to do is close my eyes.

Optical illusions—rainbows, beauty, nature, meaning.  Yet the speaker, claiming it as her own, keeps looking, telling the rainbow (and herself) she can quit at any time.

In little journals everywhere—even if no one’s reading them—poems abound with a strong sense of reverence and meaning, written beautifully, sometimes about nature or beauty. You won’t find many sunsets or rainbows, it’s true, but we persist in our toxic lake, in our silliness.

Austin Segrest is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri and an intern at The Missouri Review.